Obsessed with Using Your Cell Phone While Driving? Researchers Consider Why

Sept. 16, 2011
Talking or texting on a cell phone while driving is not an addiction; it’s a compulsion. That’s what new research suggests following a study of why drivers engage in the risky practice of using their cell phones while behind the wheel.

According to University of Arkansas researchers, the use of cell phones while driving may be linked to obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) traits instead of addiction, which commonly had been named the culprit in this dangerous behavior.

“Our study shows that another potential driver of such [distracted driving] behaviors may relate more closely to obsessive-compulsive disorders than addictions,” said Moez Limayem, professor and associate dean for research and graduate programs in the Sam M. Walton College of Business. “This is important because behavioral interventions to treat OCD and addictions differ fundamentally, and the possibility that mobile phone usage is a compulsion rather than an addiction may suggest more effective legislative interventions and prevention tactics.”

While some states have imposed legislation to ban mobile phone usage while driving, this legislation relies on links to addictive traits and has not necessarily proven effective, researchers said. According to the Highway Loss Data Institute, mobile-phone-related accidents have actually increased in many areas since the passage of these laws.

The bottom line is that drivers continue picking up their phones while behind the wheel despite the risks. In 2010, the National Safety Council estimated that the cause of approximately 28 percent of all vehicle accidents – a total of 1.6 million annually – could be attributed to distracted driving resulting from cell phone usage.

A Study In Obsession

Through an online survey website, Limayem and a doctoral student, Zach Steelman, collected data from 451 men and women of various age groups and locations. The survey did not restrict the sample pool by demographics but did require that all respondents own a cell phone. More than half – 57.6 percent – of the participants used a smartphone.

The researchers measured types of usage by posing questions grouped into the following categories: general mobile phone usage, compulsive mobile phone usage and dangerous mobile phone usage.

Within these categories, participants were asked basic questions, such as whether they answer calls, make calls, read text messages/emails, send text messages/emails while driving, browse the Internet or access social network applications while driving. Researchers also asked respondents how many years they had owned a cell phone and how many hours they spent per day talking, emailing and texting on their phone.

Compulsive Checking

By offering users a way to check messages anywhere, mobile devices may alter the user’s “perceived responsibility” toward work and family obligations, Limayem and Steelman explained. This perceived increase in responsibility could lead to compulsive usage. Drivers aren’t checking their phones for fun – rather, they feel compelled to do so because of a heightened sense of stress and anxiety.

The findings suggest that the most significant predictor of dangerous mobile phone usage was answering text messages while driving. Incoming mobile alerts could create more distraction and trigger dangerous usage among drivers.

Conversely, initiating text messages was not a significant factor. That means motorists may more likely be driven to dangerous distraction when they take note of incoming messages and feel compelled to check or answer them.

For drivers who exhibit obsessive-compulsive tendencies, legislative bans on cell phone usage likely will not be effective, researchers added. Instead, convincing drivers of the potential cost of such behavior versus the small benefit of responding instantly could more successfully mitigate the dangerous, compulsive use of phones while driving.

Limayem suggested that public-service announcements and other informative interventions might stand a better chance of increasing safety than punitive actions could. From a purely technological perspective, he added, creating different ring tones or alerts corresponding to different “networks” (work, family, friends) or importance levels could alter stimuli produced by mobile phones and thus reduce compulsive use.

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