Could Your Phone Wreck Your Day?

texting and driving

Figure 1

Elizabeth Brannon, Period 1, Honorbound

Technology plays an essential role in our everyday lives, but often distracts us from more important tasks at hand. We gain utility through our constant communication with friends and family via our phones, leading to an overall happier society. However, misjudgments on the appropriate time to use our phones can have fatal consequences. Although car safety technology has been advancing at an unprecedented rate, so has the number of fatalities from distracted driving. During 2016, an estimated 40,200 people died in car crashes, often because the driver was distracted. [1]

Why do so many people text and drive when these are the results?

A simple answer is that people think they are good enough multi-taskers that texting will not affect their driving, and that it is unlikely they will cause an accident from doing so. [2] However, a deeper look into the economics of the situation reveals that they are simply trying to maximize their utility through the use of their phones. Surveys show that many drivers feel “anxious” or “unsatisfied” while on the road if they know they have unanswered messages. [2] According to the principles of economics, the people believe that they will derive more utility from answering these messages while driving than from responding after reaching their destination. What these people don’t know is, on average, it takes only 3 seconds for a distracted driver to cause an accident. [3] If they had considered the bigger picture before texting, they would have realized that the utility gained from those few seconds of relief after sending the message is minimal compared to the utility they could have gained from meeting friends, being home from work, or arriving wherever they intended.

Most people probably view turning their phone off as an opportunity cost because they forego the instantaneous gratification of seeing a text from their friend or a comment on their post. [4] As a driver, it is hard to focus on the road when there are “important” messages waiting on one’s phone. At this point, individuals should consider the externalities of the decision they are about the make: to look at the phone or not. While driving, the social cost of looking at one’s phone is much greater than the personal cost because everyone on the road is affected by someone’s dangerous driving. [5] These negative externalities impact non-texting drivers just as much as ones who do text: recent studies on driving habits reveal that 2016 auto insurance premiums rose as much as 15% in some parts of the country due to the increase in accidents from distracted driving. [6]

What is the best way to solve this problem?

Some activities with negative externalities, like smoking, are best dealt with through a tax, which limits the number of people who continue to do it, but does not completely eliminate the activity. [7] Although smoking is dangerous for more than just the people who partake in it, those who are not involved benefit by not having to pay for the Social Security of smokers, who often die at a younger age. Texting and driving, however, has no such benefits for outsiders. The accidents caused by distracted drivers only increase the social and financial costs of others. The best way to protect drivers from this dangerous habit is banning it altogether.


[1] Tuttle, Brad. “People Who Text and Drive Are Jacking Up Your Insurance Premiums.” Money. March 20, 2017. Accessed June 18, 2017. http://time.com/money/4706657/auto-insurance-rates-distracted-driving-smartphones/.

[2] AP. “Why so many people text and drive, knowing dangers.” CBS News. November 05, 2014. Accessed June 18, 2017. http://www.cbsnews.com/news/why-so-many-people-text-and-drive-knowing-dangers/.

[3] “Statistics.” Don’t Text & Drive. 2011. Accessed June 18, 2017. http://www.donttextdrive.com/statistics/.

[4] Wheelan, Charles. Naked Economics: Undressing the Dismal Science. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2010, 11.

[5] Wheelan, Charles. Naked Economics: Undressing the Dismal Science. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2010, 56.

[6] Tuttle, Brad. “People Who Text and Drive Are Jacking Up Your Insurance Premiums.” Money. March 20, 2017. Accessed June 18, 2017. http://time.com/money/4706657/auto-insurance-rates-distracted-driving-smartphones/.

[7] Wheelan, Charles. Naked Economics: Undressing the Dismal Science. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2010, 61-62.

[Figure 1] Stambler, Deborah. “Texting and Driving: We All Have to Do Better.” Mom.me. April 01, 2015. Accessed June 18, 2017. https://mom.me/lifestyle/18693-texting-and-driving/.

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