The data is in, I’m a distracted driver.

Image source

Anti-texting sign in Nashville, TN (Image source)

I have a confession to make, and it’s not easy. I’ve been driving like a jerk. I just found out and I feel horrible about it.

I don’t speed. I don’t tailgate. I don’t run red lights. At least, not that I’m aware of. The problem is I’m distracted by my phone… a lot…  and I didn’t realize just how bad it is until I analyzed some data about myself. I wanted to believe the data was wrong, but after triple-checking and turning the data over numerous ways, it was clear.

23% of the time I’m in my car I’m doing something on my phone.

How I figured it out.

RescueTime’s Android app gives me a record of the time I spend doing things on my phone, and I had recently been working on an integration with Automatic (a mobile app and device that plugs into a car’s diagnostic port and gives data about driving time). I was hoping to find some interesting stats showing how the time I spent driving compared to my time on the computer (“do I spend more time driving or doing software development?”, for example).

It occurred to me that I could also cross-reference the time I spent in the car with my other activities to see if there was any overlap. This would show me the time I spent doing things on my phone while my car was running. I knew that I occasionally check my phone while at a stoplight, and I sometimes make calls when I’m behind the wheel (hands-free through my car’s bluetooth, of course). But I figured that time was minimal, and looking at the data should validate that. At worst, I thought I’d see something that I could use to humblebrag about how, while I might not be perfect, I was certainly a hell of a lot better about it than the people I have a habit of judging mercilessly whenever they weave into my lane while obviously doing something on their phone (an unfortunately common thing in my neighborhood).

Snapshot: Driving time vs time doing something other than driving.

Snapshot: one day’s driving time vs time doing something else, while driving.

I was totally unprepared for the results I saw. It looked really bad. My immediate reaction was that my math was wrong, or that some bug that was over-reporting my time. But it certainly couldn’t be correct, could it? After some more analysis I was able to find a couple patterns that I could legitimately exclude (I tend to spend a minute or so futzing with my music app at the very beginning of trips looking for a song I want to listen to, for example). Maybe it wouldn’t end up being that bad.

After multiple passes through the numbers looking for false positives, I still ended up with 23% of my time for the month of April was distracted. Nearly a quarter of the time my car’s ignition is on, I’m doing something on my phone. There’s still SOME noise in there that’s impossible to untangle with the data I have (time spent at stop lights, trips where I’m actually a passenger in the car, etc), but the overall numbers are uncomfortably high.

Some of the things that just couldn’t wait until I was done driving. Ugh, there’s even a website called “distractify” on there.

Some of the things that just couldn’t wait until I was done driving. Ugh, there’s even a website called “distractify” on there.

It’s dangerous, and embarrassingly hypocritical

Bouncing back and forth between all those different activities puts me in a state where I’m paying less attention to everything, and when one of those activities is operating a moving vehicle, that can be really bad. Driving while texting is equivalent to driving after drinking four beers, and distracted driving is responsible for upwards of 25% of all accidents in the United States. As much as I don’t want to admit it, I’ve been putting people around me at risk, needlessly.

That realization stings extra because it’s something I already agreed was a problem… when other people do it. As a pedestrian, I’ve dodged my share of distracted drivers and I’m rarely shy about letting them know exactly how I feel about it. I’ve had numerous conversations with friends about how “drivers around here are just the worst! None of them can keep their dumb jerk eyes on the road!” Oof. I’m surprised by the disconnect. Why did it never occur to me that I’m doing the thing that I get mad at others for doing? Maybe it’s that checking my phone has become an unconscious habit and I’m not even aware of it, like this 2012 study discovered? Or perhaps I just assume the things I do on my phone are ok, because of course they’ll just take a couple of seconds and won’t add up to much. Obviously, there are some flaws with that thinking, as it only takes a couple of seconds for something to go terribly wrong. But the more glaring issue here is that it’s clearly rarely “just a couple seconds.” 

So what now? How do I fix this?

It feels really bad to learn something like this, but there is a silver lining here. I was able to discover this about myself by looking at rows on a spreadsheet, rather than after crashing into something (or someone). I feel lucky, and hope it will be a wake up call. Now I can take action to change my behavior. Even better, I have metrics I can use to prove to myself I’ve changed. Here are a few things I’m doing to respond to it.

I turned off non-essential notifications on my phone

Push notifications are one of the most sure-fire ways to take me out of the moment and pull my attention elsewhere. I really don’t like them when I’m working, and do my best to silence them. But it’s easy for me to convince myself that I need them, or I’ll miss something important. Really though, there’s very little real benefit to 90% of the beeps and buzzes that come out of my phone. I’ve gone through all my apps and turned off all notifications except for things that are actually really important. This will also help me at work, when the notifications will pull me away when I’m trying to concentrate on something.

I’m trying to drive less

This might not be the most practical choice (especially since I moved to the suburbs a few months ago), but the easiest way to combat my fidgety nature while driving is simply to remove the car from the equation altogether. I’m trying to walk more (where having my head buried in my phone can still be dangerous, but much less so), or ride a bike, where my hands are occupied.

I’m talking to people about it

To be perfectly honest, I don’t really have much to compare my data to. I have no clue if I’m an extreme outlier here or not. Rather than keep it all in my head, I’m telling people about what I’ve learned, and hoping that I can get some better context around it. I’ve also built some reporting into RescueTime so others can look at similar data for themselves. I hope that with more people having a data-driven conversation, we can all start to come up with smarter ways of dealing with it.

