Breaking News: Texting While Driving is Dangerous. Duh!

Anyone who understands anything about behavior knows that the latest suggestion by Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood for dealing with the problem of texting while driving will not work. He suggested that cell phone manufacturers put a warning label "right on the box" and that sales persons should emphasize the danger of texting while driving when someone buys a cell phone. Secretary LaHood is one of many people who think telling people to behave will have an appreciable effect on their behavior. It is not that people don’t need to be warned about things that pose danger; the question is how to make them most effective. Case in point, millions, if not billions, of dollars has been spent warning smokers of the danger smoking poses to their health. Yet, there are still many millions of smokers. The solution to this problem does not reside with the warning but with the consequences of the behavior.

As I read about the solutions offered for this problem, most of them rely on changing the behavior by some form of "education or communication." There is no doubt that the government will spend millions of dollars on such. I agree with David Champion of Consumer Reports who thinks this will be a waste of money.

Although most solutions directed toward changing consequences are antecedents, the ones that suggest consequences for texting behavior will be minimally effective. For example President Obama signed an executive order banning cellphone use by government workers while driving. In a similar vein, Secretary LaHood calls for highly visible enforcement of laws against this behavior. The problem with these actions (consequences) is that most people who text while driving will never get caught and face the consequences of the law or policy. Even with increased visible enforcement the driver texting will simply stop until the patrol car is out of sight. Since most people who get a ticket for speeding resume speeding after only a few miles, I am sure that the same thing will happen to most texters who get caught.

While I can’t write in this post all there is to know about how to make warnings and consequences effective, I can tell you that the behavior of texting is highly reinforcing to texters – immediately. As long as this source of reinforcement is available, threats of punishment and instances of punishment will have only limited impact on the problem. Writer Frank Herbert said it well, "The proximity of a desirable thing tempts one to overindulgence. On that path lies danger."

On a positive note, I learned today about a technological solution to this behavioral problem. iZup is coming out with a phone app that will interrupt texting when the phone is moving over 5 mph. While people may be reluctant to buy this app for themselves, many parents will buy them for their children.

Behavior is changed by antecedents and consequences (what comes before and after behavior). When these scientific concepts are understood, they usually lead to more efficient and effective solutions to behavior problems. Texting is one that requires behavioral expertise and technological collaboration for the best effect.

I know they had many technology experts at the National Summit on Distracted Driving but wonder how many behavior analysts were invited. I think I know – none.

For further proof bans don't work, read Texting bans for drivers increases crashes, study shows, New York Post, 10-05-17.

Posted by Aubrey Daniels, Ph.D.

Aubrey is a thought leader and expert on management, leadership, safety and workplace issues. For the past 40 years, he has been dedicated to helping people and organizations apply the laws of human behavior to optimize performance.