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Texting and driving: Blame the brain

May 20, 2015

A new study from AT&T tries to explain why we use our phones behind the wheel.
Credit user Jason Weaver / flickr

It’s pretty common knowledge that texting while driving is dangerous. But for some reason, many of us still do it.

A study released from AT&T tries to shed some light on just how distracted we are by our smartphones while driving.

On top of texting, the AT&T survey finds 27% of drivers between 16 and 65 admit to Facebooking when they drive, and 14% use Twitter, with a full 30% of those folks admitting they tweet "all the time" while driving.

Joseph Bayer is a doctoral candidate in communications at the University of Michigan, and a co-author of the study.

“Our big argument is that people aren’t even aware how much or how often they’re doing it,” Bayer tells us.

Bayer says that despite the fact that most people know how dangerous texting while driving can be, we’re all still at the mercy of our basic brain function.

“Just like rats, we learn to have certain cues, certain automatic triggers,” Bayer says. “We have a whole range of triggers or cues that prompt our behavior, and we don’t know what they are a lot of times.”

Not all of these cues or triggers are bad things though, Bayer says. The reason our brains work that way is because by and large it makes our lives easier.

“This is how we get by in everyday life. If you had to think about brushing your teeth every day, you’d never get it done,” he says. “How do we deal with the fact that we have these really cool processes that make things easier, but are uncontrollable at times?”

According to Bayer, it’s not a lost cause. He explains that by learning to recognize our cues and triggers, by anticipating the moments of boredom coming at the next stoplight, we can start to retrain our brains.

Joseph Bayer tells us more about the psychology behind phone usage while driving in our conversation above.