Challenging Dogma - Fall 2011

Friday, December 23, 2011

No LOL Matter: Teenagers, Texting, Driving and an Intervention Blinded as to What’s Really Going On – Molly Doble


Distractions while driving are one of the main causes of car accidents in the U.S. Estimates are around 1.6 million crashes a year as a result of distracted drivers becoming inattentive or losing their focus on the road (1). Cell phones are one of the leading causes of this distraction. We have all seen people behind the wheel of a car talking on the phone or texting when their attention should be focused on their driving. Even worse, most of us have done the same. In our increasingly busy culture, we are constantly scrambling to stay abreast on connections with friends and family and in accomplishing tasks from our ever-growing list of things to get done each day. With only 24 hours in a day, we are multi-tasking during every spare minute we can find to stay on top of things.

Since the rise in popularity of cell phones over the past 10 years in the U.S., our accessibility and ability to get things done on the go has been revolutionized. With the rapid spread in cell phone use, it has been quickly recognized that driving while talking on the phone is a dangerous activity. This distraction has only gotten worse as the advancement of cell phone technology has expanded to allow cell phone users to check email, surf the internet, find directions and text message from wherever they are, including behind the wheel of a car. Text messaging poses an especially dangerous risk for drivers as texting while driving is said to become 23 times more dangerous compared to driving while not texting according to a study done at Virginia Tech Transportation in 2008 (2). This puts texting and driving at as high a risk as drunk driving. With the increase in driving accidents linked to cell phones usage while driving, there has ensued a series of regulatory legislation on the state level to limit cell phone use while driving and in particular to limit texting while driving. Currently 32 states ban texting while driving and much of this legislation for cell phone use and texting is specifically geared towards younger and less experienced drivers (3).

Teenagers and Texting

In 2009, the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration (NHTSA) conducted studies that concluded that the highest risk group for distracted driving was the age-group of 20 and under, from which 16% of fatal car accidents were attributed to distraction (4). With an estimated 82% of 16-17 year old owning a cell phone and 76% of this cohort texting (5), it is not a surprise that teenagers are the target group for the National Texting and Driving Prevention Campaign, “Stop the Texts. Stop the Wrecks.” This campaign was launched in 2011 online by the Ad Council through a collaboration between the State Attorneys General and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (6). The campaign addresses the very serious public health concern of texting while driving and is focused on the population of the most inexperienced drivers, young adults ages 16-24.

The young adult age group this campaign targets poses a particularly dangerous combination of being experienced in texting, having grown up alongside cell phone technology, and at the same time being inexperienced in driving, just starting out on the road. Combine this with the typical teenage traits of rebellion, high need for social acceptance and belonging, an extreme desire to push the boundaries of new found freedoms as they approach adulthood and their high tendencies to take risks (7) and it quickly surfaces as a very complex demographic to address through an intervention on texting and driving. It could be argued that the National Intervention “Stop the Texts. Stop the Wrecks.” falls short in not taking into account the complexity of the demographics and multi-faceted attitudes of teenagers when examined through the lens of current social and behavioral science models and published studies addressing these issues.

Stop the texts. Stop the Wrecks; the Campaign

The main visual presentation of the campaign on the website is based on the safety color of yellow writing on an asphalt background similar to the appearance of a road. This is an odd choice for the website design since it feels as if you are driving along the road while reading their message to not text while driving. Isn’t that what are you not supposed to be doing? The overall message is firm, but commanding with the main slogan of Stop the Texts. Stop the Wrecks. This is delivered with an authoritative undertone as the words demand action. By setting up a reservoir of statistics on the website along with tips to help avoid texting while driving, the resounding message to the viewer is that texting while driving is a bad idea and this is strongly supported through providing numbers and facts to present awareness and instill fear of the consequences. There are links to several anti-texting and driving videos on the website as well as posters that are formatted specifically to be posted on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter. The site also encourages the viewer to post onto social media sites links to facts listed on the site to further spread the word. Also included is an invitation to join a group posted on the Facebook community (6). The main driving force for the intervention is the idea that if the campaign can get the awareness out to the community, and the data and videos are convincing enough, then teens will simply stop the behavior.

