.Feature: Driven to distraction

Students get mindful about texting behind the wheel

by Alyson Geller

“How many of you have texted while driving?”

Inside the Sir Francis Drake High School auditorium, around a third of the student audience members raise their hands … then, tentatively about 10 more—kids checking out each other’s reactions. The question is posed by a woman named Debbie Barrios, a mother of five whose husband was killed by a distracted driver speeding through a stop sign at 60 mph.

“I was told that I could feel good that the accident wasn’t my husband’s fault,” said Barrios, who speaks on behalf of AT&T’s It Can Wait campaign. But if you drive while distracted and injure or kill yourself, Barrios tells the audience, the end result is the same. “We are responsible for the entire field.”

The conversation with Barrios caps a week-long Distracted Driving Campaign organized and led by Drake’s Peer Resource class in collaboration with Marin’s Safe Routes to Schools program and the Marin Bicycle Coalition. Distracted driving-related crashes killed 3,154 people in 2013, and injured 424,000—an increase from 421,000 the previous year, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Association (NHTSA).

Teen drivers ages 16-19 have the highest crash rate of any group in the U.S. A recent AT&T survey indicates that while 97 percent of teens know that texting while driving is dangerous, 43 percent of them admit to sending a text while driving—and 75 percent say the practice is common among their friends.
“If you are in a car with a texting driver,” Barrios tells the Drake students, “don’t close your eyes. Tell them to stop. It’s your responsibility to say, ‘My life is important.’”

Her simple entreaty is backed by decades of research that explains why our brains are incapable of multitasking—and also why it is so hard for us to stop.

One hundred years ago, we didn’t have a concept called multitasking, says David Teater, Senior Director of Transportation Initiatives at the National Safety Council (NSC). “People came home at the end of the day and ate dinner with the family. We didn’t get on the phone or watch TV.”  During the Second World War, pilots were handed radar technology, and were increasingly required to multitask. “When they were flying planes with all sorts of screens and other stimuli, they began making mistakes,” Teater says. The field of attention science was born. “We learned that when you are talking about anything cognitively demanding, like driving, the human brain can truly only do one thing at a time.”

Today, cognitive research tracks, measures and illustrates the distracted brain in vivid MRI technology, providing a biological basis for driver risk. Scans reveal that just listening to a disembodied voice on the phone decreases our brain activity by 37 percent in the area responsible for driving skills, like navigation and organizing visual information, according to Carnegie Mellon University research.

“Our brains don’t multitask,” says cognitive psychologist David Strayer, who has led distracted driving research for more than a decade. “Rather, we ‘task switch,’ shuffling information and attention. Behind the wheel, the fallout of this mental juggling is a phenomenon called ‘inattention blindness,’ in which drivers look at but fail to see 50 percent of the information in their driving environment. Important information, like a red light or a person on a bicycle falls away from view and is not processed by the brain.”

Talking on the phone while driving increases our risk of crashing fourfold—the same level of impairment as driving above the legal intoxication limit. Texting increases risk by a factor of 23.

Most of us know that it’s wrong: Ninety-eight percent of those using cellphones regularly say that they are aware of the dangers, according to AT&T. Yet three-quarters of us admit to texting and driving anyway.

“We all think we’re invincible,” says Aria, a Drake Peer Resource student who helped lead the school’s recent campaign. “But (a distracted driving accident) can happen to any one of us.”
For all of its awesome complexity and evolution over thousands of years, the human brain is slow to the draw when it comes to technology’s demands.

“Our ability to recognize that we are distracted and control our behavior requires a part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex,” Strayer says, “and yet this same prefrontal cortex is also what we use to multitask.” This explains why we are able to ignore our bad behavior, even to our peril. “We are like Mr. Magoo, blindly unaware that we are causing mayhem,” he says.

Our brains also have a difficult time recognizing the difference between a friend’s social update, a reminder from the boss and a true emergency. Even the most disciplined among us become momentarily spellbound by the chime of a text tone. As social creatures hard-wired for survival, we are biologically compelled to respond to the proverbial tap on the shoulder.

