Are we obsessed with using cellphones while driving?

Nick DiUlio

Talking or texting on your cellphone while driving is dangerous. What remains perplexing, however, is why -- given this knowledge -- we still continue to do it in such large numbers. Part of the answer may be found in a recent study from researchers at the University of Arkansas that suggests the behavior may be linked to obsessive-compulsive disorder(OCD).

“When I started digging into the way researchers approached this phenomenon, I realized they were not capturing the whole picture,” says Moez Limayem, professor and associate dean for research and graduate programs in the University of Arkansas’ Sam M. Walton College of Business. “Most prior studies were based on the premise or theory that this was like an addiction -- that you get addicted to using your phone in the car. I had a hunch that there was more to it.”

Those who frequently use cellphones while driving may be exhibiting obsessive-compulsive behaviors, according to a recent study.

Blurring the lines

Limayem, who lost a close friend in a 2010 car accident involving cellphone use while driving, conducted the study during the summer of 2011 along with doctoral student Zach Steelman. Through an online survey, the researchers collected data from 451 men and women from various age groups and locations, asking them questions such as whether they answer calls and texts, browse the web or check social networks while driving.

What made Limayem’s study unique wasn’t so much the high percentage of respondents who answered "yes" to the questions, but rather the way cellphones blurred their perceived boundaries between work and family. Limayem says the average cellphone user’s perception of immediate responsibility to answer a call, to respond to a text or to read an email has led to compulsive phone use.

“In other words,” Limayem says, “because people now have a tool that allows them to receive work messages at home and family messages at work, they perceive the importance of each as greater. This, in turn, increases compulsive checking, even while driving.”

To be clear, Limayem is not suggesting that frequent cellphone use behind the wheel means someone has OCD, but rather that the cause of the behavior may be more closely rooted in obsessive-compulsive tendencies than addictive ones.

“All of our respondents said they knew it was wrong, but they did it anyway,” Limayem says. “We’re hoping this study can help us better understand the phenomenon so we can treat it, at least partially, as we treat obsession and compulsion.”

Why it matters

Twenty percent of injury crashes in 2009 involved distracted driving, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation, and of those killed in distracted-driving-related crashes, 995 involved cellphone use, accounting for 18 percent of deaths in distraction-related crashes.

Moreover, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) says using a cellphone while driving -- whether hand-held or hands-free -- delays a driver's reactions as much as having a blood-alcohol concentration at the legal limit of 0.08 percent.

To help reverse those statistics, nine states and the District of Columbia have passed laws prohibiting the use of cellphones while driving. However, according to the nonprofit Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, these measures have done little to curb the number of people using their phones while behind the wheel -- or the accidents that result.

“We’ve done studies looking at the laws restricting phone use while driving, and we’ve found that the laws have not reduced crashes,” says Russ Rader, a spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.  “Crashes haven’t necessarily increased, but they also haven’t gone down either as laws have been enacted. That’s very curious to us.”

Anxiety outweighs risk

Limayem says he thinks the reason for this imbalance rests with the way cellphone use behind the wheel is perceived and punished. If cellphone use is an addiction -- as previous research has suggested -- he says the best method of treatment would be abstinence and punishment. In cases of obsession and compulsion, that approach may make things even worse.

“What do you see people doing in their cars now? They try to hide their phones when passing police. But they’re still calling and texting,” Limayem says. “And why are they trying to hide it? Simple. The anxiety -- the perception of stress -- is outweighing the perception of risk.”

Chuck Cox tends to agree. Cox is senior vice president of strategic and business development for Cellcontrol, a Bluetooth-enabled technology built right into a vehicle’s electronics systems that locks a user’s cellphone as soon as the vehicle begins moving. Even with the emergence of such technologies, Cox says, it’s important to continue studying the underlying psychological factors of the cellphone-behind-the-wheel phenomenon.

“This gets to the core of humanity and our need to constantly connect,” Cox says. “It’s basic pack behavior, and we expect those connections in the vehicle now as well. We don’t tolerate it well when those connections are severed. People, essentially, feel lonely.”

Another viewpoint

The theory does have its skeptics. Dr. Jay Ashmore is clinical director of the Baylor Regional Medical Center at Plano's Behavioral Health Center. The Texas doctor says that trying to look at this phenomenon through a medical lens overly complicates matters.

Current distracted driving laws focus on punishment -- in the form of tickets. But some experts question whether that approach actually works.

“I think we’re missing the point,” Ashmore says. “We need to look at this from a simple health behavior perspective and address it that way. It’s no different than speeding or not wearing a seat belt. We know those things are risky, but people do them anyway.”

Ashmore does agree with Limayem, however, that our current approach to the problem isn’t effective. It’s been proven, he says, that threats alone don’t work in changing behavior. Rather than concerning ourselves with the psychological roots of the phenomenon, Ashmore suggests a greater concentration on stigmatizing it.

“Think about smoking,” he says. “Only after we vilified the tobacco industry as the bad dudes did we see a social shift in the behavior. I think it’s the same with cellphones. Whether it’s addiction or OCD, we need the social norm to be, ‘Man, this is no good.’”

Car insurance implications

For almost 15 years, Dan Weedin, an insurance and risk management consultant in Seattle, has been following the rising trend of motorists using cellphones while driving. He says that while Limayem’s study may be important to some, it’s not going to be all that important to car insurance companies.

“If you’re involved in an at-fault accident because you were using a cellphone, it’s just like running a stop light or stop sign and hitting someone,” Weedin says. “In the insurance company’s eyes, that’s a high degree of negligence and your policy is probably not going to be renewed.”

Michael Barry, a spokesman for the Insurance Information Institute, agrees. He says the psychology behind cellphone driving isn’t important to insurance companies.

“They’re not going to do a psychological profile of prospective policyholders,” he says. “But they are going to look at the driver’s past performance, and from their perspective, if you’ve been at fault in an accident involving a cellphone, they don’t care about the cause of the behavior. They care that you weren’t paying attention to the road.”

In terms of shopping for a new policy after a cellphone-related crash, Weedin uses just one word to describe the process: Brutal. The negligence that caused the accident will stay on your record for three years; during that time, insurers either are going to deny coverage for you or bump up your premiums to that of a high-risk driver.

“People need to think of driving with a cellphone like they do drunk driving,” Weedin says. “Insurance companies are very anal when it comes to statistics, and they know without a shadow of a doubt that driving with a cellphone is as dangerous as driving under the influence. No study is going to change their mind about that fact.”

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