USF dean shares research to determine if texting is addiction or obsessive compulsive behavior

Addiction or OCD? How to stop texting and driving.

TAMPA - Two local men who lost loved ones to texting and driving have the same goal:  To stop the dangerous phenomenon of texting and driving.  But each has a very different idea on how to do it.

Is texting and addiction or a compulsion and why is that important?

"This is my Saturn. It was hit on the driver's side." Steve Augello is brutally honest when sharing details of a horrific crash.  His 17-year-old daughter Allie was driving home from school when, he says, a pregnant girl, who was texting, veered into his daughter's lane and hit her head on. 

His daughter, the other driver, and her unborn baby died.  Steve says the pictures of the other driver's car illustrate how dangerous distracted driving can be.  The pictures and descriptions are graphic.  "This is the back seat of her car. This is all brain matter right here. And there's the cell phone."

Steve attended the other driver's wake, where he says the young girl's friends painted a picture. "One statement was, 'I told her a million times not to text and drive.'  Another statement was, 'Every time I saw her, she was texting and driving,' so it was habitual with her."

Dean Moez Limayem of USF's College of Business lost a friend who was texting and driving.  The incident inspired him to study what motivates us to continue the dangerous behavior.  "More than 1.6 million accidents are due to texting or calling or checking messages while driving," he said.  "This is approximately 28 percent of all accidents."

He says the bulk of the current research approaches the problem as an addiction. Addiction is treated through abstinence.

Already many states have adopted laws and regulations that punish people with strict fines and penalties.

But, Dean Limayem points out, in some states where punishments are increasing, so are the number of accidents. "My friend had the accident because the law in Switzerland forbids the use of phones while driving, so what was he doing? He was hiding it below the wheel and that distracted him more, which lead to the crash and the fatality."

Working on the theory that texting and driving is more than just an addiction, grad students at his former university polled hundreds of people and found that obsessive compulsive behavior was also a factor.

OCD is a repeated behavior done to reduce stress and anxiety.

The dean says, "So if you are pushing them to not do that repeated behavior, what do they do? They can not take it. The anxiety will increase and they will find ways to do that behavior. In this case, checking the text message or the phone."

The dean is preparing a follow-up study that would look at different interventions. The first one would use local companies to see if an awareness campaign with executives and managers would make any difference.  The second phase would look at treatments for OCD and the third would look at how the changing technology with out cell phones would affect this phenomenon.

While Dean Limayem is primarily looking at texting and driving as a growing workplace issue, Steve Augello sees it as a very personal matter. He's vowed, whether it's an addiction or a compulsion, to fight for laws banning the use of cell phones while driving - period.

"I want the politician in Tallahassee to realize there are only nine states left without a law. We don't want to be the last."

A law in Florida won't bring Allie back, but Steve says, "It will save other people's Allies."

Steve has joined forces with AT&T and speaks to high school students about the dangers of texting and driving in AT&T's "It Can Wait" program.

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