Managing phone use while driving: will switching to silent mode suffice?

Managing phone use while driving: will switching to silent mode suffice?

Phone use while driving is a growing problem. The Dutch government recently launched a campaign in which it urges drivers to switch their phones to silent mode when they get behind the wheel. Will this campaign prove effective? And why (or why not)?

Mobile phone use while driving impairs driving performance. It distracts attention from driving and results in delays in reaction times, reduced following distances, and a dramatic increase in the chance of being involved in an accident. While awareness of the risks of phone use while driving has increased in recent years, drivers continue to use their phones in their cars. This suggests that intervention campaigns aimed at raising awareness about the risks of phone use while driving will not in themselves solve the problem. So what will work? The Dutch government recently launched the “ONderweg ben ik OFFline” campaign, i.e., ON the road, I’m OFFline. This campaign informs drivers that phone use while driving is dangerous and urges them to switch their phones to silent mode when they get behind the wheel. In this way drivers will be “offline” while driving and will no longer be distracted by any sounds or message alerts from their phones. Will this campaign prove effective? And why (or why not)?

Reasons for mobile phone use

Research on reasons for owning and using a mobile phone has shown that mobile phones tap into different needs that people have. Mobile phones offer social rewards and fulfill social needs, as they enable us to keep in touch with our friends and loved ones. Mobile phones, and in particular smart phones, also fulfill informational needs. They are convenient as they enable us to look up and share information any time, any place. For instance, drivers may use their phones to check whether there are traffic jams or whether the person they agreed to pick up at the train station is still on schedule. Mobile phones may further reduce uncertainty and increase perceived safety (“if anything happens you can call someone”) and can offer entertainment whenever we feel bored or alone. Mobile phone use thus offers many potential benefits and rewards, which in part explains why people use their phones while driving.

Phone use is not always a conscious choice, though; it has also become a habit. As we wait for the train of if we arrive early for a business meeting, the first thing many of us will do is check our phones for new messages or news updates. These instances of more-or-less automatic phone use can be activated by internal and external triggers. Examples of internal triggers include our internal checking clock (the habit of checking our phones every couple of minutes) and/or a lack of self control. External triggers can be phone vibrations, visual alerts, or the sound of incoming messages. Even if people believe and know that mobile phone use while driving is dangerous, they may automatically pick up their phone while driving in response to internal or external cues.

Finally, what relevant others expect of us (i.e., social influence, social norms), also influences our mobile phone use. So if your boss or spouse expects you to be available and answer your phone at any time, this is probably something you will adhere to even while driving your car.

Switching to silent mode as a solution?

The “ONderweg ben ik OFFline” campaign by the Dutch government addresses different potential determining factors of phone use while driving. In this sense, the campaign may prove effective. First, it informs people about the risks of mobile phone use while driving, raising awareness of the problem. Second, it demonstrates the desired behavior: drivers switching their phones to silent mode when getting behind the wheel and how to do this easily. Third, the campaign addresses the social influence component of phone use, by showing that it is okay and socially acceptable to not always be available. Fourth, the campaign is framed in such a way that switching to silent mode is presented as something positive, a gain even, as it means getting some quiet time when you are not plagued and overloaded by incoming messages and your own checking behavior. Finally, regarding the proposed intervention (desired behavior) itself, switching the phone to silent mode somewhat limits people’s exposure to distracting and triggering auditory cues and in that sense may improve safety. However, in today’s online society, it is estimated that by 2020 70% of the world’s population will be using smart phones. Messaging and the exchange of information increasingly takes place via mobile internet. Because of this, switching phones to silent mode alone may not prove sufficient. We argue that a more effective measure to reduce phone use while driving would be an “ONderweg ben ik OFFline” campaign that introduces and promotes the use of a “car mode”, in which not only are sounds made mute, but the mobile internet on phones is entirely switched off. In this way, drivers will be truly “OFFline” and can keep their eyes fully ON the road