The Good Life Report: Phones, Cars, Deadly Mistakes

We've known for years that it's dangerous to use our phones while we're behind the wheel. So why is the problem only getting worse? The Good Life examines why we can't resist the lure of the "ping" — and how to quit playing road roulette.

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Ashley Zumbrunnen left the house without saying goodbye to her husband, Roy, on a Saturday morning in February 2010. She was on her way to her job as the front desk clerk at a hotel near her home in Idaho, and though she'd kissed her 4-year-old daughter on her way out the door, she'd barely glanced at Roy. They'd been fighting.

The 31-year-old didn't think much of it until she was on the highway, her mind racing as fast as the 65 mph on her odometer. At six weeks pregnant, Zumbrunnen knew she and Roy needed to work on their "stuff." She was convinced the new baby would draw them closer together again. She rooted around in her purse on the passenger's seat and pulled out her cellphone.

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"I love you…"

Before she could finish texting "…and have a good day…" Zumbrunnen looked up and saw that she'd swerved into oncoming traffic. She pulled the wheel the other way, but too hard. Her car hit a ditch and flipped over.

"I remember it all. It felt as if I was on a carnival ride," says Zumbrunnen. "I could feel warm blood streaming down my neck. I tried to move my arm to touch it and couldn't. My legs wouldn't move either. People were huddled above me, yelling, 'Are you OK?' All I could say was, 'I'm paralyzed.' "

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A simple text, just three little words, much like the ones we send each day to our own husbands and girlfriends and kids, too often when we're behind the wheel. Those words were all it took for Zumbrunnen to crash her car, break her neck, and miscarry her baby. Five years later, partially paralyzed, she is still adjusting to her changed life.

Distracted driving is a well-reported problem, and everyone knows it's a big no-no when it comes to staying safe on the road. This is not news. But the people taking the risk might surprise you. Using the phone while driving used to be seen mainly as a teen-driver issue, and it remains a grave problem among that demographic, for sure: Distracted driving factored into 58 percent of car crashes involving teen drivers, says a recent report from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety

But now surveys are showing that all of us are culprits, says Heather Bern, director of AT&T's important "It Can Wait" campaign — the one that recently launched a heart-stopping commercial in which a mom checks a post on her phone while driving with her child and crashes. The new research, says Bern, showed that adults viewed distracted driving as less of a risk now than they did even a few years ago — "and that's why we targeted all drivers this year, whereas we used to go after teens."

Our decreased sense of danger, along with an urge to stay connected all the time, is almost certainly contributing to the record number of accidents caused by distracted driving. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, at any given moment across America approximately 660,000 drivers are using cellphones or manipulating electronic devices while behind the wheel. In 2013, distracted driving led to more than 3,000 deaths and 424,000 injuries in car crashes.

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Sarah Selby, an emergency physician at New York-Presbyterian/Queens hospital in New York, says she's definitely seen an uptick in the number of patients she treats who've been brought in — broken, bruised, even fatally injured — after accidents in which the driver was distracted. But a tragedy close to home had a particular impact: "Recently, one of our own doctors was hit and killed when crossing the street right in front of the hospital. The driver was on his phone," she says. "It was so sad, and such an eye-opener about what can happen. This is absolutely a growing problem — and one that's prompted me to stop texting while driving."

It only takes a moment for your life to spin out of control and into tragedy; here are the unexpected reasons why we put ourselves at risk, and how to (please, all of us) stop.

So Many Ways to Not Pay Attention

Distractions are multiplying everywhere around us, says David Strayer, PhD, a cognitive neuroscientist who studies the issue at the University of Utah's Applied Cognition Lab.

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"Our cars are starting to look like spaceships," he says. An apt description, considering the new "infotainment" flatscreen controls, as well as upcoming technologies that project data streamed from your smartphone onto the windshield — including, almost unbelievably, holograms of your friends when they message you. Then there's the fact that most of us use apps on our phones for GPS and to get real-time traffic updates. Says Strayer, "Just about anything you can do on your computer you can now do while you're driving — whether you have a fancy, high-tech car or a simple smartphone in your pocket — and we're seeing crazy behavior as a result."

