Deadly Addictions

NTSB Board Member Robert Sumwalt moderates roundtable on “Disconnect from Deadly Distractions,” held at the NTSB Boardroom and Conference Center.
NTSB Board Member Robert Sumwalt moderates roundtable on “Disconnect from Deadly Distractions,” held at the NTSB Boardroom and Conference Center.

By Robert Sumwalt

At the NTSB’s March 31 Roundtable — Disconnect from Deadly Distractions — an interesting discussion emerged about the “addictive” nature of staying connected through our personal electronic devices (PEDs). “There is nothing more interesting to the human brain than other people,” stated Dr. Paul Atchley. He explained that dopamine is one of the brain’s reward chemicals that produces positive feelings and sensations. “There is nothing more rewarding than the opportunity to talk to someone else,” said Dr. Atchley. Because connecting with others produces a release of dopamine into the brain’s midsection, it is very difficult for us to ignore the urge to connect with others.

Andrea Brands of AT&T followed-up on that point by mentioning a survey the company conducted last year through Dr. David Greenfield, founder of The Center for Internet and Technology Addiction. They found that 74% of the 1004 people surveyed admitted to engaging in texting or checking social media while driving. A large percentage of the survey respondents rationalized that behavior even though they knew it was dangerous — a true sign of addictive behavior, said Ms. Brands.

Dr. Greenfield stated in a November 2014 interview, “We compulsively check our phones because every time we get an update through text, email or social media, we experience an elevation of dopamine, which is a neurochemical in the brain that makes us feel happy. If that desire for a dopamine fix leads us to check our phones while we’re driving, a simple text can turn deadly.”

Whether we call it addictive, compulsive, or just a habit, the fact remains that using a PED while operating any vehicle is dangerous business. It can be deadly.

Nowhere was this fact more apparent than in the NTSB’s investigation of the August 5, 2010, multi-vehicle crash near Gray Summit, Missouri. In this accident, a 19-year-old pickup truck driver slammed into the back of a stopped tractor trailer, setting up a chain reaction crash involving two school buses following behind. In the thirteen minutes immediately before the crash, the 19-year-old driver sent and received 11 text messages on his phone. The tragic result of his choice to drive distracted was the loss not only of his own life, but also the life of a 15-year-old student aboard one of the buses.

The NTSB is very concerned with distractions in all modes of transportation. Please, give yourself the permission to disconnect from deadly distractions. Break the addiction, and save lives.

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