If you’re interested in tracking this data about yourself, all you need is a RescueTime account (the free one will work just fine), an Android phone with the RescueTime app installed, and an Automatic Adapter (which costs $100, but you can get 20% off with this link).

Don’t judge me too harshly, ok? Please?

This was sort of a hard post to write (“Hey! Look at me! I’m awful!” posts generally are), but hopefully it helps people be a little more thoughtful about their time behind the wheel. If you have any thoughts or experiences with your own driving time, please feel free to share in the comments.


13 Comments on “The data is in, I’m a distracted driver.”

  1. Linden says:

    As a person without a license (by choice), distracted drivers terrify me. Study after study has confirmed how dangerous even hands-free cell conversations can be, but despite broad news coverage there has been little headway in changing people’s behaviour. So often, individuals wait until someone close to them is injured to be honest about their dangerous habits.

    Given the internet’s tendency to shame others, I want to step up and thank you for having the guts to write this post and share the discovery of your own dangerous driving. I hope it’s a gateway for more people to examine their own habits and continue the conversation. It’s great that tools like this are now available! Let’s use them!

    • Robby Macdonell says:

      Thanks so much for the kind words! I agree, getting people to change behavior doesn’t seem to be working. As weird as it sounds, looks like the more realistic long-term solution might be getting to reliable self-driving cars as soon as possible, rather than relying on people’s willpower. (or better mass transit in the near-term, I guess)

  2. Eric Jain says:

    23% does seem a bit high! What if you exclude the first and last few minute of each trip? If you check traffic right before driving off, and check your email the moment you arrive, that might be included? Also, you could tag trips where you weren’t driving, and exclude those.

    • Robby Macdonell says:

      There’s certainly some of that, but that 23% number is AFTER trying to control for as much as possible. I tossed out time that’s logged at the very beginning and end of trips (which is likely me queueing up some music to listen to or procrastinating getting out of the car because I don’t want to turn off the AC just yet). I tried to be fairly generous with myself and still came up with that number. 🙂

  3. dreeves says:

    Thinking hard about this, and thank you so much for posting it! My first thought is that people with Android phones can set up recipes like this: http://www.insertclevertitle.co.uk/2014/02/17/driving-mph-reply-safe-tasker/ (I’d like to find something more drastic that disables the phone altogether when driving, but that may point people in the right direction.)

    • Robby Macdonell says:

      That’s a really cool use of tasker (an app that I think is awesome, but continually struggle to find good uses for). But yeah, I think it kind of misses the point that even though the concise talking point is “texting and driving”, texting may only represent a fraction of what’s actually pulling someone’s eyes off the road.

  4. Mike Demele says:

    Way to step up and tell your story Robby. We can all relate. As our teens came of driving age my buddy and I quit our jobs 2 years ago to go ‘all in’ and create a free solution for this problem called LifeSaver (lifesaver-app.com). The app runs in the background and wakes up to present a lock when you drive (no hardware required). We have several thousands using the solution now and are always looking for more adoption and feedback to improve it (including parting with victims of distracted driving). Love to see if our app might work for you and give us your feedback! Thanks.

  5. dreeves says:

    I like Mike Demele’s suggestion of http://lifesaver-app.com . I’m very touched that you asked whether Beeminder could help but I think a more direct tool like LifeSaver is a better bet. Other thoughts I’ve had since you pointed me to this post: Get in the habit of always turning on Google Maps navigation. It’s getting really good these days, speaking your ETA and routing you around any traffic jams that may come up. And with it doing its navigation thing maybe there won’t be temptation to use the phone for anything else?

    Or what about making a mini-ritual of tossing the phone on the back seat? Maybe you could even have the best of both worlds if you could twist around 180 degrees to check things on the phone when at stop lights, as long as the phone is still touching the back seat. Unless that would backfire horribly as you found yourself half in the back seat while actually driving! 🙂

    • dreeves says:

      PS: Assuming the backseat idea wouldn’t backfire, that could be a great way to sanity check your data. If you’re strict about using the phone only when it’s touching the back seat then you know you’re only using it when it’s entirely safe to do so, like when the car is stopped. Then if your data still shows you around 23% then this post was maybe a false alarm!

  6. Lynn Gagnon says:

    We have four children together, my husband and I. He was driving along a slightly windy two way street, minding his own business, and an oncoming, texting driver went left of center. If my husband hadn’t been paying attention and swerved to the right, they would both be dead. . .the texting driver plowed into my husband’s van and tore out the rear axel. Both walked away. The young man is a local farmer and they are now friends. I am not judging you, but you have but one life. It seems selfish to use it to take out what could be somebody’s Dad.

    • Robby Macdonell says:

      I agree completely, Lynn. I had no clue that I was that bad about it, and was pretty appalled by it after I found out. I’m grateful for the fact that I was able to learn this about myself (and take steps to correct it) by looking at some rows of data on a spreadsheet, rather than in a tragic situation like you described. I’m glad everyone was ok in your case!

  7. stijnhen says:

    Great comments above! I’ve been tracking my time with various tools for many years and now enjoy rescuetime. Here’s another interesting article related to task switching and how the brain works with some interesting tips: http://www.bigtime.net/track-your-productivity/