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Even crazier, he adds, is that while we know it's dangerous business, we can't seem to quit. "People judge other drivers who are texting or talking and driving erratically as a result, but they still do it themselves," he says.

Why is it that we'll roll our eyes at the woman in the car next to us who's balancing her cellphone above the steering wheel, but we can't resist the urge to check our own phones when we're driving and hear that telltale "ping"?

Blame the Brain

When you look at your smartphone, you see a helpful little device that makes life simpler. But Paul Atchley, PhD, a psychologist and associate dean at the University of Kansas who studies distracted driving, says it's more like a drug delivery system — similar to a morphine pump with a button you can press anytime you need a "hit" of pain relief. Except instead of numbing our pain, the phone calls, emails, text messages, social media alerts, and instant-gratification Internet searches give us hits of dopamine, a feel-good neurotransmitter that lights up the reward center in the brain and makes us crave more. "Essentially, our smartphones let us constantly dose ourselves with feel-good chemicals," he says. No wonder we have a tough time ignoring them even when we know we should.

Plus, our phones train us to respond reflexively. "All those triggers that prompt you to pick up your phone at your desk — a vibration, a new message symbol, even just catching sight of your phone — happen when we're in our cars, too," says Stephen O'Connor, PhD, a psychology professor at Western Kentucky University who recently coauthored a paper on compulsive cellphone use and car crashes. "Our decision to answer a call or read a text message occurs automatically, before our frontal lobe can logically weigh the risks and benefits."

We Put the Trick Into Driving

Even when we drive with no distractions, our brains aren't taking in as much as we think. When signals hit your eyes' retina for visual processing — say, the speed limit sign, a cyclist on your right, an airplane flying overhead — only about 40 percent of them are processed by your brain. "This means that more than half of the signals that hit your eyes don't even exist as far as your brain is concerned," says Atchley. (And that's when we think we're paying close attention!) "We believe that as we're driving down the road, we can see everything. But this is what we call the grand illusion. It's why in police reports of car accidents, you read statements like 'The person appeared out of nowhere.' The person was always there; the driver's brain just hadn't processed it."

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Now overload your brain by trying to read a text or an email message or have a phone conversation, and it's easy to see how our awareness of what's in front of and around us becomes smaller and smaller. Even talking on the phone hands-free is risky, studies have shown: When you're chatting on your cell, hands-free or not, your reaction time is up to 20 percent slower and you're 30 to 50 percent more likely to miss something important — a traffic signal, for example, or a pedestrian — according to Strayer's research. And his latest studies show that using voice-based features, whether to make a call or choose a song, is a powerful distraction (often requiring the same brainpower as doing a tricky math problem) — plus, it can take as long as 27 seconds afterward for our brains to refocus on the task of driving.

The kicker to all this? The better you think you're able to multitask, the more dangerous you are behind the wheel, according to a new study in the journal PLOS One. The researchers found that the people who thought they were good at multitasking turned out to be the least capable at it, and, frighteningly, they were also the most likely to use their cellphones frequently when driving. (The study participants who actually were good multitaskers were less likely to text while driving.)

Part of the reason we don't think about how difficult and dangerous it is to drive and use our phones: We're hardwired to have an "optimism bias," says O'Connor, which makes us say things like "It won't happen to me." That's what Zumbrunnen used to believe. "I texted while driving all the time — running errands, dropping my daughter off at school, going to and from work. I did it with my daughter in the backseat. I knew texting was risky, but I did it anyway, and I was always fine," she says. "Until I wasn't."