There is Much More to this Decision than Planned Behavior

This intervention utilizes a very common approach in public health where facts, statistics and logic are used as the main persuasion tactics to change a behavior. After all, if people are equipped with the right information, they will inevitably make the correct decisions about their health. This attitude and approach draws on the concepts presented in the social sciences model the Theory of Planned Behavior. This model is designed to address the problem at the level of the individual while at the same time taking into account the influences of their social norm(7). The underlying premise of the model relies on a person being given adequate facts and information about an issue in order to make a logical decision about whether or not to act. This intention or decision to act is based on the weighing out of information by the individual through the use of three main decision influences: 1) the individual’s attitude or perceived evaluation of whether or not to perform a behavior based on information gathered about the issue; 2) the understood subjective norms or social pressure the individual feels to either perform or not perform the behavior and; 3) the individual’s perceived behavioral control toward making the change (7). In other words, how easy or difficult the individual feels it will be to make the change in behavior happen.

“Stop the Texts. Stop the Wrecks.” campaign has set up their intervention to directly address the three decision influences in the Model of Planned Behavior. The campaign is very fact oriented, providing information directed towards teenagers about the prevalence of texting while driving as well as the risks involved. One of the strengths of the information provided on the website is the way the campaign presents the information in a format that is relatable to the teenage mindset. An example of this is a statistic that cites 5 minutes as the average time a driver’s eyes are off the road while texting. This equates to driving the entire length of a football field going 55 mph (4). These information and facts are provided to influence and persuade the individual’s attitude towards not texting and driving in line with the model of Planned Behavior.

The segment of the campaign focusing around online social networking access is present to stimulate the subjective norm and encourage positive societal pressure to not text and drive. Through the posting of facts and videos online, the campaign encourages the ideas of the prevention to be integrated into the teenage social norm and further strengthen the attitudes of the individual to help in their decision making process.

Finally there is a section on the website involving tips on how to curb the behavior of texting while driving. With ideas presented to help the individual to change the behavior, this directly addresses the perceived behavioral control element of the Planned Behavior Model. There is also a designated area where those that visit the site can post their own suggestions for how to avoid texting and driving.

The overall fallacy in using this model of Planned Behavior to develop a campaign around lies in the idea that the decision to text or not to text while driving is a planned, reasoned and logical decision. When examining various studies done on this age group and texting while driving the general consensus is that are a multitude of factors that contribute to this behavior beyond simply awareness (9,10,11,12). This is also clearly acknowledged and defined in the website itself as it cites the following statistic, “An online survey of 1,999 teens ages 16-19 found that 86% had driven while distracted even though 84% know it's dangerous (2010, AAA and Seventeen Magazine)(4).” After designing a campaign almost directly around the Model of Planned behavior, the campaign essentially discredits the appropriate use of the model by stating that teens are aware of the fact that texting and driving is dangerous and yet they continue to do it anyway. This would suggest that there are other factors at play in young adults’ decisions to text and drive that should be addressed.

Another interesting downfall to citing this statistic and others on the prevalence of texting in this age groups is that it undermines the subjective norm in the model by outright telling teens that according to the facts provided, everyone else is doing the behavior. This in a sense encourages more teens to text and drive since it is considered the societal norm based on this statistic. In a study performed in 2010 on the subject, it has been suggested that statistics showing high frequency of texting among teens should be downplayed for this very reason (10).

It Might Happen to Them, But it Won’t Happen to Me

One of the major oversights that this campaign fails to address is a very prevalent attitude among teenagers that must be taken into consideration when developing an intervention. Teenagers commonly view themselves as above the risks or seemingly as invincible. They believe that bad things might happen to other people, but that they are somehow not as susceptible to these same risks. The social science theory of Optimistic Bias has examined this underlying risk assessment and finds this attitude especially high in teenagers. The development of this theory through social science research examined and uncovered a systematic bias through which individuals tends to underestimate the probability that bad things will happen to them, even in the case where they overestimate the risk in the general population (13). This is seen in studies done on the attitudes of teenage drivers in which the study participants believe that they are better able to multitask through texting and driving when compared to their peers (10). The teens will justify their ability to text and drive at the same time, by describing techniques such as texting with one hand, placing the phone on top of the steering wheel so they can see the road while texting and only texting while stopped at a light or stop sign. Regardless of these modifications, the perceived ability of the driver to multi-task does not reduce the risk of an accident in the study (14).

