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FEATURE: A case study in distracted driving

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Stiffer fines for distracted driving were introduced in June in BC

Targeted blitz underway involving both local police and ICBC

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) – We’ll call him John. He’s in his late 40’s and commutes into Vancouver from the ‘burbs every weekday to his high-stress job. He admits he uses his phone freely in the car, despite knowing it’s dangerous, it’s illegal, and if he gets caught, he’ll get hit with a big fine.

John is the textbook case of a distracted driver, and he’s a smart guy. So why does he do it?

“It’s a matter of time. Time is the most important commodity in my life, so I’m balancing time against safety. For some reason, even though I know all the stories about distracted driving, and all the cases of people being hurt, and all the dangers and all the fines, it doesn’t matter to me. I have to get things done, I have to act on them immediately when I know of them, and that’s why I do it. And I can’t see myself stopping.”

When asked if he wants to stop, John says “I think it’s a good idea to stop. I can’t see it working into my life as something I can do.” John has a young son, and he pauses when asked if he uses his phone while his child is in the car. “That’s a good question. Usually I don’t, mostly because for some reason it says ‘stop,’ but most of my commuting is done without him in the car. So for that reason, it doesn’t even cross my mind if I’m alone, even though I do have a family at home, I continue to do it.”

John also admits to having a double standard about his phone use in the car. “I see people that I get angry with all the time, that I think ‘they’re terrible drivers.’ I’m probably one of those terrible drivers while I’m doing it. But it’s a matter of time. Two hours a day in my car? For just commuting? Stuff has to get done, and a lot of that is on a gadget, communicating.”

He says if he’s caught, he’s not sure he would stop. “I don’t know. Probably for a while, then I’d probably go back to needing it done. I’d probably reduce the number of occasions when I do it, and then I’d find my life still requires it, or I think it requires it to be done. I can’t pull over. Nobody’s pulling over to send a message. This is how we live our lives. Our lives are busy and we have to communicate when we have to communicate.”

John pauses again when he’s asked if he thinks he’s addicted to his phone. “I think it’s part of my lifestyle, and my lifestyle to me requires that. I don’t know if that’s an addiction, but it’s certainly a habit.”

Clinical psychologist Dr. Joti Samra isn’t surprised by John’s story. “This is a common sentiment that I hear from individuals of all kinds of backgrounds and ages, and some researchers have coined a term for it – nomophobia – which stands for ‘no mobile phobia,’ so not having access to a phone, and … the kind of anxiety or stress that comes along with not being able to access your phone.”

She says John’s belief that he needs to respond to things right away is also very common. “Our perception is reality, so that’s important to keep in mind. If we perceive that something is going to be a particular way, we create this self-fulfilling prophecy. We’ve gotten very accustomed to this immediate, real time response, accessibility, communication, connection. When it’s taken away, or have the perception that it’s taken away, it feels very different and unsettling from what we’ve become accustomed to.”

Dr. Samra believes we can change, but we need to be aware of what the problem is and what the consequences are. She says humans are simple creatures. “If we have a negative consequence that we experience, we tend to reduce the likelihood of engaging in that behaviour, and if we don’t, we continue. So many people can abstractly or intellectually say ‘we understand that having your mobile phone when you’re driving is not safe, it’s dangerous’ and then you hear the ‘but’ immediately – ‘but I only check it at a light, but I’m very careful, but I’m very aware of what’s around me’ so people get these false perceptions that they somehow as an individual are uniquely unaffected by the behaviours that affect other people.”

She says the number of times John checks his phone while he drives – possibly hundreds of times per week – versus the number of times he’s been caught – zero – has strengthened his behaviour, and abstinence could be the key to changing it. “What it can do is teach us the sky will not fall down if we don’t have our phone in front of us for the 20 or 30 or 40 or 60 minutes that our commute is taking. We can learn that we don’t need to be immediately accessible to other people, we don’t need to immediately access information or connect with others during times that have a potential significant negative outcome.”

It could be as simple as John locking his phone in the trunk, or turning his phone off completely. “That works, because we realize that actually life doesn’t change that much, and we have these false perceptions of the need, which often is not a need, it’s a want.” Samra says you may even want to broaden the “unplugging” idea out to the rest of your life. “There are three main areas that I would suggest people do that in: one, when they’re behind the wheel of a car. Two, when you’re socially connecting with your family and friends … and three, when you get into bed … putting your phone in a different room, putting it on airplane mode, or turning it off, just something that makes you know that there’s going to be an extra little step that you have to take to get that kind of immediate reinforcement that we’re so used to.”