Personality Profiles of Drivers Who Get Distracted by Their Phones

New research on what influences people to take risks behind the wheel.

Posted Sep 06, 2020

It is abundantly clear that using a smartphone while driving is dangerous. When you call, text, check your favorite feed, check a game, listen to voicemail, or fumble for your phone, delayed reaction time and distraction lead to inadvertent lane changes, tailgating, and increased risk of collision.

Distracted driving

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) notes that we take our eyes off the road for 5 seconds when we text—during which time the vehicle under our control travels the length of a football field. 

The FCC reports that distracted driving is involved in over 9 percent of fatal accidents, and that 25 percent of accidents are associated with texting while driving. Smartphone use while driving is associated with approximately 400,000 injuries and 1.6 million crashes per year. According to the NHTSA, there were over 2800 fatalities in 2018, with 23,000 deaths between 2012 and 2019 in which distracted drivers were involved. These numbers approach the magnitude of deaths from drunk driving, which claims 10,000 lives each year.

An irresistible urge?

What causes people to use smartphones while driving? Authors Maier, Mattke, Pflügner, and Weitzel (2020) note that personality traits are a critical, under-researched contributing factor.

State of mind, they note, plays a role—relating to personality. Are we easily bored, seeking novelty? Do we yearn for social connection? Do we need to wrap up the details of a project or reply to a work email, pronto? Research suggests that Big Five personality traits (OCEAN: Openness to experience, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism) correlate with how people use information technology.

Personality plays a role in how we prioritize, determine risk-benefit, deal with delayed gratification, and ultimately how we make key decisions. Drivers use smartphones “intuitively, impulsively, and automatically." It’s reflexive, given our smartphone and internet dependencies. When the traffic is slow or stopped, if we’re bored, if we can’t stop thinking about work, stealing a moment on the phone provides relief, and we don't give much thought to the consequences.

Personality profiles and distracted driving

Researchers recruited 273 survey participants from the ADAC (the German equivalent of the Automobile Association of America). Participants completed measures of Big Five personality traits, demographic variables (age, gender, educational level, etc.) and frequency of various smartphone uses including calling, texting, checking and leaving voicemails, and so on. 

The analysis showed three distinct and statistically-independent personality profiles. While agreeableness was a common factor across profiles, no specific trait was sufficient to predict driver smartphone use—it is the mix of personality traits which, via different pathways, leads to driving while using a smartphone. Researchers followed-up and asked participants from each group what they thought might help them stop using smartphones while driving, anticipating that tailoring interventions to personality could be more effective.

Three Personality Profiles

Non-Neurotic Driver. This profile was high on both agreeableness and openness to new experience, low on neuroticism and conscientiousness, and neutral on extroversion. Less focused on risk and less diligent, while more interested in novelty and pleasing others (e.g. by returning a text), they are likelier to feel safe checking their phone and be motivated to do so.

Non-neurotic drivers said that better education about risks of smartphone use (e.g. in driving school) and simulations showing how smartphone use negatively impacts driving would decrease smartphone use. Law enforcement efforts, they said, including penalties, fines and license suspensions, might deter them.

Extraverted-Open Driver. This group was high on extroversion, agreeableness, and openness, low on conscientiousness, and neutral on neuroticism. Being more social, wanting to please others, and seeking new experiences, augmented by lower diligence, made them more likely to use smartphones without risk assessment coming into play.

Drivers in this group said that they were distracted by having a lot on their minds while driving. Tools helping self-organization would potentially keep them off their phones. They also suggested that technology enabling hand-free smartphone use, such as vehicle-based computer links, would reduce distraction.

Conscientious Driver. This profile had high conscientiousness and neuroticism scores, along with increased agreeableness and extroversion, with low openness to new experience. While sharing some characteristics with other profiles, they were motivated by scrupulousness, wanting to finish tasks and reply to messages, augmented by neurotic concerns, leading them to finish up tasks using smartphones while driving. 

These drivers reported that greater awareness of risk would deter them, for example roadside warning signs. Such reminders could tap into both conscientiousness (to be a good driver) and risk-awareness from neuroticism to help them make more conscious decisions in weighing the perceived benefit of phone use against the actual risk from distraction. Police stops also appealed to people fitting this profile.

Interestingly, demographics did not play a significant role. Although young drivers are more likely to text and drive, and have more accidents in general, when it comes to personality profiles these factors were not significant.

Safety first

Public programs appear to be reducing the risk of distracted driving, but with smartphone use on the rise, we would be wise to learn from experience with driving under the influence and stay ahead of the curve of distracted driving.

While effective preventive measures are in place, including intelligent vehicle systems which link to phones, roadside warnings, and law-enforcement efforts, ongoing research is needed to refine our understanding of why people continue to engage in risky behaviors which endanger themselves and others—notably the role of personality traits.

Individuals who use smartphones while driving may recognize themselves in one of the three profiles, though all would be expected to share the trait of agreeableness even if it alone is not sufficient to predict distracted driving. Insight into how one’s personality may contribute, in turn, may help people lower their own risk of distracted driving, improving decision-making by modifying impulsivity and changing habits.

More and more, we are hooked on our phones. They open up a portal into a dizzying and ever-expanding cyberverse. Phones connect us with work, social groups, the internet, and an array of neuromarketing-driven apps and games, potentially addictive, even to the extent of replacing real relationships. To reduce the hazards, the NHTSA suggests having a “designated texter," developing safe routines like stopping at a rest area to use the phone, and if all else fails, locking it up in the trunk.

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