An Exploratory Examination of Distracted Driving As Consumption

ABSTRACT - This exploratory inquiry expands upon recent mass media accounts of the nature and consequences of distracted driving behavior (DDB) by examining the phenomenon from a heretofore lacking consumption perspective. Observational and interview data collectively suggest that DDB is a complex, multi-faceted area of consumption behavior that cannot be meaningfully understood nor regulated without consideration of the consumption-related motivations which lead to its occurrence. Data also suggest, more specifically, that limited consumer choice may play a major role in the decision to engage in DDB. Implications for public policy and future research are addressed.


Terrance G. Gabel and Nicholas Schandler (2002) ,"An Exploratory Examination of Distracted Driving As Consumption", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 29, eds. Susan M. Broniarczyk and Kent Nakamoto, Valdosta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 370-376.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 29, 2002     Pages 370-376


Terrance G. Gabel, Truman State University

Nicholas Schandler, Truman State University


This exploratory inquiry expands upon recent mass media accounts of the nature and consequences of distracted driving behavior (DDB) by examining the phenomenon from a heretofore lacking consumption perspective. Observational and interview data collectively suggest that DDB is a complex, multi-faceted area of consumption behavior that cannot be meaningfully understood nor regulated without consideration of the consumption-related motivations which lead to its occurrence. Data also suggest, more specifically, that limited consumer choice may play a major role in the decision to engage in DDB. Implications for public policy and future research are addressed.

Recent research suggests that distracted driving behavior (DDB) is a major cause of traffic accidents in the United States. Media coverage of this issue, as well as calls for DDB legislation, peaked in the summer of 2000 following the release of a study sponsored by Network of Employers for Traffic Safety (NETS). This study found, among other things, that DDB: 1) helps cause 25 to 50 percent of all highway collisions, 2) costs the nation between $40 billion and $80 billion each year, and 3) is the country’s fourth most serious driving safety issue.

Largely ignored in the NETS study, as well as in subsequent mass media coverage of DDB, is the fact that virtually all of behaviors commonly discussed as constituting DDB are consumption activities. The purpose of the present inquiry is to help remedy this neglect by extending recent discussion of DDB from a consumption perspective. Data suggest that DDB is a complex, multi-faceted area of consumption behavior that cannot be meaningfully understood nor regulated without consideration of the consumption-related motivations which lead to its occurrence. Data also suggest, more specifically, that limited consumer choice may play a major role in the decision to engage n DDB.


The Network of Employers for Traffic Safety (NETS) is a Washington, D.C.-based alliance of 8,500 organizations representing a wide variety of industries. Its mission "is to reduce traffic crashes involving America’s workers and their families by helping employers implement well-developed policies, dynamic workplace programs, and compelling community activities related to traffic safety" ( [accessed 3/7/01]). NETS holds that DDB occurs "when a driver performs any activity that may distract his or her full attention from the driving task" (Network of Employers for Traffic Safety 2000, paragraph 9). According to NETS, the most common distracting behaviors include tuning a radio, eating, drinking beverages, talking with passengers, reading and writing, talking on the phone, and personal grooming (Network of Employers for Traffic Safety 2000).

NETS sponsored a study of 1,026 U.S. residents on DDB and its consequences which was released on June 27, 2000 (see Network of Employers for Traffic Safety 2000). Major findings include DDB estimated as being a causal factor in 25 to 50 percent of all highway collisionsC4,000 to 8,000 crashes each dayCin the United States. The study also finds that DDB: 1) costs the nation between $40 billion and $80 billion per year, and 2) is the country’s fourth most serious driving safety issue (following drunk driving, aggressive driving, and speeding). Further, 85 percent of study respondents admit to regularly engaging in DDB activities. With regard to the incidence of specific acts of DDB, the NETS study finds that:

Nearly three out of four (70 percent) say that talking to passengers is something they do routinely while driving, nearly half (47 percent) say they adjust radio or climate controls while behind the wheel and a quarter (29 percent) admit to eating or reading or (26 percent) frequently picking up something that fell. Just under a fifth (19 percent) of drivers say they talk on the phone, while 15 percent say they do none of these things while driving (Network of Employers for Traffic Safety 2000, paragraph 8). [It should noted that these behaviors often take place in combination/simultaneously. A DDB study conducted by Response Insurance, for example, finds that 76 percent of drivers talking on a cellular phone are engaged in one or more other distracting activities at the same time (Wichita Business Journal 2000).]

As discussed below, release of the NETS study prompted both extensive media coverage of DDB as well as calls for legislation to help curb the incidence of these dangerous behaviors.

