The Real Reason Drivers Can't Put Down Their Cell Phones

And why this is so concerning for kids. 

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Photo by zeljkosantrac/Getty Images

Research has linked emailing after business hours to burnout, and working long hours to serious health consequences. But now new research suggests work-related pressure might affect us on the road, too—in fact, more than one-third of middle-aged drivers feel compelled to answer work calls while driving.

The study, which was conducted by the University of California San Diego and published in the Journal of Transport and Health, consisted of an online survey made up of 60 questions related to driving behaviors and cell phone use. Topics included the likelihood of texting at a red light or in traffic, frequency of cell phone use, and whether participants used a cell phone while driving with kids in the car.

Seven hundred and fifteen adults ages 30 to 64 participated, all of whom drive a car at least once a week. Seventy-five percent of the participants were women.

The obligation to take work calls was the strongest predictor of a high score on the researcher's distracted driving scale. The second strongest predictor? Overconfidence. Seventy-four percent reported viewing themselves as better drivers than other drivers their age.

Participants also felt overly confident about their ability to drive safely while talking on their phone hands-free, a habit three-fourths of them admitted to taking part in. While the vast majority considered themselves capable of doing so, less than one-third were aware that talking hands-free actually makes them four times more likely to be involved in a crash—the same degree as driving at the legal alcohol limit.

The researchers also studied whether the presence of children had an effect on driving habits. They found that parents continued to use their phones with children in the car—despite the fact that older children could be mimicking their behavior.

"The thing about middle-aged drivers is their passengers tend to be minors, and there's an issue of modeling if the adults are teaching them how to drive," Professor Linda Hill, co-author of the study, said in a statement.

The researchers hope to intervene at the workplace—and beyond.

"The survey really helped us design something that would change behavior and we're excited we've been able to use it to make a difference," Hill said. "We think our intervention should be more widely implemented. People need to hear information about the risks of distracted driving from different sources, like public health, law enforcement and family."