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Steve Casner, PhD: Changing The Way We Think About Distraction

Steve Casner, PhD, psychologist, safety expert and author of “Careful: A User’s Guide to Our Injury-Prone Minds”. He will be the keynote speaker at Drive Smart Virginia’s 6th Annual Distracted Driving Summit in September.

For Steve Casner, PhD, being distracted is nothing new. “I’ve been working in the aviation field for a long, long time,” Casner said. “I have always been interested in attention and how people manage their attention and what we’re able to do, because there’s a lot that goes on in an airplane. You can’t look at everything at one time and you have to be strategic about it.” Indeed, strategy is at the core of Casner’s pursuit of lessening distraction – and it doesn’t just stop at aircraft.

“I started looking at cars and roads,” he said. “Driving got safer year after year for so many years. I was amazed to find that now the driving crash record is getting worse. So, I started thinking, ‘Wait, what’s going on here?’” It did not take long before Casner – a psychologist, safety expert and author of “Careful: A User’s Guide to Our Injury-Prone Minds” – discovered that this was in part due to a sudden rise of smartphones and their ever-increasing pervasiveness in all aspects of modern living, especially in “safe” environments like the inside of one’s car.

According to Casner, the world itself is growing ever more dangerous as a result of an increased opportunity for distraction. “If you look at technology – and a car and a phone are perfect examples of these technologies – they provide us with subtle risks for which we are not  educationally or biologically prepared. If you present a kid with a ferocious tiger, they’re going to run and scream. They’re biologically prepared to fear this thing; the risks are not subtle. But with our inventions, the risks are really subtle.”

Casner explained that such risks include a misreading of one’s ability to estimate risk or that one is inevitably forced to pay attention to too many things at a given time. Both phones and vehicles exhibit these dangerous factors and, in concert, they both provide little in the way of preparing their users for the volatile consequences of interacting with their products. “We haven’t had phones and cars for hundreds of thousands of years,” he said. “We’re going to need to learn these like reading, writing, and arithmetic because it’s just going to get more and more challenging every year.”

Casner is critical of the manufacturers of smartphones who he says aren’t doing much to address the problem. “They are exploiting a lack of understanding on the part of the consumer base,” he explained. Casner noted that manufacturers know that individuals are going to underestimate the risk of using smartphones while driving. When automobile crashes occur because of the use of smartphones, lawsuits brought against smartphone manufacturers have generally been dismissed, with courts only willing to hold drivers responsible. He believes that, at a minimum, manufacturers need to warn users against multi-tasking with phones while driving.

So, what then is the solution? Casner noted that an “effective band aid” to the distracted driving problem would be a self-disabling feature in smartphones that automatically render them inoperable when driving at specific speeds, though he was careful to note that it was exactly that: a “band aid.” Casner also expressed his belief that legislation will be an ineffective tool as road safety laws can never be all-encompassing. Distraction, ultimately, is a much deeper issue that is rooted in how easy it is to become engrossed in something at any given time on any given day. “We have got to get to a point where everybody realizes that it’s just not okay to try to do these things,” he concluded. “We got to this point with recycling, when people were just throwing trash onto the street. It’s not cool to do that anymore.” Casner believes that society must get to that level of understanding with automobile safety.

How will this societal change come about? Casner says, “I put all my hope in young people. I train my daughter to think in this way. There is so much bad modeling and bad social norms out there right now. Who’s using their phone behind the wheel? Damn near everybody, damn near all the time.” Casner feels there to be a top-down change in the way we learn about our modern inventions and their hazards. “This has to happen in the schools,” he concluded. “Parents didn’t decide at some point that ‘my kids should learn trigonometry.’ The parents didn’t do that; the schools did that.” Speaking of safety, Casner said: “We have to put this in schools. It has to be taught to kids and they’ll bring it home to their parents.”

Casner was not shy in reminding everyone that they can start this change. “You have to be a leader and an example for others,” he said. “These things are more dangerous than you think they are.”

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*Kevin Christopher Robles is a student at Fordham University’s Fordham College Lincoln Center where is the Assistant Arts & Culture Editor of the student newspaper, The Observer.