Texting While Driving: My Battle with Addiction

Today I want to talk about a great iPhone app for education I’ve been using lately. Brainscape has a very simple but effective flashcard app for language acquisition that has been helping me improve my Spanish skills by leaps and bounds. The problem is that I’m so busy I don’t have time during the day to study regularly. Sometimes it seems like the only time I get to myself is during my commute back and forth to work.

Okay, no more rationalization. I’m addicted to my smartphone and I can’t stop using it in the car. But I’m trying. It’s been 15 days since my last twd (text while driving) if you don’t count texting at stoplights or flipping through my digital flashcards.  There’s something in our DNA that makes us love stuff that’s bad for us. Cool Ranch Doritos comes to mind immediately for some reason. But close behind those delicious artery-clogging triangles comes my new favorite thing I’m trying hard to avoid, texting while driving.

Identifying the Problem

“Well, I’m just reading a text, not writing one.”

“I’m just typing in a phone number to make a call.”

Let me just be clear about what I mean by texting. Any interaction with your phone that takes your eyes and your attention away from the road is texting. That includes but is not limited to:

  • writing a text
  • reading a text
  • dialing a phone number
  • answering the phone
  • checking the map (That’s one of the things that I used to hate about the iPhone before iOS 6. Android users always had voice directions built in to the operating system, but up until just this month iPhone users have had to rely on some third-party vendor, usually for a fee, to get turn-by-turn voice directions. Checking your directions while driving is a pretty common need, and having to glance down at the phone has been both annoying and dangerous, so for me, no matter how many potential problems iOS 6 has, the update was worth it.)
  • learning Spanish (Okay, here’s the tie-in to academic technology. I have this great flash card app, Brainscape, that I use at every spare moment to brush up on my Spanish language skills. I’ve gotten into the bad habit of practicing my Spanish with it in the car.)

Step One: Admitting I Have a Problem

I’m driving to work and my iPhone makes that little ding, that noise telling me I have a new text or email or Words with Friends turn or something. It’s only a few hundred feet to the stoplight; I can check it then. Almost there…20 feet…stay on target…then just as I start to slow down into the stop, the light turns green and I sigh in annoyance. I’ll either have to slip a surreptitious look at my iPhone now before I start accelerating, or stifle the urge until the next stoplight.

It didn’t used be this way. I used to hate getting stuck at red lights. I used to accelerate through the questionably still-yellow lights just so I wouldn’t have to stop. These days, I slow down when I think the light might be about to turn yellow. My iPhone is always on my lap or right beside me in the cup holder for a quick fix.

Step Two: Understanding the Root Cause of the Problem

Okay, I figure that if I can at least understand why I feel compelled to text while driving, I can come up with a good tactic to combat my problem. Why am I so compelled to do stuff that’s so potentially bad for me? The Doritos thing I kind of understand. As a survival instinct, we humans are programmed to eat when food is around. Our bodies are great fat-storing machines for just that reason.  I’ve been testing that premise out for most of my life and I’ve gotten pretty good at storing fat reserves for winter (not so good at using up those reserves come summertime).

So, from a survival perspective, the inclination to eat that entire bag of Cool Ranch Doritos and washing it down with a pint of Ben and Jerry’s Chunky Monkey is not only delicious but is actually good for us at some level of short term reasoning. There’s no caveman who would turn that meal down. Of course, in the U.S. today, food is too readily available, and the type of food that is available is usually bad for you, so the genetic inclination to store fat for times of scarcity turns into a long-term negative for our health.

What does this have to do with my texting while driving compulsion, you may ask? Well, it’s all about how innate survival behavior has been short-wired by our modern culture. If being able to store fat has been a crucial survival technique for humans over our history, the same can be said for our need to communicate. We’re social animals, and we have succeeded largely because we communicate so well. But up until the twentieth century, we really only communicated when there were other people around to talk to. Some people could write, but you needed to have a place to sit, some sort of paper and some sort of writing implement for that. You certainly weren’t going to be able to write a letter to your pal while riding your horse into town.

Even though food is readily accessible, most of us don’t walk around with an endless supply of brownies in our pockets. I can’t imagine what the obesity rate would be if someone invented a device that would provide us with that. However, most of us do travel around with an endless supply of communication opportunities in our pockets, and herein lies my problem. I hear a little sound or feel a little vibration telling me someone somewhere is trying to communicate with me, right now, and I can’t resist. But I’m trying. And I am doing better. But I still find myself rushing to that red traffic light just to glance at my Spanish flashcards or check my messages or find out who responded to my latest Facebook photo album. It’s just in my nature. And that’s why I can’t wait for Google to hurry up with that car they’re working on that drives itself. Now if they could only replace the car’s glove compartment with a junk food vending machine…

About Mike Blum

Mike is the Academic Technologist for the Humanities at the College


  1. Beverly Peterson says:

    Now I’m worried. My first smart phone is in the mail. Will I develop Mike’s addiction? Maybe I should send the phone back unopened.

    Nah, I have better self control than Mike does!