Amanda Ripley

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Your Brain on a Cell Phone

20th Jul 2009 posted in Disaster Behavior

If there is one story you read all year on risk, it should be Matt Richtel’s New York Times story on driving while texting or talking on a phone. Seriously: don’t worry about your plane crashing. Don’t worry about your child getting kidnapped. Cut that out. Take all that worry and put it here.

“On his 15th birthday, Christopher Hill got his first cellphone. For his 16th, he was given a used red Ford Ranger pickup, a source of pride he washed every week. [L]ast Sept. 3, Mr. Hill, then 20, left the parking lot of a Goodwill store where he had spotted a dresser he thought might interest a neighbor…Mr. Hill was so engrossed in the call that he ran a red light and didn’t notice Linda Doyle’s small sport utility vehicle until the last second. He hit her going 45 miles per hour. She was pronounced dead shortly after. Later, a policeman asked Mr. Hill what color the light had been. ‘I never saw it,’ he answered.”

The most dangerous thing most Americans do is to drive. If you drive while using your phone, you are four times as likely to cause a crash. Personally, that isn’t what worries me the most. I know enough about my brain by now to know that I can’t text or talk on the phone while driving—so I don’t do it. What terrifies me is that everyone else is four times more likely to cause a crash.

Regular readers of this blog know that I usually make a serious effort not to fear monger. But not this time. We can expect this problem to get much worse. If you have a Blackberry or an iPhone (or are under 30 and have never used a phone for anything but texting), you know that talking is no where near as distracting as writing or reading a printed message. The other day, I tried to read an email while walking around in my house and slammed into a wooden beam. I collapsed in a pathetic heap and spent the rest of the day feeling vaguely dizzy and highly moronic. I shared this story with a few friends. Guess what? Everyone has a story about running into a sign or falling on the sidewalk while emailing or texting.

Now imagine doing that behind the wheel. Now imagine 17-year-olds doing that behind the wheel (see Dr. Phil’s interview with a shameless texter above.) These are people whose brains are literally not developed enough to understand their own mortality.

So what next? The research on using a cell phone while driving is about five years behind where it should be. We know enough about the dangers of talking—we need to know about texting and emailing. Meanwhile, the laws are so far behind they not even worth talking about. (Laws requiring hands-free devices have no effect on traffic accidents. We’ve known this for a long time, but for some reasons, hands-free laws keep coming up in state legislatures.)

We kill about 40,000 people a year on the roads in this country. The dead people are already disproportionately young. Even as we have built safer cars, with air bags and anti-lock brakes, we have raised worse drivers. I know people hate the government interfering in their lives, and I generally rail against any attempt to block communication between people. But I would happily support a cell-phone-jamming signal in every car. Because banning cell phones (which hasn’t been done anywhere anyway) won’t work. We are rewiring our brains to crave the instant stimulation of a text or email. We won’t be able to resist the temptation if all we are facing is a hard-to-enforce law. But if we literally can’t use our phones while the car is in drive, we could override our own worst instincts.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want some 20-year-old who is texting his friend about a dresser to end my life.