Mass Media Coverage of DDB. In the several days following the release of the NETS study, DDB and the findings of the study were featured, often as the lead story, in numerous national news reports (see: Battista 2000; CNN 2000; Kagan 2000; Nathan 2000). These reports recap the study’s findings, discuss extreme and at times fatal examples of DDB, and discuss both the nature of DDB and ways in which it may (or may not) be successfully dealt with. With regard to the nature of DDB, one report (CNN 2000) makes the point that DDB is not simply a matter of physical distraction but ratherCmore importantyCintellectual distraction. According to the report:

... it is not always a device that provides the distraction... when people think about something other than driving, such as what’s for dinner, they aren’t seeing the road. "You’re visualizing that steak dinner or that tossed salad," he [American Automobile Association Managing Director of Traffic Safety Programs Mark Edwards] said. "It’s not the device, it’s that the driver is being intellectually occupied by some activity" (CNN 2000, paragraphs 12-13). [This line of reasoning holds, for example, that usage of a cellular phone while driving is more distracting than eating or drinking. This is because cellular phone usage is likely to lead to a significant level of both physical and mental distraction whereas eating and drinking constitute mainly physical distractions (see: Washington Post 2001). It should be noted, with respect to cellular phone usage as a leading form of DDB, that: 1) roughly 85 percent of all cellular phone calls are made while driving (Smart Motorist 2001 [see also Taylor 2000]), 2) usage of a cellular phone while driving quadruples the chance of getting into a traffic accident (Redelmeier and Tibshirani 1997), and that 3) hands-free cellular phone usage is no safer than handheld phone usage while driving (Redelmeier and Tibshirani 1997). This latter notion (in particular) reinforces the idea that it is mental distraction-not physical distraction-that is most relevant when speaking of the potential dangers of DDB.]

With respect to successfully dealing with DDB, the point is made that "the key to reducing accidents is to make drivers aware that they are distracted" (CNN 2000, paragraph 14). The point is also made that company-sponsored safety education programs aimed at reducing the incidence of DDB (such as those recommended by NETS) are likely to be ineffective if not supported by legislation requiring firms to offer such programs (see Battista 2000).

A final DDB-related matter addressed in mass media coverage following the release of the NETS study concerns the high probability that technology designed to allow drivers to more efficiently use drive time will likely increase the incidence of DDB (and its negative consequences). The soon-to-be-realized advent of in-vehicle Internet access, for example, is likely to lead to higher levels of intellectual preoccupation, driver inattention, traffic accidents, and, perhaps, accident-related fatalities. Consider, in this regard, the comments of Csaba Csere, Editor-in-Chief of Car and Driver magazine.

Internet access is coming in the next year or two... And I must say, I have some concerns about that one myself. But the way the car companies plan to approach it, is rather than having you typing in e-mail or reading e-mail off a screen, it’s going to be voice activated... And, in fact, it will take the e-mail and read it to you. This gets away from the problem of taking your eyes off the road or your hands off the wheel, but it still causes a mental distraction and that’s ultimately the biggest issue we have (Csaba Csere [quoted in Battista 2000, paragraphs 68-69]). [See Smart Motorist (2001) for a related discussion of how in-car navigational systems are likely to also lead to increased incidence of both DDB and its negative consequences. See James (2000) for brief discussion of a recent University of Iowa study which finds that driver reaction time in applying brakes decreased by 30 percent when drivers had e-mail messages read to them by voice-controlled computers such as those currently being proposed for high-tech cars of the future.]

Calls for DDB-Related Legislation. Apparent in mass media coverage of DDB following the release of the NETS study is increased consideration of DDB legislation. This is particularly true in the context of cellular phone usage, where heated debate continues to rage. At a most basic level, supporters of vehicular cellular phone legislation argue that laws are necessary because drivers think that engaging in this form of DDB (and others) is acceptable if there are no laws that state otherwise (see Battista 2000). The majority of proposed legislation calls either for the outright banning of DDBCmainly cellular phone usageCor for increased fines to be levied against persons found to have been engaging in DDB at the time of an accident. With regard to cellular phone usage alone, by November of 2000, 300 local communities and 37 states were considering "don’t-talk-and-drve" legislation (James 2000, paragraph 2). As of February 2000, cellular phone usage while driving had been banned in nine municipalities in the (Northeastern) U.S. (Brice 2001). [Note also that 16 countries have also outlawed cellular phone usage while driving (see: James 2000; Taylor 2000). In Singapore, for example, talking on the cell phone while driving is punishable by six months in jail or a $588 fine-or both (Taylor 2000).]

