Austin
10:32 am
Mon January 6, 2014

Teens Aren't the Only Drivers Distracted by Phones. Seniors Are, Too

Do you become uneasy when you see a clearly inexperienced driver behind the wheel? How about when you spot someone texting while driving?

It’s part of Patty Kelly’s job to know the latest dangerous driving trends. Kelly works for State Farm Insurance, and she learned something surprising from the company's latest study. 

“What we found out is that older adults are getting smart phones at an increasing rate, first of all. And with that they are getting on the Internet and doing all those distracting behaviors almost as much as teenagers are," Kelly says. 

The results of the 5-year study surprised Kelly because she knows how challenging it is to change the behavior of adults 65 and older.

Dr. Mary Velasquez is a behavior expert who directs UT’s Health Behavior Research and Training Institute.

One thing Velasquez has found is that – when it comes to cell phone use – it’s really hard to change the behavior of anyone -- old or young. 

“I teach medical students a lot and social work students and psychology students – people who work in really busy medical settings," Velasquez says.  One of Velasquez’ experiments involves sharing with these students the results of a fake study that shows how cell phone use is “proven” to deteriorate brain cells.

Her students are bright, Velasquez admits, and so she must go to great lengths to convince students the validity of the study, and even greater lengths to try and change their cell phone habits. 

“They’ll say – 'Well, I have a lot of brain cells, I’m not really too worried about it.' Or, 'I would have to see many more studies,'" Velasquez says. "And so, when we talk about that I say – 'Well, how does this compare to what you hear from your patients who don’t want to change their diet, or their smoking or their drinking?' And they can sort of hear in themselves that very language that we hear when someone is addicted to another behavior.” 

Velasquez tells her students informing people about the dangers associated with certain behaviors and even educating them isn’t enough to make a person change their ways.

When it comes to older adults, State Farm's Patty Kelly finds an added challenge: how do you approach seemingly wise, respectful older individuals and have them change their behavior?

Dr. Velasquez says, ultimately, the only thing that will truly help us change our road behavior is a change in laws — just like seat belt laws changed drivers beginning in the 1980’s.

“When that law came into effect there was a lot of resistance, 'This is my freedom, I’ll feel too confined, if I get into an accident I’ll be locked into this car,'" Velasquez says. "I don’t think most of us think twice now about just getting in the car and putting on a seat-belt. We may come to a day when we just have to put the phones away and that’s it.”

Austin does have an ordinance that prohibits people from using “an electronic messaging device” but the ordinance does not address things like browsing the web.