If you ask a friend if he texts while driving, he'll likely say "no," or "not much." But after observing him behind the wheel for a while, you might find he checks his phones for messages a lot.
It's common, say researchers at the University of Michigan (U-M). When people check their cell phones without thinking about it, the habit represents a type of automatic behavior, or automaticity, the researchers say. Automaticity, which was the key variable in the study, is triggered by situational cues and lacks control, awareness, intention and attention.
"In other words, some individuals automatically feel compelled to check for, read and respond to new messages, and may not even realize they have done so while driving until after the fact," said Joseph Bayer, a doctoral student in the Department of Communication Studies and the study's lead author.
Texting behind the wheel has become a major highway safety concern as smartphones have proliferated. And it's not just teens who fall victim to the habit; adults can be offenders too.
The U-M study identifies the role of unconscious thought processes in texting and driving, making it different from other research that has focused on the effects of this behavior. The U-M study investigates the role of habit in texting while driving, with a focus on how, rather than how much, the behavior is carried out.
Many people have phones that vibrate when a new message is received. Or, the phone makes a sound. These can be texting cues that people respond to automatically.
"In the case of more habitual behavior, reacting to these cues becomes automatic to the point that the person may do so without even meaning to do it," said Scott Campbell, associate professor of communication studies at U-M.
The study tried to determine subjects' level of automatic response and frequency of texting, as well as their attitudes about texting behind the wheel. The findings show that automatic tendencies are a significant and positive predictor of both sending and reading texts behind the wheel, even when accounting for how much individuals text overall, norms and attitudes. It found that not all drivers pose the same risk.
"Two mobile phone users, then, could use their devices at an equal rate, but differ in the degree to which they perform the behavior automatically," Campbell said.
Bayer says the implications of the study may help provide solutions to texting and driving. He says the current campaigns to stop people from texting while driving aren't as effective if individuals don't realize how much they are doing it.
"By targeting these automatic mechanisms, we can design specific self-control strategies for drivers," he said.