States are cracking down on distracted driving. But they might be going about it the wrong way, according to a recent study. Research from the University of Arkansas suggests that the urge to use a cellphone behind the wheel is tied to obsessive-compulsive disorder, rendering much distracted driving legislation ineffective.
OCD vs. addiction
Past research has tied distracted driving behaviors (checking emails, responding to texts and taking calls while driving) to addiction. So, naturally, distracted driving laws focus on trying get drivers to quit cold turkey -- via texting and cellphone bans, for example. The University of Arkansas study, however, found that while addiction does partially fuel distracted driving behaviors, they're more closely related to obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
OCD is a general psychological label that applies to a wide range of behavioral disorders. Many assume that OCD is largely suffered by highly eccentric loners who, unable to have normal interactions, retreat into elaborate tics like touching objects or banging on walls a certain number of times in a row. But the University of Arkansas study illuminates how many modern folks exhibit OCD behaviors in attempting to balance all their social responsibilities.
Part of the study's conclusions revolve around the fact that people use cellphones to get updates -- not just from their jobs, but from their families. The study surveyed 451 adults. Researchers asked them about their use of technology behind the wheel as well as how important they perceived their familial and work responsibilities to be. They found that a greater perceived importance of responsibilities (obsession) led to more distracted driving (compulsion).
In other words, drivers aren't always deriving pleasure, as addicts do, from using their phones while driving. Instead, responding to a phone is a nearly involuntary reaction. One telling detail was that habitually distracted drivers (those whose behavior the study rated as "dangerous") were highly likely to check and respond to incoming texts, but not as likely to initiate text messages.
Ineffective laws and possible solutions
The idea that distracted driving is more closely related to OCD than addiction raises some issues when it comes to anti-distracted-driving laws. If drivers have an inflated view of the importance of their responsibilities, no texting ban will get them to ignore a beeping phone. Research from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety seems to back up this idea. A September 2010 report shows that texting bans didn't bring down collision rates in several states where they were imposed.
What all of this seems to suggest is that it's going to take more than just a few slaps on the wrist to get drivers to disengage from their cellphones while driving.
For those with smartphones, distracted driving apps are available that make it impossible to send or receive texts or calls when a vehicle is in motion. University of Arkansas researchers suggest some other solutions. Public service announcements that get at the real reasons behind distracted driving might be more effective than punishing those caught in the act, the study argues. As for distracted drivers themselves, the researchers suggest assigning different ring tones to contacts based on their importance -- that way, drivers might be less tempted to respond to some calls and texts.