Don’t Just Blame Phones for Car Crashes; Blame Your Loudmouth Friends and Family

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Photo: H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images

Of the many evils that smartphones have visited upon society — The Most Dangerous Selfies, The Text Neck, The Temporary Blindness — one of the worst is distracted driving. The comedian Louis C.K. famously observed that people are texting and driving (and crashing into one another) because they can’t stand one minute of loneliness, and New York state introduced “texting zones” on highways so drivers can pull off, thumb at their devices, and not kill anybody in the process.

But, as Jacob Bogage notes at the Washington Post’s ever-interesting Wonkblog, the data finds that iMessages aren’t the number-one culprit in car crashes. While it “sounds weird,” he writes, the federal findings say that over half of crashes (don’t call them accidents) result from conversations with other passengers. Cell phones are involved in 12 percent of distracted-driving crashes; fussing with other things in your car accounted for 11 percent of accidents; stuff your passengers do account for another 7 percent, and everything else (read: eating) caused another 23 percent. (The numbers add up to over 100 percent because some drivers are engaged with multiple distractions before getting into a crash, which makes you grateful for giving up driving upon moving to New York.)

But that isn’t to say that cell-phone use doesn’t correlate with accidents. A 2014 study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that drivers “who frequently handled cellphones, beyond just talking on them, had higher near-crash or crash rates than drivers who didn’t handle cellphones [sic] as often.” So if you’re constantly fussing with your phone, you’re more likely to get into an accident.

The cognitive science involved in distracted driving is pretty fascinating. A 2013 University of Utah study (with the telling title “Who Multitasks and Why?”) found that the people who multitask most frequently are the worst at multitasking. The mechanism at work here is that finite thing we call human attention: Basically, unless you’re a pro athlete, attending to more than one thing shrinks your capacity for metacognition, or the awareness of whatever the hell it is you’re doing. And funnily enough, the less evaluative you are of what you’re doing, the more confident you are of your ability to do things. So with texting and driving (or talking and driving), you don’t have the brain bandwidth to recognize that you’re drifting all over the goddamn road, so you keep confidently cruising until you slam into somebody. The lesson: Whenever your sister tells you that she’s “good at” choosing a new song on her phone while driving, she’s not just overconfident, she’s life-threateningly ignorant. But if you’re going to argue with her about it, you should probably pull over.

Don’t Just Blame Phones for Car Crashes