Why drivers use their phones: A cognitive expert weighs in

“They can’t put down the phone, or they can’t not look at it,” said Dr. David Strayer, a distracted-driving researcher. “And in the context of trying to drive — it’s just a really dangerous combination.”

Eyes off the road, head down texting, vehicle swerving — no one wants to be that driver.

Research has shown that taking eyes off the road for a few seconds or multitasking are as dangerous as driving drunk. Officials say it causes thousands of fatal motor-vehicle crashes annually. Lawmakers over years have responded to the issue with sweeping policy changes across the country, including Washington, where lawmakers are considering proposals to toughen the state’s distracted-driving laws.

So, why do drivers still impulsively reach for their phones?

According to Dr. David Strayer, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Utah whose research on distracted driving has informed people globally, the answer is simple: dopaminergic neurotransmitters. (Or, for nonscientists, chemicals in the brain that signal other parts of the brain to act.)

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“When the phone goes off, people feel compelled to look at that phone. They feel compelled because it’s actually a part of their social network that’s reaching out to them,” he said. “It’s triggering some of the dopaminergic neurotransmitter systems that are associated with reward.”

Dr. Barbara Jennings, of Sandia…

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