# Driving with cell phone: Operant conditioning and experimental design practice

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We know that using a cell phone while driving is dangerous, and that the risk of crashing is even greater among teenage drivers (Gershon et al., 2019). I’ve heard people say, “Let them crash. They’ll learn.” While punishment delivered as an environmental consequence can be effective, we’re not talking about a child not watching where they are walking and bumping into a pole. We’re talking about people piloting 2,000-pound missiles filled with flammable liquids traveling over 60 mph. Not only might a crash caused by inattention kill the driver, but it might kill their passengers, pedestrians, and the occupants of other vehicles. In addition to the cost in lives, there are the medical costs of the people who survive and the financial payouts related to the vehicles. The more people that crash vehicles, the greater the cost of medical and car insurance for everyone. In sum, we are all better off when people do not crash.

After covering operant conditioning, invite your students to work in small groups (in person or in a class discussion forum) to answer this question:

What can we do to encourage drivers to use their cell phones less while driving?

If you’d like to add in some experimental design practice, ask students how they could test their ideas. They should include the levels of the independent variable with operational definitions and the dependent variable with operational definition. Invite volunteers from each group to share their ideas and their experimental designs.

Lastly, share with students this freely available journal article that describes how one research team addressed this issue (Delgado et al., 2024). Ask students to answer the following questions:

1. The researchers didn’t have a hypothesis because they didn’t have a prediction of the results. Instead, they had a question and an objective. What were these?
2. When was the study conducted?
3. How many volunteers participated in the study?
4. How long were data collected from each volunteer?
5. There were six levels of the independent variable which the researchers called “trial arms.” Identify all six, and describe how each was operationally defined.
6. What was the primary dependent variable which the researchers call “measure”?
7. How many seconds per hour on average were the control group volunteers on their phones while driving?
8. The researchers report that their statistical analyses showed that the only interventions that had an effect compared to the control group were “standard incentive plus feedback,” “reframed incentive plus feedback,” and “double reframed incentive plus feedback.” How many seconds per hour less compared to the control group on average were the volunteers in these three groups on their phones while driving?
9. What was the average cost per person for the most successful intervention?
10. In the “discussion” section of the article, the researchers note that the heaviest phone users while driving showed no impact from the interventions. What do you think the heaviest phone-use-while-driving drivers are doing on their phones while driving? Identify an incentive that you think would help such drivers reduce phone use while driving.

I recently had a conversation with a person who said that she knows that being on her phone while driving is dangerous. When she finds herself picking up her phone when she is driving, she immediately tosses it into the backseat.

References

Delgado, M. K., Ebert, J. P., Xiong, R. A., Winston, F. K., McDonald, C. C., Rosin, R. M., Volpp, K. G., Barnett, I. J., Small, D. S., Wiebe, D. J., Abdel-Rahman, D., Hemmons, J. E., Finegold, R., Kotrc, B., Radford, E., Fisher, W. J., Gaba, K. L., Everett, W. C., & Halpern, S. D. (2024). Feedback and financial incentives for reducing cell phone use while driving: A randomized clinical trial. JAMA Network Open, 7(7), e2420218. https://doi.org/10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2024.20218

Gershon, P., Sita, K. R., Zhu, C., Ehsani, J. P., Klauer, S. G., Dingus, T. A., & Simons-Morton, B. G. (2019). Distracted driving, visual inattention, and crash risk among teenage drivers. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 56(4), 494–500. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.amepre.2018.11.024