It’s the beginning of March, and Washington State’s 2017 legislative session is almost halfway through. In another month or so, the ultimate fate of several proposed distracted driving bills will be known.

We’ve all heard that we shouldn’t drive while using our cell phones. We see countless bad drivers around us paying more attention to their devices than the road. Perhaps you’re one of them. If you are, I ask you to stop. NOW. Not just because it hurts and kills people (shouldn’t that be enough of a reason?), but also because I’m literally paying for it and likely so are you and hundreds of thousands of other Washington State residents.

Before we go further, let’s define distraction, because accurate definitions matter. The venerable Oxford Dictionary lists “distraction” as “a thing that prevents someone from concentrating on something else.” Often-cited driver distractions include eating, grooming, wrangling children, talking to passengers, fussing with pets, falling asleep, reading, and operating in-car technology. Of course, the big elephant in the front seat is the cell phone—specifically smartphones that allow us to access email, apps, social media, texting, cameras, and Internet.

Washington was actually the very first state to ban drivers from texting and using handheld devices in 2008, but its laws are now archaic and haven’t kept up with modern smartphone technology. At press time, the current law makes it a primary offense, meaning that a driver can be ticketed for this infraction alone.

Tough To Enforce

So you might wonder: Everywhere I look, drivers are holding their damn phones and talking and texting. Why aren’t the cops out enforcing the law? Well, they are, handing out 2,500 to 3,000 citations monthly in Washington State. But the law is enforceable only if the device is held up to one’s ear or if the driver is texting (or admits to it). If drivers tell police that they were inputting GPS directions or checking sports scores, officers can’t legally write them a ticket, even if they’ve witnessed unsafe driving.

Cell phone records are not typically checked unless devices are suspected as factors in a crash, but even with such records it can be tough to prove in court without a doubt that the driver was inattentive at the exact moment of a crash; phone records also don’t log unfinished or unsent text messages.

Proposed legislative bills HB 1371 and SB 5289 would eliminate these loopholes by forbidding holding a smartphone, tablet, or other communications device while driving, using dashboard-mounted devices that require more than the tap of a finger (to allow for minimal GPS operation), and watching videos while driving. Fines would remain at $136 for a first offense but jump to $248 for a second offense, and insurers could see cellphone driving violations on driving records.

What’s the Big Deal?

So you might be asking: What’s the big deal? Why not also ban reaching for a water bottle, or fiddling with a radio? Or listening to music?  A third bill, HB 1631, does target activities such as eating, reaching for a dropped item, or tending to pets or backseat passengers that significantly interfere with safe vehicle operation.

The key difference with electronic technology lies in the cognitive load. We think we can multitask but we can’t—our brains simply switch back and forth very quickly. Ever notice how people walking while talking on cell phones suddenly stop moving when they’re in the deepest conversation? Their vision deadens and their brains can’t handle the two tasks at once.

Cell phones also demand our visual and manual attention. Consider these facts:

What makes this technology especially dangerous is our desire to engage with it so compulsively. We’re biologically wired to crave social connection and information. An incoming call or message is the proverbial tap on our shoulder, as Matt Richtel writes of the neurocognitive science in his 2014 book A Deadly Wandering. Ours is a perpetual reward system—answer that siren call, and our brains release dopamine, a neurotransmitter that activates our pleasure centers. Respond again, and we get another little dopamine squirt. Once habituated, our brains crave more, getting restless when deprived of stimulation for too long before its next fix.

Based on this neuroscience, I strongly believe this is why so many entreaties to not use our cell phones when driving simply don’t work. It’s not simply behavioral—it’s about overcoming a chemical addiction of sorts (or at least a very strong biological compulsion). It’s not recognizing and addressing the problem for what it is.

Whether a solution lies in devices being put in the mandatory equivalent of an airplane mode when the car is in motion, or aggressive deprogramming of behavior through a 12-step program of sorts, or other alternatives remains to be seen. Consistent laws, education, enforcement, cultural stigma, and swift, heavy penalties will also help.

