Skip to content
Surprising Science

Why is texting and driving not considered an epidemic?

A California man is suing Apple for not enabling a lockout feature on iPhones. He’s not the only one.
A driver uses a phone while behind the wheel of a car on April 30, 2016 in New York City. Spencer Platt/Getty Images.

The intersection of personal responsibility and legislation is always contentious. People generally want to be left alone when doing what they want yet also desire governmental interference when others perform acts they deem inappropriate. Psychologists and neuroscientists can point out such blatant discrepancies—leave me be until I want you to step in—though convincing people to change longstanding habits is nearly impossible.

Changing perspective can be clarifying. Take, for example, terrorism, the most discussed topic in the country right now. Whatever your thoughts on immigrants and the potential danger of an attack, statistics show that the chances of being killed in one are marginal. As my colleague Paul Ratner reports, 3.6 billion to one when involving a refugee and 3.6 million to one by an immigrant.

You’re much more likely to be injured or killed by someone that’s texting while driving. A few sobering statistics:

  • Texting and driving is the cause of 1.6 million accidents every year
  • 330,000 people are injured every year because of it
  • Eleven teenagers die every single day thanks to texting and driving
  • One-quarter of all traffic accidents are due to texting
  • I’m much more frightened pulling onto the streets of Los Angeles than worried that my Muslim neighbors are harboring secrets, and for good reason: sixteen people die every day on America’s roads because of texting and driving. Sadly, every one of these deaths is avoidable.

    I’m not the only one fearful of the terrible habits of other drivers. Julio Ceja is a fellow Californian who was rear-ended by a texting driver. Instead of accepting his fate and moving on, he decided to do something about it. He’s suing Apple.

    Ceja’s case is built upon the fact that the technology company has the capability to enable a “lockout” feature on iPhones that would render texting impossible but has failed to use it. Apple filed a patent for this very technology, which it calls “Driver Handheld Computer Lockout Device,” in 2008. The patent was approved three years ago.

    Another Texas family is also suing Apple since their five-year-old daughter was killed by a driver that ran into them while using Facetime. They’re using the same patent as proof of corporate negligence.

    Last year I wrote about the Textalyzer, a potential means for law enforcement to know whether or not a driver was on their phone during an accident. More advocacy groups are springing up to address this issue, though unfortunately it doesn’t have the same emotional appeal as, say, terrorism. Humans fear the unknown, the other, more than they worry about everyday habits, even if the latter proves deadlier. Combating terrorism makes a great campaign slogan. Intervening in texting habits is considered proof of a nanny state.

    At times some adults need nannies, however, just as we need laws protecting us from murderers and bankers.  If the government is unwilling to step in, technology companies have a duty to step in where an obvious problem exists, especially when the welfare of their consumers is involved.

    Texting distracts you for a minimum of five seconds during a time when full cognitive resources are required. There’s simply no good response to the necessity of this habit when the option of pulling over, taking care of your communication, then resuming your drive exists.

    As with alcohol and opioids, texting drivers rarely admit their addiction. They think they’re in perfect control of their minds even if reality reveals a different story. Unlike the opioid epidemic, which has fortunately received more attention over the years, the epidemic playing out on American streets remains hidden in plain sight, and drivers are unlikely to do anything about it until it’s too late.

    Hindsight always seems to win out where common sense could have been such a simple and less destructive replacement. There’s nothing worse than telling yourself “I should have known better.” Yet we seem wired to do just that, over and over again. 

    Derek’s next book, Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health, will be published on 7/4/17 by Carrel/Skyhorse Publishing. He is based in Los Angeles. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.


    Up Next