A Deadly distraction

Texting while driving

As a driver, you have only one job: Focus on the road. But when driving is an everyday routine, sometimes the mind wanders, which can have deadly consequences.

The Centers for Disease Control And Prevention estimates nine people are killed and more than 1,000 injured every day in the U.S. because of a distracted driver.

Distraction can come in many forms. Drowsiness, eating or drinking, adjusting the AC, messing with the radio and applying makeup can all take our minds off of safe driving. But one of the most common distractions for drivers these days is their phones.

According to the Insurance Information Institute, about 450 people a year are killed in crashes involving cell phone distraction. Cell phone use accounts for 14% of all distraction-related crashes, the III found.

While most drivers know using a cell phone while driving is dangerous, many of us do it anyway. The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found in its 2018 Traffic Safety Culture Index 41.3% of the respondents admitted to reading a text or email while driving and 32.1% admitted to typing on their phone within 30 days of taking the survey.

The good news is, this is a slight decrease in texting while driving reported in the Traffic Safety Culture Index the previous year. So it appears people are being a little more careful about avoiding distracted driving.

You might think it’s OK to look down for just a few seconds to read that text, but you’re missing a lot of what’s happening on the road during that time. The National Highway Traffic Administration says if you look down at your phone for just five seconds—the average time it takes to read or send a text—a car going 55 miles per hour can travel the length of a football field.

It’s not just texting. The Travelers Insurance 2019 Risk Index shows 44% of respondents who admitted to using cell phones were texting or emailing, 23% were using social media, 22% were recording videos or taking photos and 15% were shopping online.

Not only is phone use while driving dangerous, it’s illegal in most states. You can look up the rules on distracted driving for each state on the Governors Highway Safety Association’s website here.

Anybody can be guilty of distracted driving, and we’re all at risk of getting into a fatal crash, but NHTSA says drivers age 16 to 24 have been distracted by mobile devices at higher rates than other drivers.

One way to avoid the temptation of looking at your phone is to Do Not Disturb mode. Some phones even have a “Driving Mode” that is automatically enabled when it pairs to your car’s Bluetooth.

The NHTSA also suggests pulling over to a safe location or parking your car if you have to text or email. If you’re driving with passengers, you can appoint a designated texter or navigator to handle texting or a GPS app.

And if you’re a passenger, speak up when you notice the driver looking down at their phone. Travelers’ 2019 Risk Index found a little more than half (54%) of drivers said they’d likely stop distracted driving if asked by a passenger.

Why you should unplug once in a while

Screen Addiction

For many of us, our smartphone is the center of our universe. From banking to scrolling social media, we turn to our digital devices for practically everything.

According to the Pew Research Center, 46% people who own a smartphone say they can’t live without it.

And it’s not just smartphones. A 2018 Nielsen report found adults in the U.S. spend nearly half their day staring at screens—more than 11 hours.

The ubiquity of digital media isn’t always a negative thing, but too much screen time can take its toll, as with any other behavioral addition.

The Mayo Clinic says too much screen time for a developing brain can lead to obesity, behavioral problems, loss of social skills, violence, irregular sleep schedules and less sleep.

When used moderately, kids can benefit from high quality screen time, but face-to-face time with family, friends and teachers is even more important, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. But almost half of parents say they feel disconnected with their families, even when they are together, because of digital devices, the American Psychological Association’s 2017 Stress Survey found.

The studies involving teenagers addicted to gaming or the internet cited in the article showed loss of tissue volume in areas of the brain that govern planning, prioritizing, organizing and impulse control. Multiple researchers also found screen addicted brains showed less efficient information processing, poor task performance, increased sensitivity to rewards, and insensitivity to loss.

Research on video games in particular showed how dopamine released during gaming can produce brain changes that make the urge to play similar to a drug craving, the Psychology Today article says. It should be noted, however, that technology is not the only addiction that could change the brain’s dopamine functions this way, according to the American Psychological Association.

Screen addiction can also mess with your sleep, the National Sleep Foundation says. Researchers have found the artificial blue light can suppress melatonin, the sleep-inducing hormone.

You’re also increasing your alertness by using electronic devices when you should be preparing for sleep, which leads to a delay in REM sleep, which reduces the amount of REM sleep, which ultimately leads to being less alert the next day, the National Sleep Foundation says.

And it turns out your mother was right; focusing on a screen for a long period of time can lead to eye strain—causing the eyes to feel dry, the American Academy of Ophthalmology says. AAO suggests a “20-20-20” rule to reduce eye strain: For every 20 minutes of screen time, shift your gaze to an object 20 feet away for at least 20 seconds.

Some research even suggests that screen time and suicide risk might be positively correlated. A study published in the journal Clinical Psychological Science found the more time teens spend on digital devices, the more likely they are to feel depressed and think about, or attempt, suicide.

Despite the fact that more research needs to be done on screen addiction in particular, it’s apparent that it’s a good idea to unplug every now and then.

Research involving neuroimaging has shown that excessive screen time might actually change a developing brain, according to Psychology Today.