When I see a driver texting, I am baffled at how someone can justify being so clearly irresponsible. If it were a hardcore few, like the Facebook user that formed the "I am a pro at texting and driving" group, I could just explain it away as being part of the underlying stupidity coefficient of the universe. But when 98% of young drivers in our study admit to texting in some form, and usually with both hands, there is a more interesting mystery at work. So, what exactly is going on?
Well, one reason that is not at work is the failure to appreciate the risks of texting and driving. In our research, younger drivers rate talking on the phone while driving as a risky behavior, and they rate texting and driving as a very risky behavior. But knowing these risks has little to no effect on whether they choose to engage in them. Interestingly, it is also not just general irresponsibility on the part of younger drivers. How do we know that? Because calls made while driving increase as the young drivers deem those calls to be "important" to make, while the texts they send are more frequently for goal-directed reasons, such as sending a status update, than to alleviate boredom or just to be social. (Click for reasons young drivers send and reply to texts).
So why does it happen? Here's one clue we uncovered, which occurs when a younger driver is faced with the dilemma of sending a text when they know it's risky. We know that when faced with a conflict between our behavior and our attitudes, this cognitive dissonance often causes us to change our attitudes rather than our behaviors. We see this in younger drivers who text despite knowing the risk.
We asked drivers to rate the danger of road conditions while thinking about either reading, replying to or initiating a text message. When they think about reading a text and driving, they are pretty good at assessing the risk of current driving conditions. For example, they rate freeway driving as demanding as driving in bad weather.
However, when they are asked to think about initiating a text while driving, they say driving on a freeway is like driving on a calm street. In other words, they know sending a text is dangerous, so they downplay the risk of the driving conditions. Interestingly, when they are thinking about replying to a text, they rate freeway driving to be some place between attentionally demanding and driving in calm conditions. Since they were "forced" to text because they had to reply, they can admit the risk to themselves by laying some of the blame for their behavior on the sender.
So perhaps one reason for the coming epidemic is that staying in constant touch is far more compelling for younger drivers than concerns for risk. When they do engage in what they know is risky behavior, they change their beliefs about how seriously to take driving. Our finely-tuned internal mechanisms for self-deception help to maintain this obviously dangerous behavior.