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Drivers Who Text Behind the Wheel May Not Know What They are Doing

Texting and driving is one of the most dangerous behaviors you can engage in these days. In 2010, a total of 3092 people were killed in accidents that involved a distracted driver.  An additional 416,000 were injured in distracted driving crashes.

A new study from the University of Michigan suggests that many drivers may not be aware of their actions. Researchers found that a person’s level of habit is an excellent predictor of texting while driving behavior, in fact a better predictor than how much they actually text.

According to the researchers, when people check their phones on a regular basis, without giving it any thought, it represents an automatic behavior. This is called automaticity. This was the key variable during the study and it was often triggered by situational prompts. Automaticity happens without awareness, attention, intention or control.

In simpler terms, this means that some people feel automatically compelled to read, respond to, and check for new messages, in many cases they might not even realize they are doing all of this while driving.

This was a first of its kind study, identifying how unconscious thought can effect driving and texting. It differs from other research that only looked at the effect of texting and driving. The study looks at the role that habit plays in texting and driving instead of simply figuring out how often it happens.

Experts believe that while knowing how often people text is important, understanding the behavior behind texting and driving and how they process it is important as well.

According to the authors of the study, a texting cue might be a new message symbol, a vibration or even an internal alarm clock that prompts them to check their phone. When it comes to habitual behavior, cues become so automatic that a person may respond without even meaning to do so.

The study used several hundred undergrad students. These students responded to a questionnaire which asked about their perceptions and usage of mobile communication technology. They were questioned about their frequency of texting, as well as automaticity, in addition to their opinions and attitudes about texting and driving.

The study found that automatic tendencies are a significant predictor of how often people will both read and send texts while driving, even when taking into account their attitudes about texting and driving. Even those that have a negative opinion of texting and driving will engage in texting behind the wheel if they have high automatic tendencies. 

The authors hope that the results may help find a solution to the problem of texting and driving. Controlling or at least drawing attention to automaticity and identifying triggers that prompt users to reach for their phones could help prevent texting while driving.

While the results are exciting, more studies need to be done to measure the results across various age groups instead of just young adults.


A new study has found that automaticity plays a big part in texting while driving.