Wise Drive: Phone usage while driving increases crash risk

Q:What’s the deal with people who wear a mask when they’re driving by themselves in a car, but then they’re texting while driving?

A:Over the past few months I’ve had several people ask me this question, or some variation of it. This morning, as I was walking through my neighborhood I witnessed it myself.

I think what prompts this question is a perceived paradox: wearing a mask while driving suggests that you’re concerned about your health, but texting while driving sends the opposite message.

This is not an article about masks. There are plenty of experts providing guidance in that area, so I’ll leave that to the virologists and public health officials.

The mask just highlights the incongruity of one safety-based action paired with an activity that’s a safety risk (and a clear violation of the law). It’d be like seeing someone smoking while jogging.

You’d just wonder, right?

What gives? Humans are bad at risk analysis. And we’re probably more primitive than we’d like to admit.

To address the first part, I’m going to do what behavioral psychologists would call “a fool’s errand” and use data to communicate a risk.

As to the second part, if you’re using the caveman part of your brain while assessing modern risks, the psychologists are probably right. But the optimist in me is confident that we can get better at engaging our neocortex while we drive.

As humans we’re often guilty of suboptimal risk taking. We are not computers; we sometimes miscalculate how risky something is.

At its core, risk is a math problem: Risk = probability x magnitude of loss. And even if you like math, you might not have the right numbers to fill in the equation.

So here are the numbers.

In Washington state there are 7.2 traffic fatalities in a year per 100,000 people. Said another way, you have a 7.2 in 100,000 chance of dying in a car crash every year.

There’s both the probability and the magnitude of the loss. Except it’s not exactly true. That 7.2 number is a mix of all kinds of drivers: impaired, distracted, speeding, alert, cautious, law-abiding.

So while that number is accurate in the aggregate, it varies by individual. Your own number could be higher or lower depending on your driving behavior.

Let’s look at a couple distraction numbers.

Talking on the phone roughly doubles your risk of a crash; texting while driving increases your crash risk by as much as 23 times.

By texting you turn that 7.2 per 100,000 (or lower if you’re a law-abiding cautious driver) into 166 per 100,000.

That’s bad.

For the statisticians reading this, yes, my math has some flaws, so consider these numbers somewhat symbolic. Even if they’re not exactly right, they’re close enough to make the point that anyone doing a half-decent risk analysis would stop texting and driving.

Distracted driving is a factor in about 30 percent of fatal crashes in Washington; even observational studies show that the vast majority of drivers (93 percent) are not distracted at any given moment.

Why then would anyone continue to text and drive?

Because we’re letting our amygdala do our thinking.

That’s the primitive part of the brain that helps us run from a charging elephant, but it gets in the way of more complex threats that require analysis and reason.

It’s also the part that can’t resist the ding of a text message.

If you instinctively pick up the phone when it rings, regardless of the risk, you’re operating from the caveman part of your brain.

If you wait to respond until you’re not adding risk to your life, you’re tapping in to your neocortex and demonstrating that you’re more evolved.

For those who continue to rely on their amygdala while driving, law enforcement across the state focused on distracted driving violations during the first couple weeks of October.

Time to engage the neocortex.

Doug Dahl is a Target Zero manager for the Washington Traffic Safety Commission and a self-confessed traffic safety nerd. He authors a weekly traffic safety column and hosts a traffic safety website called TheWiseDrive.com