The distraction caused by phones and texting may be more difficult to prevent

Distracted driving is a problem of significant proportions. While the data is unclear, in part because of the way in which it is reported and compiled, we know that a large number of car accidents and crashes are due to driver distraction.

All you have to do is spend some time watching other drivers along a busy road here in Columbia to recognize that many have their heads down, looking at a screen, or making furtive glances as they are attempting to navigate traffic.

Many states have laws that govern cellphone use in an effort to combat distracted driving. Missouri is one of the least restrictive, only banning texting by drivers under age 21. But regulators and law enforcement face a constant headwind in the face of the incredible draw that the modern smartphone provides to millions of drivers every day.

It’s not a phone, it’s a wireless computer

The smartphone is barely a phone. For many younger drivers, the “phone” function is one of the least used of all of its capabilities. In reality, the smartphone is an internet-enabled cellular computer allows a driver to check position on a map, read texts, look at sports scores, watch a movie on Netflix or view art at the Museum of Modern Art, or virtually anything else that can be found on the internet.

For modern Americans, the prospect of being without that phone and that connection can be distressing. Even to the point of risking their lives and yours in a car crash by using those devices while driving.

States have passed laws that restrict the use of cellphones, some banning handheld use and texting, but some studies have shown that the distraction goes deeper than merely that caused by reaching for a phone or looking at the screen.

Research has found that the brain’s processing of the conversation or the text message and formulating a reply is where the true distraction lies, and that allowing drivers to use a cellphone or text hands-free does nothing to alleviate that distraction.

Of course, the greater problem with smartphones is because of the many different ways they can be used, the varying degrees of distraction are nearly infinite. A driver may simply be using their phone as a map to direct them to their destination or they may be streaming a movie or sporting event.

Texting can really be addictive

Because of addictive nature of how texting works and how it provides a chemical response in the brain similar to some drugs that can induce a feedback loop, where your sending a text or tweet and then receiving a response causes your brain to desire to send another and another.

This type of research suggests that merely banning some types of physical control of an electronic device will be ineffective at reducing the number of drivers who are injured or die in distracted driving crashes.

We also need to more accurately gather accident data, so we can better recognize the size of the problem posed by distracted drivers. Maybe by then, the potential solution to all distracted driving problems, the self-driving car, will become a reality.