Distracted Driving Is a Symptom of Our Dangerous Addiction to Garbage

The narcotic appeal of low-calorie information and entertainment is making us so stupid we're killing ourselves by the thousands.

Getty Images / Mallory Short / The Drive

When I left New York City at the tail end of 2008, the rules of NYC pedestrianism were clear, rigorously enforced, and mirrored the essential protocols of highway commuting: no rubbernecking or sudden stops; maintain the flow of traffic at all costs; passing maneuvers into oncoming traffic are undertaken at your own risk. Tourists, with their swivelheads and lumbering, three-abreast barricade formations, were easy to spot precisely because they were so hard to avoid. 

When I returned in 2015, the once-disciplined New York sidewalk culture had disintegrated entirely. Even hardened New Yorkers now shamble and swerve in an oblivious meander, expecting the world to resolve itself around them like unsupervised children wandering through a mall. That seven-year deterioration, of course, coincided perfectly with the proliferation and evolution of the smartphone.

I point this out because the problem is as bad but far more dangerous on the roads, and for the same reason. Last month, a study by driving analytics firm Zendrive found that drivers use their phones behind the wheel all the goddamn time, scientifically speaking: In a sample of 5.6 billion miles driven by some three million motor vehicle operators, the report found that drivers use their phones during 88 percent of trips, with an average engagement time of 3.5 minutes per hour. (At 55 mph, five seconds of distraction equates to 100 yards travelled without eyes on the road; although the study tracked all driving behavior, if one assumes for the sake of argument this was all highway driving at that speed, that adds up to 2.4 miles driven functionally blind per driver, per hour. Sleep tight!)

Human beings have a hard time self-regulating when a given commodity moves too quickly from scarcity to plenty. When sugar was introduced to Elizabethan England, some wealthy people who could afford the new delicacy (reportedly including Queen Elizabeth) ate it until their teeth rotted black. Over the past few decades, fast food and the over-processed garbage disguised as food have helped make obesity, coronary heart disease, and diabetes epidemic in this country. 

We're currently facing a similar situation with information and entertainment. Information, like food, used to be time-consuming and expensive to produce and logistically challenging to distribute—print magazines, for instance, or deeply-reported TV segments—but is now far simpler to create and disseminate in ever-cheaper, ever-faster versions that lack the benefit of quality control, oversight, or critical evaluation. These information-like products proliferate to feed the one-stop shop sitting in your pocket: the modern smartphone, which can deliver anything from the New York Times to Netflix to an NFL game (or its Madden equivalent).

And we are absolutely shoveling it in, all the time, thanks to that phone. Like a slot machine, a smartphone delivers regular but randomized stimuli—texts, updates, calls, alerts, reminders, and notifications, games, videos, social media—with pleasing flashes and noises. Even the shape itself is meticulously designed to feel good in your hand. The people behind those phones, and those creating the content optimized to be displayed there, are far from stupid, and they have created a remarkably persuasive product: In 2015, Americans checked their phones over 8 billion times per day, and most reports say the average American spends over four hours on the phone daily. Distracted driving, it seems, is just one symptom of our rampant addiction to nutritiously-empty information and entertainment (GIFs! Memes! Snapchat filters! Facebook updates! Instagram Stories!), and like the double-amputee who keeps plowing Big Macs into his food-hole, we don't stop—even while piloting massive, multi-ton metal missiles at scary speeds, despite the fact the habit kills thousands of us every year

Long-term, I wonder if a steady diet of "fast food" information might have some damaging effect on mental faculties—a sort of diabetes of the brain—and that the anger and vitriol that defines the modern internet may be a symptom. My friend Daniel Wetmore, a neuroscientist with some interesting work in pulsed transdermal electric neuromodulation under his belt, told me that fake news (that is, provably false information presented as objective fact, as opposed to the Trumpist definition of "facts with which I disagree") feeds "the same reward circuitry as soda and fast food." He notes that "in-group 'bubbles' of media that confirm our expectations, combined with reading an 'unexpected' [i.e. new] article or comment that fits with our beliefs, would activate dopamine circuits strongly." (Based on anecdotal evidence, I assume something like Candy Crush delivers the narcotic effect of heroin.)

Automakers and some technology companies are trying to lead the charge against distracted driving, but I never trust the industries that create and enable a problem to be the ones to fix it, mostly because I was around when Olestra was all the rage. Remember Olestra? Marketed as Olean, it was a food additive popularized in the late 90s when any and all fat was considered the nutritional equivalent of antifreeze. Olean let the Kellogg's and Nabiscos of the world market chips and cookies as "fat free," with no downside unless you consider greasy anal leakage to be a bad thing, but what a small price to pay! Of course, not everyone saw it so sarcastically; my freshman year of college, I watched a classmate take down a family-sized bag of Olean-laced potato chips over the course of an evening. 

"Can you believe it?" she asked through gunky lips, beaming with ecstatic wonder. "I can eat this whole bag and it's like I didn't have any food whatsoever!"

Everyone is dumb in their own special way, but people desperate to believe they can indulge their worst impulses without consequence are the most dangerously stupid creatures to walk God's green earth.

Thankfully, there's a remarkably easy fix: put the goddamn phone in your pocket and leave it there. Like switching from fast food to literally any other type of (actual) food, it's only uncomfortable until the addiction to the initial rush of cheap pleasure is broken. I've proposed that simple solution to otherwise responsible adults who nonetheless regard phone use while driving as some sort of guilty pleasure rather than what it actually is: malevolently stupid and negligently dangerous. The overwhelming counter-argument is some version of, "But it's so hard and I always forget to do it!"—which is the same excuse people use for not flossing, except instead of poor gum health, the downside with distracted driving is the possibility that you brutally kill someone

But, hey, it's Good-Mood Food!