Brain Chemistry and Distracted Driving

Each day in the United States, approximately 9 people are killed and more than 1,000 injured in crashes that are reported to involve a distracted driver1. This harrowing statistic is testament to the fact that cell phone use is largely a behavioral issue that impacts the driver in ways we are just starting to understand. According to studies undertaken by governments and universities across the world, the fear of missing out (F.O.M.O.) and separation anxiety are the primary reasons that drivers text or use social media behind the wheel. This risky behavior can be traced to the biochemical nature of the human mind.

According to researchers, smartphones can subconsciously affect our brains. When our devices give us an audible alert in the form of an incoming text, social media post or email, our brains get a “dopamine rush.” Dopamine is a neurotransmitter in all human beings, which are chemical messengers responsible for facilitating communications between our nerve cells. Experts are still studying exactly how this neurotransmitter works within the context of addiction. But one thing is certain – dopamine leads to an increase in arousal and stimulates the reward center of our brain. Our brain’s expectation of a reward — Who’s texting me? Who liked or replied to my post? Who tagged me on social media? — leads to a higher rush of dopamine.

brain chemistry can cause distracted driving

David Greenfield, founder of the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction, offers input on this topic.2 “The dopamine reward centers are the same centers that have to do with pleasure from eating, pleasure from relationships, pleasure from drugs and alcohol,” Greenfield said.

“This reward circuitry is (as) old as time and if we didn’t have it, we probably wouldn’t exist as a species.”

Greenfield elaborates on this phenomenon by saying that “when our brains are in that elevated dopamine state caused by the expectation of a text or status update, the activated brain reward center does something else. It shuts down access to another part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, where most of our judgment and reasoning occurs. The parts of the brain that say, ‘OK, how important is this text? Is this text worth dying for? Is this text worth killing somebody else for?’ The answer, of course, logically, would be ‘no,’ but if you have less access to that part of your brain when you’re in this state, which seems to be the case, then you’re not really using your judgment.”

How do we solve this problem?

The most practical way to address distracted driving to target the reward center of the brain and counter it with an alternative. At Motovate and Brightmile, we integrate the ABCs (the Antecedents, Behaviors and Consequences) of Behavior-Based Safety in to our distracted driving prevention technology to achieve this alternative.

  • Antecedents are things that prompt people to act in a given manner. An antecedent precedes the behavior. It can be a person, place, thing, or event that gets the behavior started. In the case of distracted driving, the antecedent is the ping of an incoming text, email or social media post.
  • Behavior is visible action. It includes tangible actions, like picking up the phone. But it does not include things you cannot see such as a driver’s thoughts or attitudes. Safety results from a series of safe behaviors. Conversely, risk results from unsafe behaviors, such as texting and driving (e.g., responding to the ping).
  • Consequences are what happens after the behavior — reward or punishment. Most drivers do not want negative “consequences,” such as being disciplined, sanctioned, or embarrassed. However, consequences can also be positive. Research in psychology shows that positive consequences (rewards, recognition, etc.) are highly effective in producing a desired behavior. In most cases, they are more powerful than negative consequences and can serve as antecedents for future behavior.

If our desired behavior for fleet drivers is to prevent texting and driving, then we must, as the saying goes, fight fire with fire. Distracted driving applications centered on driver motivation (“Motovation”) can have an enormous effect by:

  • Increasing recognition. Improved self-esteem is a powerful consequence. Our digital platforms provide comprehensive dashboards and data reports that allow supervisors to identify and recognize top performing drivers through individual and team recognition.
  • Stimulating competition. Winning, within the context of friendly completion, is among the most powerful motivators. Victory stimulates the reward center of the brain unlike any other consequence. Our technology provides a platform for healthy competition by leveraging individual and team vs. team incentives and contests.
  • Providing tangible rewards. Safe driving is rewarded with points, digital or safe driving currency, gift cards and favorable year-end performance reviews. Our technology can do this through gamification and managed rewards.
  • Improving engagement. Employee engagement is the key to safety and productivity. Our solutions can help you transform your safety program to drive engagement by keeping each driver motivated with micro-incentives – not just the superstars. In addition, our consumer-side applications and shareable technology allow drivers to take safety home to family and friends.

Want to learn more?

At Motovate, we believe in driver-centric solutions that improve safety and employee engagement while improving behaviors through consequence-driven applications. Our habit-forming app called MOTOVATE ™ can help drivers stop texting while driving by building new healthy driving habits. Check out the Motovate app page or learn more about how our solutions can benefit your fleet.


National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Traffic Safety Facts Research Notes 2016: Distracted Driving. S. Department of Transportation, Washington, DC: NHTSA; 2015. Available at icon. Accessed 25 March 2019.

Huffington Post. Our Addiction To Cell Phones Is Costing Lives. Here’s How We Can Stop It. Available at



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