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Anticipation a key in link between cell phone use, vehicle crashes

Stephen O’Connor hopes researchers and automobile manufacturers can soon discuss ways to help drivers overcome compulsive cell phone use while driving, which he says is riskier that drinking and driving.

Dr. Stephen O'Connor

Dr. Stephen O’Connor, assistant professor of psychology at WKU, is continuing his research linking compulsive cell phone use and motor vehicle crashes. (WKU photo by Bryan Lemon)

Dr. O’Connor, assistant professor of psychology at WKU, is continuing his research linking compulsive cell phone use and motor vehicle crashes. While a link is not that surprising, the reason may not be what most people think.

“We found that compulsive cell phone use has different dimensions to it,” Dr. O’Connor said. Research using about 400 undergraduate students that started while he was at the University of Washington in Seattle pointed to four domains: anticipation of an incoming message, activity interference, emotional reaction and problem recognition.

“We found that anticipation of an incoming cell phone call was really most associated with a history of motor vehicle crashes,” he said. “For each increase (in the subscale score) in anticipation of an incoming cell phone call, the likelihood of having a previous motor vehicle accident increased by 13 percent.”

Dr. O’Connor said they discovered that the anticipation domain was also associated with the character trait of persistence in following through with tasks.

“Usually when people are impulsive, they have a low rate of persistence; they kind of jump around from one thing to the next,” he said. “But what we found was just the opposite for anticipation in that people felt more of a desire to close the loop. It could be a work-related task. It could be a family relationship. Whatever it is, we thought it was interesting because that might explain why someone who wouldn’t ordinarily take risks, make a decision in a split second in the car while driving.”

The reason people who are anticipating a communication through their phone—a call, text or email—report more accidents may be cognitive overload that keeps their minds from focusing on driving.

“Is it that you are merely thinking about the phone call and because your mind is somewhere else, you’re not paying attention to the road? Or is it that you’re anticipating, then you’re taking your eyes off and you’re looking down at your phone or you’re checking it somehow, so that might be what’s putting you at greater risk?” he asked, adding it might be a combination of both.

Either way, current attempts to curb compulsive cell phone use through legislation are not that effective, with most people trying not to get caught, he said.

“I think it is really difficult because cell phone use is a socially-sanctioned behavior, except when you get into a car,” Dr. O’Connor said. “And when you get into a car, all of a sudden you have to make a decision not to use the cell phone, even though people are calling you and you are thinking of things that remind you of issues you haven’t taken care of and you can use your cell phone to address those issues.”

Researchers say the urge to check our phones is more of a compulsion than an addiction. When we’re not connected, we begin to feel anxious. However, if we can overcome that initial wave of anxiety, it eases with time, Dr. O’Connor said.

A second dimension, emotional reaction to the message, will be the next focus of Dr. O’Connor’s research. He hopes to begin that research with Lindsey Shain of Coxs Creek, a student in the Gatton Academy of Mathematics and Science at WKU, in the next few months.

Collaborating with his colleagues at the University of Washington, Dr. O’Connor plans to fine tune the Cell Phone Overuse Scale, which he adapted from a researcher in Spain during the first study. Results of that study will be published in the Journal of Adolescent Health.

After the upcoming replication study, he would like to collaborate on research utilizing computer simulated driving experiences to determine how different messages elicit different emotions that change risk-taking behavior.

Ultimately, Dr. O’Connor hopes the research will help automobile manufacturers find ways to reduce the risky behavior. Those could be as simple as reminders on the dash to put their phones in the trunk or to encourage people to use software that prevents incoming messages when their phone’s GPS indicates they are traveling about a certain speed.

“I don’t think anybody would say that you need to get rid of some of the technological breakthroughs that we’ve had because they bolster productivity and quality of life,” he said.  “We want to be able to have a dialogue with car manufacturers so that they make evidence-based decisions about the types of technology they include.”

About Dr. Stephen O’Connor: Dr. O’Connor joined WKU in the fall of 2013 as an assistant professor in clinical psychology. After graduating from the University of Tennessee, he spent a year as a Jesuit volunteer in Seattle working with schizophrenia patients living in a group home, then spent two years conducting research at the University of Washington on treatments for borderline personality disorders in people who were suicidal. His graduate study at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., focused on suicide prevention. He then did an internship in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Washington and a two-year post-doctoral fellowship at Harborview Injury Prevention and Research Center at UW, followed by a year as faculty in the University of Washington School of Medicine.

Contact: Stephen O’Connor, (270) 745-4328.

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