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Take Steps to Stop, ASAP

So how can we outsmart our tempted brains and override our tech impulses when we're driving? Even the experts don't have a definitive answer to this question and acknowledge that our smartphone habits might be among the hardest to break. "Putting an end to this problem has to be a priority, and we need legislation, education, and enforcement to make lasting changes," says Atchley, who had a near miss last year. He was driving home with his wife when he saw a car on a side street coming toward him. "The guy was texting! I gunned the engine into a cross street, and he still hit my rear bumper," he says. "If I hadn't, he would've hit me straight on the driver's side. Because I wasn't on the phone and was paying attention, I avoided what could have been my death. Now when I'm in the car I assume that everyone out there is distracted. I drive like everyone out there could kill me."

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Considering the statistics, it's worth the effort to do whatever you can to make our roads safer. Start here:

Make the decision not to use your phone before you get in the car. Thanks to all of those physiological urges and surprising cues, Atchley says the only time any of us is equipped to make a good choice about distracted driving is before we start our engines. "It's literally the only point where you have the willpower," he says. So, form a new habit: Leave your phone in your purse and put it out of reach, like on the floor of the back seat, or stash it in your trunk. Consider turning it off, so you don't hear the "ping" and wonder who's trying to reach you. If you need to stay in touch with work or home, pull over every half hour or so to check your phone. A pain? Yes. But smart.

Use the car's GPS system, or invest in an old-school unit. Don't rely on the maps app on your phone — it's just too easy to get distracted by a new message.

Try an online texting-while-driving simulator. With the one created by AT&T's "It Can Wait" campaign, you can get behind a virtual steering wheel and see just how bad your driving is when you try to text. Checking your cellphone for five seconds (the average texting time) at 55 mph is like driving the length of a football field blindfolded. The simulator makes the potential consequences of that kind of lapse terrifyingly real.

Block your ability to text and drive. There are a bunch of great apps that send auto replies to texts to let the senders know you're driving; they'll also send calls straight to voice mail. Download one, and always turn it on.

Make a pact with your "top five." According to a recent survey by AT&T, we communicate the most with just five contacts. "Those are the people we have the strongest influence over when it comes to changing behaviors," says Bern. In fact, the survey found that eight in 10 people said they would stop distracted driving if one or more of those five contacts asked them to. So ID yourself as someone who doesn't use her phone while driving (just like you'd determinedly call yourself a nonsmoker or someone who would never drink and drive). It can inspire others — and it may reinforce your own behavior as well.

Picture the worst-case scenario. When you feel the urge to take a call or check your messages while you're driving, force yourself to imagine a scary outcome. Atchley suggests thinking about who would miss you if you didn't make it home safely, like your kids, your partner, or even your pet. "Our drive for social connection — to feel like we belong and that we're wanted — is so strong that it can be an effective deterrent," he says.

Consider how drastically Zumbrunnen's life has changed since that simple text. She's a partial quadriplegic — her right side is partially paralyzed — and she needs forearm crutches to walk and a wheelchair to go long distances. "I can't play tag with my daughter or give her piggyback rides," says the now-divorced mom who shares custody with her ex-husband. "I won't be able to dance all night at her wedding. When she has a baby and needs a babysitter, she'll think, Mom can't fully help me. If only I'd realized all the ways I wouldn't be able to be there for my daughter, I'd have made a different decision."

Driving Under the Influence — of Tech

You get behind the wheel and your prefrontal cortex — the brain's decision-making and multitasking center — starts to light up as you take in sights, sounds, and other cues that your brain has to process in order for you to make decisions. As you drive, it begins to sequence what needs to happen:

  1. Light turns green, step on gas, brake lights ahead, step on brake, and so forth.
  2. While you think you're taking it all in, your prefrontal cortex is processing no more than 40 percent of what you're seeing.
  3. You hear your phone ring or a text "ping," and you answer it. Immediately, your brain gets a hit of feel-good dopamine. It's your best friend — your brain releases more. You read her text and type a reply; you get another hit.
  4. Your prefrontal cortex is now processing about 20 percent or less of what you're seeing.

This story originally appeared in the December 2015 issue of Dr. Oz The Good Life.

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