Why drivers text and drive

Fines in B.C. for driving while using phones will double to $368 on June 1. But will it change phone use? Psychology provides some clues.


“At any moment in time,” explains psychology Professor Gerald Wilde, “people assess risks and compare them with the amount they are willing to take,” on CBC Radio’s Spark. While risk factors may change, the amount of risk for any individual remains constant. If the perceived risk goes down, for example, people will engage in more risky behaviour to keep their risk level constant. Professor Wilde calls this “risk homeostasis.”

Risk homeostasis is best demonstrated by a famous experiment called the Munich taxi experiment conducted in the 1980s. A taxi company had to reduce their accidents or pay more for insurance.

So they installed anti-lock braking systems on one-half their fleet. To their surprise, the accident rate didn’t drop. In fact, over the three-year period of the experiment accidents actually increased slightly in the cars with ABS brakes.

It seemed like the drivers in safer cars were taking more risks. To find out, they hired expert observers to monitor driver habits such as speed, lane changes and so on. The drivers didn’t know that their passengers were paid observers and the observers didn’t know which cars had ABS – a classic double-blind experiment.

Sure enough, the observers found that taxi drivers increased risky driving behaviour: they maintained a constant risk.

In frustration, the taxi company decided to try a different approach. They told drivers that they would be financially responsible for damaged cars. Then the number of accidents went down.

Risk homeostasis is not a conscious decision but rather an intuitive calculation involving costs and rewards, including the cost of car repairs due to accidents and fines from traffic violations. Think of the calculation this way, says Prof. Wilde: “You set your thermostat such that there is a balance between comfort and cost of energy.”

Based on this psychology, increased driver fines will reduce distracted driving. But since looking away from the road is pretty drastic, there must be something beyond risk homeostasis.

When air bags were introduced into cars, drivers drove faster as explained by risk homeostasis –safer cars, riskier driving. What doesn’t add up is that the death rate to pedestrians and bicyclists went up. Yet, knowing that, drivers didn’t slow down. It seems like the risk to others was not part of the calculation. If it were, drivers would have slowed down.

Drivers who text and drive do so because it doesn’t appreciably increase their risk. Air bags, ABS brakes, seat belts and impact-absorbent car bodies reduce the risk to drivers but not to vulnerable people outside the car.

Add to that sound-proofing, cruise control, comfortable seats, deluxe sound systems, and drivers are easily lulled into a false sense of the degree of attention required while hurtling down the road in a two-tonne iron shell. Driving becomes secondary to fiddling with the radio, texting on their phones, applying makeup or rummaging through the glovebox.