You’re driving down I-10, heading home after a long day. Suddenly, you hear that familiar ping—your phone alerting you to a new text, email or other notification. Your hands are fixed on the wheel, but your brain begins to churn as you wonder what it could mean.

Did one of your Facebook followers like your latest post? (It was pretty funny!) Is your babysitter writing to tell you your kid has a fever? The temptation builds, and pretty soon, you find yourself reaching over to pick up your phone.

It may sound stupid. We may know intellectually that it’s unsafe. But many people still succumb to temptation. Why? Researchers say it’s partly our brain chemistry.

How our brains work

Our smartphones have trained us to associate an alert on our phone with a reward of some kind—perhaps a message from a friend or an invitation to a party. As with Pavlov’s dog, hearing a cellphone ping triggers a reflexive reaction in our limbic system: a shot of dopamine that activates our reward center, as we expect something positive to happen.

Dopamine enhances our feelings of arousal and anticipation. It also impairs activities in our prefrontal cortex—the part of the brain in charge of planning and decision making. This impairs our judgement—making us far more likely to look at our phone while driving.

Ramifications

In previous posts, we have discussed New Mexico’s distracted driving laws—which make it illegal to view or send any text-based message while driving. We have also discussed New Mexico’s comparative negligence law, which states that if another driver causes an accident with you—but you were checking your phone at the time—you may lose significant compensation for your damages because you were partially at fault for the crash.

The solution

We can’t control the limbic reactions in our brain. Therefore, the best way to avoid smartphone distraction on the road is to keep your phone turned off—or on silent—whenever you’re behind the wheel. You’ll be better able to focus on driving, which is beneficial for everyone on the road.