Why do people text while driving despite knowing it’s dangerous?

texting while driving

We all know that texting while driving is extremely dangerous. In the United States, for example, 3,179 people were killed and 431,000 people were injured in motor vehicle crashes due to distracted driving in 2014. Despite these facts, texting while driving is still ubiquitous all over the world. It is particularly pervasive among young drivers.

The question is, why do people still text while driving despite knowing it’s dangerous? The answer may lie in their impulsive decision-making process, according to a new study published in Accident Analysis & Prevention.

Using a behavioral economic concept of delay (temporal) discounting—people’s discounting (devaluing) a delayed reward, the researchers examined how drivers’ decision to text while driving is related to their (in)ability to wait for a delayed reward.

A sample of 108 college students completed a computer-based task that presented a hypothetical scenario in which they receive a text message from their significant other saying “text me asap.” They rated the likelihood of replying to the text message immediately versus waiting to reply until arriving at a destination (with the delay ranging from 30 seconds to 6 hours). They also completed a survey that asked how frequently they read, initiate, and reply to a text message while driving.

The researchers found that the duration of the delay to a destination is a critical variable that strongly determines whether drivers choose to reply immediately or wait until arriving at a destination.

They also found that drivers who frequently text while driving were too impulsive to wait—they discounted a delayed reward from texting more than drivers who infrequently text while driving.

The results support the conclusion that texting while driving is fundamentally an impulsive choice—the choice to text while driving for instant gratification at the expense of safety.

Drivers who frequently text while driving are more vulnerable to the impulsive decision making than drivers who infrequently text while driving. Knowing the basic decision-making process underlying texting while driving is a critical prerequisite for designing and evaluating effective countermeasures in traffic safety programs.

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Citation: Hayashi, Y., Miller, K., Foreman, A. M., & Wirth, O. (2016). A behavioral economic analysis of texting while driving: Delay discounting processes. Accident Analysis & Prevention, 97: 132-140. doi:10.1016/j.aap.2016.08.028.
Figure legend: This Knowridge.com image is credited to Hayashi, Y.