The Behavioral Economics of Distracted Driving

As we continue to navigate the benefits of increased technology, we must also consider the costs: the increased risk to our safety on the roads. Distracted driving, predominantly due to cellphone use while driving, is the leading cause of fatalities on the road.1 A driver using their phone is five times more likely to crash than undistracted drivers. For comparison, driving under the influence of alcohol only doubles the chances of crashing.2,3

These numbers aren’t surprising or new. We’ve long known about the dangers of distracted driving, and the majority of individuals support laws against this behavior.4 Despite this sentiment, distracted driving behaviors remain common. 91% of young drivers (aged 15–19) reported texting while driving, and 40% of these texters even admitted to doing more complex tasks (like having texting arguments or sexting) while driving.

This dissonance isn’t unique to texting. Similar attitudes are held towards speeding: most people agree that speeding is unacceptable, yet admit to doing so themselves.5

Clearly, there is a suspension of concern and consideration for ourselves (and others) when we receive a text message on the road. Most people may tend to believe that distracted driving is an issue of morality (in that only bad people do it), but in fact, it is more likely a problem of cognitive bias than of values and morals. While we generally intend to “do the right thing,” we often neglect to do so in the moment. Behavioral economics aims to study these seemingly irrational behaviors in various contexts. The field offers several tools to explain distracted driving behavior and insights for solving the distracted driving problem.

Present bias and hyperbolic discounting: Why we do the things we don’t want to do

Present bias, the overemphasis of the present moment with neglect for future consequences, goes a long way in explaining why we reach for our phones while behind the wheel. Present bias takes many forms and explains choices related to drug use, overeating, smoking, and neglect for public health guidelines.6

Present bias leads us to engage in what economists refer to as “hyperbolic discounting,” which describes how we favor immediate payoffs over future ones.7 Choosing between receiving a dollar today or three dollars tomorrow is an easy decision. Yet, when asked to choose between a dollar today or three dollars a year from now, we are likely to choose the former, even though this decision is (from an economics perspective) irrational.6,8,9

Essentially, we overweight the present and underweight the future.10 We make time-inconsistent choices for the present moment that our future selves may not appreciate. In fact, we assign significantly greater weight to moments that are temporally close to us than any reasonable discount rate can explain.11

A group of researchers from Penn State University aimed to see if they could use other economic concepts to describe distracted driving behavior, with interesting takeaways:

  • Impulsivity largely explains texting and driving behaviors. Those who admitted to texting while driving discounted future monetary rewards at a greater rate in experimental settings.12,13
  • Distance is a critical determinant. When analyzing students in a hypothetical driving scenario, the researchers were able to show that the farther away the destination was, the lower the likelihood that participants would wait to reply to a text message.13
  • It matters whom they’re texting. In an experiment with choice sets, the most vital determinant of replying to a text was who sent the message. Participants were most likely to reply if the message was from a significant other. Other research confirms this view, finding that social distance determines texting-while-driving behaviors, in that we are more likely to reply to those to whom we are socially close.14,15
  • Road type influences our likelihood of texting. Drivers are less likely to read a text in “stop-and-go” city traffic, where it’s riskier to take your eyes off the road, compared to rural/highway driving. The perceived probability of crashing similarly explained texting-while-driving behavior in that the higher the probability of crashing, the lower the chances of replying to a text.15, 16

Reading over these findings, you may be thinking: “Yeah, obviously.” The important takeaway here is not that this line of research has turned up surprising results; rather, the point is that, across several studies, researchers have been able to show that texting-while-driving behaviors fit hyperbolic economic models, helping us predict who is prone to distracted driving and when. This means that behavioral interventions are a promising tool to prevent distracted driving, and potentially save lives.13,17,18

A note on legislation

Given how impulsivity and present bias encourage distracted driving behaviors, relying on legislation to implement fines and texting bans is a critical piece. Plus, we know that driving laws, for the most part, are successful in changing driving behaviors. Systematic reviews of seatbelt use rates and drunk driving show that legislation prohibiting these behaviors reduces related fatalities.19,20

The same is true when it comes to the issue of distracted driving: students in states with bans on phone use while driving reported less texting-while-driving behaviors than those in states without.21 However, changing distracted driving behavior may require more nuance than previous campaigns against other dangerous driving behaviors.

