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Why do we keep using mobiles in the car?

Australians still use their mobile phones while driving, in spite of the risks. During 2016-17, NSW police caught 39,007 in the act. The worst suburb was Sydney, where 2,042 drivers were caught using a mobile illegally, followed by 1,292 in Parramatta and 669 in Waterloo.

Why do we do it?

Let’s recognise the car is just one of many places where Australians use their mobile phones. We use them all the time and everywhere:

  • Average Australians use their mobile 30 times per day
  • 45% say they can’t live without their mobile
  • 42% of online time is by mobile
  • Australians spend about 2.5 hours per day, or 38 days per year, on their mobiles.

Its evolution from a simple communication to an internet-enabled device – for searching, dating, mapping, banking – has made the mobile indispensable. In fact, it’s no surprise problematic mobile phone use (PMPU) could be one of the biggest behavioural addictions of the 21st century.

Compensatory beliefs

Some drivers have “compensatory beliefs”, which allow them to use their mobile while driving. A compensatory belief is where you say, eg, “I can use my mobile phone now because I’m going to slow down and increase the gap between me and the other car”. Slowing down is the safe behaviour that compensates for the unsafe behaviour of using the phone.

In a Chinese study, respondents who tended to have more compensatory beliefs also reported more incidents or crashes caused by making or answering calls and sending or reading messages.

Steps to change

However, it is not an easy to task to change behaviour that is potentially addictive. Even when it is not addictive, phones are well entrenched into every moment of daily life. Heavy penalties and warning videos about using mobiles while driving may not be sufficient deterrent.

Even so, there are practical steps you can take to minimise the urge to use your phone while driving:

  • Keep your phone well out of reach — maybe even in the boot
  • Put your phone on silent or in flight mode
  • Switch off notifications and divert calls to voicemail
  • Tell others not to call or text while you’re driving
  • Use a mobile phone cradle or Bluetooth
  • Pull over, only when safe and legal to do so.

Stop press

We were about to publish this blog when the Australian Automobile Association announced a new research program into whether distracted driving caused by using smartphones is a type of addiction.

When drivers keep using mobiles, even though they know it is high risk, is similar to other forms of addiction. The AAA says it should be handled as an addiction and become as socially unacceptable as drink or drug driving.

It will be interesting to see how this research progresses and how its results will be applied in a practical way to distracted driving.

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