“You must discover whether the person is an opportunity or a threat,” writes journalist Matt Richtel, who explored technology’s effect on the human mind in a series of Pulitzer Prize-winning columns. His recently published book, A Deadly Wandering: A Tale of Tragedy and Redemption in the Age of Attention, chronicles the story of a college student who fatally struck two rocket scientists as he texted and weaved along a Utah highway. “When the phone rings … you want to find out who it is. You need to. Your bottom-up survival system demands it,” Richtel writes.

Over at Drake, the kids seem ready to take on this challenge. “It’s a temptation we have to deal with,” one student tells me, as a group of us watch a gym full of kids in baggy shorts try to text without getting hit in the head during a game of “distracted dodgeball.” The students rattle off statistics in rapid-fire fashion and discuss the issue with intense resolve. They want people to know that to ignore a text in the car—“such a little and common thing”—could save a life.

Nearby, a chalk-drawn crosswalk is a “distracted walking awareness zone,” enforced with tickets. “People were glad to get tickets to remind them,” a student says. “One person wanted more.”

Their willingness to take responsibility is poignant—especially when you consider the next issue raised by Barrios at the assembly: “How many of you have a parent who texts and drives?” she asks. Again, hands shoot up.

More disconcerting still: Teens say that their parents are calling and texting them, while they are driving—and expecting an immediate response. More than half of U.S. teens are on their cellphones with a parent while they are driving, according to National Institutes of Health surveys. “This happens a lot,” acknowledge the kids in Drake’s Peer Resource class. “Sometimes we text back while driving just to calm our parents down. But they need to be patient and trust us. They need to know it can wait.”

“You have an 18-year-old entering into the most dangerous period of their lives,” marvels David Teater, whose son Joseph was killed by a young woman who ran a red light while involved in a cellphone conversation. “You tell your kids at the least not to text and not to use the phone at all—and yet they’ve spent the past 18 years watching you do it. Your credibility is out the window.”

Along with such significant challenges, technology is also presenting opportunities to understand and control our impulses. A growing wave of anti-distraction apps, some designed especially for teens and parents to use together, are readily available and often free. Tools like the LifeSaver App, AT&T’s DriveMode and Sprint’s Drive First will shut down the phone when a car starts moving, auto-respond to calls with an ‘I am driving and will call you when I have arrived’ message and record and share driver behavior with a parent or employer. A variety of hardware devices combine telecommunications and mobility (telematics) to block incoming calls and outgoing texts. App-makers are working with insurers to push for financial incentives for safe driving behavior.

Community-wide efforts are also key—and organizations like the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, AT&T, the National Safety Council and Allstate are heading up advocacy and education programs as well as legislative efforts. “We need to provide ongoing opportunities for parents and teens to have conversations and find agreement,” says Peer Resource class teacher Diana Winkler, herself the mother of two teens who are currently learning to drive. “One and done awareness days are not enough.”

In the school’s courtyard, kids flip skateboards and gather at lunch tables. At the center of the scene, students have turned the massive Senior Tree into a memorial, wrapped with yellow caution tape. Ghostly white-painted bicycles, a tricycle and a car seat scattered with plush toys hang precariously from the tree’s branches, each accompanied by a “true incident” report, documenting the crash that killed a baby named Enzo Williams. The driver, who was text messaging at the time of the crash, did not appear to brake before hitting the car, which was at a stoplight.

“It’s satisfying to know that you can stop yourself from a tragic experience if you are encouraged to work on your self- restraint and put the phone in the trunk or the back seat,” say students as they look back on the week. They are taking Debbie Barrios seriously when she urges them at the assembly’s conclusion to “be the generation that changes this.”

Contact Alyson when you’re not driving at [email protected]


Free apps: LifeSaver, DriveMode and Drive First offer options for Androids and iPhones.

Current research, tools and in-car footage: AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, AT&T, National Safety Council, Allstate

Local resources: Marin’s Safe Routes to Schools program; Marin County Bicycle Coalition

Test yourself: Take the National Safety Council’s Focused Driver Challenge here.


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