Distracted Driving in Washington State in 2017: A Case Study and Why You May Be Already Paying for It


But What If?

You might be thinking: But what if I have an emergency and need to call or message back while driving? The truth is that our biology has superbly trained us to be slaves to our technology by creating a false sense of urgency, desire, and reward. Danger is abstract for us because most days nothing happens. We’re not good at conceptualizing consequence until we’re staring at its aftermath. And with death and injury, that aftermath can be incomprehensible. It’s always preventable. No call, text, game, or selfie is ever worth it, period.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), fatal crashes rose nationwide by 7.2 percent in 2015; experts believe that the use of smartphones is largely to blame. In that same year in Washington State, distracted driving-related deaths jumped 32 percent to 160, according to the Washington Traffic Safety Commission. That’s just deaths—not counting the 587 serious injuries, 14,601 minor injuries, and 30,195 property-damage-only collisions. That’s more than 5 incidents every hour. Add in thousands more unreported incidents and near-misses, and you get the idea. And that’s just in Washington State.

I never talk, text, or operate my cell phone while driving except for one-touch commands to operate GPS or Pandora; even the latter I keep to an absolute minimum. But several weeks ago, my insurance policy went up several hundred dollars annually. My agent said that the increase was not because of anything I’d done, but because of statewide rate hikes. Turns out that insurance companies are feeling the effects of distracted driving too. Their loss costs—payments to treat injuries, repair damaged vehicles and property, and defend insured drivers in legal actions—have jumped 16 percent over the past two years, and auto rates among Washington State’s top 20 insurers increased 5.9 percent in 2016 alone. You and I pay these costs, even if we aren’t at fault ourselves.

Distracted Driving in Washington State in 2017: A Case Study and Why You May Be Already Paying for It

Political Hurdles

In spite of all this, distracted driving bills are challenging to pass. In these rancorous political times, many bills die or survive strictly along partisan lines. Legislators themselves don’t want to give up using their own devices while driving, and like the general public, are in denial or just ignorant about the issues involved.

This was brought home to me recently when I saw the words of one Washington State legislator in a social media post. Asked why she voted against one of this session’s distracted driving bills, she shot back: “This serious issue of people addicted to their iPhones is a cultural problem. We can’t legislate responsibility and cultural change. It must begin with us.”

What?? Can’t legislate responsibility? Cultural change? How about we just walk back those drunk driving and drug impairment laws too? Because our smartphones are the ultimate open container. “Us” isn’t getting the job done. Neurocognitive research has proved that beyond a doubt. Yes, change has to come from us too, but legislators need to be brave enough to take a serious stand for the common good and send a strong message to the cultures they shape and protect. Otherwise, what’s their purpose?

In a country that values personal freedom and individual rights above all else, one might argue that government regulation has no place here. But at stake are lives, well-being, property, and the economy. Personally I’d love the right to drive without fear of someone on their cell phone crashing into me, or my children to walk across the street without threat of being killed or injured by an oblivious red light runner, or to not have to literally pay for the follies of others. Who knows, you just might too.

What You Can Do

So, what can you do? Contact your legislators. Advocate for consistent laws, education, enforcement, cultural stigma, and swift, heavy penalties. Pledge to make cell phone use while driving as socially inacceptable as drunk driving. Make it a priority that you won’t enable yourself or others to perpetuate this dangerous activity.

The single best way to overcome temptation? Shut off your phone completely and put it where you can’t reach or hear it, like in the trunk. If you must use GPS, input addresses before you start moving. If you need to adjust it, wait until you’re safely stopped.

And remember, you’re always modeling behavior for your children as well. By the time they’re driving age, they’ve had at least 15 years of seeing what you do behind the wheel—a little late to tell them “do as I say, not as I do.”


Matt Richtel writes extensively about the cognitive neuroscience behind the attention-eroding effects of technology in A Deadly Wandering: A Tale of Tragedy and Redemption in the Age of Attention—well worth reading if you want to learn more.