Recent metanalyses show that while distracted driving laws may, in some cases, change behavior, the evidence is mixed, and the true effectiveness of legislation on texting behavior is unclear. As put by Dr. Kit Delgado, physician and professor at the University of Pennsylvania, “You talk to any teenager in the country, and they’ve been beaten over the head that texting while driving is dangerous … but the decision to reach for that phone can be impulsive, it can be emotional, it can be subconscious and automatic.”22

The choice to text and drive is often a split-second decision, and is typically a matter of perceived urgency. As put by Atchley et al.: “While money loses value on the time span of weeks, information loses value within minutes, which may explain why behaviors like texting often occur in inappropriate situations and may seem like addictions.”23

From the BE toolkit: Effective interventions for distracted driving

Luckily, behavioral economics provides insight into practical interventions that help overcome present bias and hyperbolic discounting that may go beyond legislation and prove useful for distracted driving. These interventions include commitment devices, episodic future thinking, threat appeals, and feedback.

Commitment devices

A commitment device is a way to “lock oneself” into a plan of action, especially for behaviors that we know are good but don’t necessarily want to enact when the time arises. The classic example comes from Greek mythology, when Odysseus instructed his crew to fill their ears with beeswax and tie him to the ship to avoid being lured by the sirens. Examples in day-to-day life include scheduling workouts in advance with an exercise partner or setting a deadline to achieve a goal (perhaps with the added motivation of a monetary fine for missing said deadline).

These types of devices help people quit smoking, lose weight, and achieve other goals towards health. One study found that commitment devices increase the success rate of quitting smoking by 40%. We even see commitment devices in software, providing computer users with the option to schedule updates in the future instead of doing so right away.24,25

Commitment devices aren’t entirely non-existent in driving. For instance, some Apple products can be set to automatically enable “Do Not Disturb” mode when the user is driving. Yet, many are hesitant to opt into this feature out of fear of missing calls from important people.26

As in-vehicle technology advances, inspiration for more possible interventions may come from seatbelt nudges. Studies on seatbelt reminders and seatbelt interlocks (cars that won’t allow certain features until a seatbelt is secured) show impressive results for improving seatbelt behaviors.28

Episodic future thinking

Without making specific commitments, one can improve driving behavior simply by thinking about the future. Episodic future thinking (EFT) is an effective method to reduce hyperbolic discounting, the very bias that largely explains distracted driving behaviors.

In one study on smoking behavior, researchers asked participants to vividly picture future events which they were looking forward to. (The only caveat: the events couldn’t be related to smoking.) Results showed that this exercise decreased delay-discounting behavior—in other words, led people to place a higher value on future rewards—and also reduced the intensity of their cravings for cigarettes.29

Threat appeals

Threat appeals may also be a useful method to improve driving behavior. A threat appeal is a “message that tries to raise the threat of danger and harm and discourage risky behavior.” Importantly, these threat appeals don’t need to induce fear to be effective, but instead encourage “anticipated regret” (in this case, nudging people to think about injuring or even killing someone else due to distracted driving).

One study, which compared those who watched a 60-second video of a texting-while-driving car crash to those who watched a regular commercial, found that those in the “control” group (those who did not watch the car crash video) were 50 percent more likely to make an impulsive decision to text and drive.30,31

Feedback

When we use our cellphones and drive, not only does our driving performance diminish, but our awareness of our driving ability diminishes.32 Receiving feedback on our driving may help ameliorate this problem. A study on telematic notifications found that notifications describing drivers’ performance, and comparing it to their personal best, improved their driving. These nudges are even more effective when combined with social comparisons (e.g., a leaderboard).33,34

Moving forward: applying BE principles to the distracted-driving problem

Needless to say, technology has infiltrated every aspect of our lives—for better or worse. Distracted driving is a prevalent risk that deserves ample time and attention towards mitigation.

Research on distracted driving shows how this behavior is a complex issue that derives from impulsivity and present bias, requiring several approaches and interventions to solve. Legislators, car manufacturers, and developers alike should consider tools from behavioral economics in shaping laws and technologies to create the best solutions to tackle the issue of distracted driving.

In the meantime, here are a few takeaways we can use to improve our own driving behaviors:

  • Let go of the “now”: Remember that the decision to text and drive is similar to the decisions behind other impulsive behaviors. Present bias shows that we weigh these choices as more important in the moment, and we’re more likely to do so more when driving long distances or receiving messages from those who are important to us.
  • Commit to driving safer: Commitment devices are an excellent tool to improve driving behaviors. Both planning ahead and asking others to hold us accountable will set us up for success and make us less likely to reach for our phones behind the wheel.
  • Think about the future: Make a practice of thinking about yourself in the future, and what different scenarios might occur if you decide to send a text while driving.

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