The “Stop the Text. Stop the Wrecks.” campaign attempts to address this idea of optimistic bias through two of the videos that were created for the campaign and posted on the website entitled “Stairs” and “Fountain.” Unfortunately it is used in a way that does more damage to their cause than good. Both videos start with a person texting and walking. In the midst of distracted texting, the person either falls on the stairs or falls into the fountain. This scene is followed by the slogan,” Not everyone should text and walk.” Then each video cuts into a similar enactment where several teenagers are seen in a car texting and not paying attention to the road. The videos abruptly end right before suggesting the distracted driving will cause an accident involving driving into an unaware family on the street. The slogan following this second scenario states, “No one should text and drive” (15). By displaying this juxtaposition of texting and walking (which some people can do) with the idea of texting and driving (which no one can do) the campaign presents mixed messages. This intervention is initiated with an opportunity for teenagers to easily disassociate with the overall message of the video once they see a behavior they feel they are able to perform. This in turn can have the effect of further limiting the audiences’ perceived risks for texting while driving based on their confidence that they are able to perform the first task presented. It is almost as if the campaign is aware of this concept of optimistic bias, but are just not sure how to address it.

Freedom Isn’t Found in the Word STOP

Another major dynamic that the campaign “Stop the Texts. Stop the Wrecks” fails to recognize is the idea that by presenting their message in the manner that they do, they are threatening the perceived freedom of their target group, young adults.

For many teenagers, the independence gained through driving is a new found freedom that they have recently discovered. Through placing restrictions on an aspect of this driving freedom, the intervention campaign demands the teens be restricted while texting and driving through an authoritative accusatory command to “Stop the Texts. Stop the Wrecks.” According the Psychological Reactance Theory, typically when one’s freedom feels threatened, the immediate response is to restore that freedom (16). In other words, despite logic and rational, people will respond to threatened freedom by doing the exact opposite of what is demanded of them. Many teenagers could feel threatened by this demand and respond by acting irrational and continuing to indulge in the risky behavior of continuing to text and drive. This very response has been observed in a study performed in college students on not smoking. In this case, the opposite response was observed and it was concluded that the reactance against the message far outweighed the benefits (17).

Another avenue through which the audience could feel threatened by the campaign is the limitations that adhering to it would have on social interactions. By restricting the times and places that the adolescents could text and communicate with their friends, the campaign could be challenging a behavior that young adults see as very important. In the videos produced for the campaign, the visual image portrayed through the depiction of the teenagers laughing and appearing to have a really fun texting and driving with their group of friends could entice rather than deter the behavior. Especially when the image is followed by a command not to do this behavior. In a study done on looking at the effects of parents’ restrictions on their children’s access to social media (including phones, computers and texting) the response by the kids mirrored this psychological reactance theory (18).

Building Upon the Approach – Using Other Methods

Although the intentions of the “Stop the Texts. Stop the Wrecks.” campaign are well meaning, the intervention would benefit greatly in making the campaign’s approach more dynamic and reflective of the motivations and behaviors of the target audience. The shortcomings and criticisms that have been mentioned on this campaign are a good foundation through which to add to this current intervention. Through developing a more diverse effective campaign that would appropriately address the issues raised in this criticism the effectiveness of the campaign could be broadened. The risk taken by teens beyond the logical information presented could be challenged, the optimistic bias that effects their actions could be minimized and hopefully the threatened sense of freedom could be placated.

With the current intervention relying so heavily on the Planned Behavior Model the campaign completely ignores the impulsive decisions to text that are made on the spot while driving. I would propose that the intervention address this through a social media approach of utilizing cell phone applications designed to inhibit this impulsive behavior. Recently there has been a wave of innovation in cell phone apps that can be downloaded onto phones which block the phone’s sending and receiving of messages and phone calls while the owner is driving. This is achieved in two primary ways, one in which the owner manually turns the app on when he/she gets into the car. In the other case, once the app is installed on the phone, it works to lock the phone down once the GPS function on the phone recognizes that it is moving faster than 15 mph. There are safety mechanisms built into these apps where certain pre-programmed phone numbers can be used while the app is working such a 911 and other emergency contact numbers (19). If the owner of the phone does receive a text or call while driving, usually a preprogrammed message is sent in response to inform the sender that the receiver is driving and temporarily cannot be reached. This function of the app could be valuable in developing further as it feeds into the teens desire to keep in touch with friends and establish a strong sense of social belonging. If the intervention website could present links to current apps available, that would be a start, but even better the campaign could develop an app in connection with social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter. By encouraging social posting of safe texting habits while driving, this could promote similar behavior on other young adults through the premise of the Social Networking Theory.

In Social Networking Theory, studies have shown that behavior and values appear to spread through social networks of friends and family (20). This would prove to be very valuable in trying to change of mindset on texting and driving in teens since teens rely heavily on their social circles. The peer-to-peer interactions appear to be the motive in the act of texting according to research on the motivation to text (21). This idea is further strengthened through the work done at the University of Kansas on teen texting while driving motivations. In this study teens rated the highest reason for texting while driving as to receive status updates (14). There is definitely a strong underlying thread of social networking occurring in this issue of texting while driving and it will be extremely valuable to include this in the intervention.

One of the more challenging issues that needs to be addressed in the campaign is the optimistic bias that many teenagers hold about their perceived “at risks” status involving the dangers of texting and driving. One way to address this misconceived notion of risk that would strengthen this campaign is to include very personal stories of teenagers that have been killed or involved in accidents while texting. Through this approach the teenagers are able to understand more realistically the risks. The story is told through the eyes of someone that they can directly relate to and at the same time, it is deeply emotional and personal.

Another texting while driving campaign that effectively addresses this optimistic bias using this technique is a campaign sponsored by AT&T called “Texting Can Wait.” Through this campaign they have produced a video called “the Last Text” which tells the stories of those killed and injured while texting and driving. In order to ground the message even more, each segment of the video begins and ends with a shot of the last text that was sent or received by the person that was involved in the accident (22). This video does an excellent job of making the viewer question and weigh the risk of sending something so unimportant with the consequences seen in these lives that are forever changed. Having this element included in the “Stop the Text. Stop the Wrecks” intervention would cause teenagers to pause and rethink the real risks that are involved in texting and driving.

Finally the last major modification that would help to strengthen “Stop the Texts. Stop the Wrecks” campaign is the minimization of teenagers threatened freedom. The most effective way to go about restoring this freedom is to reframe the messages that are being presented in the campaign towards a more positive tone that restores control of the choice to text while driving back to the teenager. This idea utilizes the ideas in a model call the Illusion of Control in which choice plays an important role in making someone feel confident and in control of the outcome (23). By using phrasing on the website which empowers teenagers to make a choice to not text, as opposed to simply obeying orders, the threat of authority can be easily minimized. By using statement such as “You Have the Choice to Decide” and “Changing One Person at a Time Can Create a Movement” put the decision in the hands of the teenage and make them feel like their action are larger than themselves or part of a movement.


Texting is a very prevalent behavior in the young adult group that this intervention “Stop the Texts. Stop the Wrecks.” is geared towards. In a survey done by Vlingo Corporation in 2009, 78% of teenagers surveyed reported that they texted more than they made call on their phones, sending on average over 500 texts per month (24). With the advancement of technology the number of text messages and the number of cell phones is only going to continue to grow. This makes the success of public health interventions such as “Stop the Texts. Stop the Wrecks.” extremely important. If teenage mindsets and behaviors can be changed now, hopefully these attitudes and effective behaviors can become ingrained in society to make for a safer future for teenagers behind the wheel.


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