The vigorous (and largely successful) fight against vehicular cellular phone legislation has been spearheaded by cellular phone companies often allied under the umbrella of various industry trade associations (e.g., the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association [see]). [It is estimated that a ban on vehicular cellular phone use in the United States would cost the cellular industry $243 billion in lost revenues each year. (Taylor 2000)] The (well-monied) argument against legislation forward by cellular firms typically centers about claims that: 1) cellular phones are being unfairly singled out as a cause of accidents (when many other forms of DDB exist and could be targeted as well), and that 2) since it is illogical and/or impractical to try to regulate other forms of DDB (e.g., eating and drinking) it is therefore also illogical and/or impractical to try to regulate vehicular cellular phone usage (see: Barker 2001; Bleed 2001; James 2000; Sherwood 2001). This argument (and the profit-minded will of cellular phone companies) often appears to win out over the will of the public. Exemplary is the case of the defeat of proposed cellular phone legislation in Aspen, Colorado. The case, as discussed below, involves city council member Terry Paulson’s failed crusade to have fines levied against persons using their (handheld) cellular phones while driving in the Aspen area.

Through early fall the push [to regulate] picked up speed. By Nov. 22 [1999] the council passed, 3-2, an initial vote: Use your handheld cell phone while behind the wheel in Aspen and be prepared to pay a fine. To become law the proposal had to survive only a final vote...

"I was optimistic," Paulson... remembersCand he had reason to be. By then even more locals were telling him stories of chatty dowagers in Range Rovers blazing through stop signs. "I thought there was enough public sentiment out there over drivers causing problems with their cell phones." Unfortunately for Paulson, there was stiff opposition out there too. Word of the initial vote soon spread to wireless providers throughout Colorado: AT&T Wireless, Spring PCS, AirTouch Cellular, US West Wireless, VoiceStream, Nextel. And led by Rick Sullivan, AT&T Wireless’s government affairs director, they decided to launch an Aspen-specific educational program focused on a single goal: encouraging drivers to police themselves and not dialCor do anything else distractingCin dangerous situations...

The campaign took off swiftly. First, Sullivan persuaded the city council to delay its vote from January to May. Then the ad blitz began... The [newspaper] ads even offered a drawing for a free ski week to readers who made a safe-driving pledge. The phone companies also hit the local cable stations and radio airwaves with public-service spots, created by the Cellular Telephone Industry Association, the trade group for the $40 billion cell-phone industry. Sullivan even managed to gethimself booked several times on a popular radio talk show hosted by Andrew Kole, Aspen’s "Voice of Discontent"... The activity culminated on May 22, when the wireless reps descended on Aspen en masse for the bill’s final vote. Terry Paulson looked around the council’s chambers that nightCand instantly knew he was in trouble. There were more reps present than Aspen residents...

Sullivan spoke first for the industry... Next was Sheryl Wright, director of state government affairs for Sprint... Then came Bonnie Petersen of US West. Then Lloyd Brown of Nextel. It was like a tag-team wrestling match, each team member handing off to the nextCand crushing Paulson’s crusade in the process. His bill, once so promising, was gunned down in a 4-1 vote (Taylor 2000, pp. 184, 186).


The NETS study, ensuing media coverage of DDB, and the ongoing debate on DDB legislation has without question raised public awareness of DDB and its potentially dangerous consequences. Unfortunately missing, however, from all three areas of DDB discussion is the perspective of the consumer. Proposed legislation aimed at curbing if not absolute cessation of vehicular cellular phone usage, for instance, fails to address key questions such as: 1) Why do consumers use cellular phones while driving?, 2) What motivates drivers to talk on their phones while driving (as opposed to waiting until they have arrived at their destinations or at least pulled off the road and stopped)?, 3) Do consumers engage in vehicular cell phone use because they have to or because they want to?, and 4) Would consumers obey laws designed to decrease or ban vehicular cellular usage?

The majority of activities commonly viewed as DDBCtuning a radio, eating, drinking, reading, talking on the phone, and personal groomingCcan at least be construed as consumption behavior. Meaningful understanding of DDB, as well as its effective regulation, is thus predicated on viewing DDB as consumption behavior. With this in mind, we contend that DDB may be best conceptualized as a special case of polychronic consumer time use (see Kaufman, Lane, and Lindquist 1991) wherein persons simultaneously: 1) drive their vehicle, and 2) engage in some form of consumption activity (wherein the consumption act may [or may not] physically and/or mentally divert a significant degree of the person’s attention away from the driving task).

The purpose of the present inquiry is to help establish a rudimentary understanding of DDB as consumption behavior so as to better inform both future DDB research and DDB-related public policy. We begin with a discussion of our research methodology.


Data was collected via personal observation and focus group and individual interviews in the Los Angeles area in the summer of 2000. With regard to personal observation, one member of the research team spent over four hours on Los Angeles metropolitan area freeways and side streets keenly observing the consumption behavior of other drivers. These four hours were spread across three separate trips embarked upon at different times of the day and on varying days of the week. Observed consumption behavior was documentedCin real timeCvia speaking into a hand-held recording device. Tapes were transcribed by another member of the research team. Transcribed data were then analyzed by both members of the research team.

Focus group and personal interviews were done to both supplement observational data and, more importantly, to facilitate deeper understanding of the nature of and motivations for DDB. Four focus groups and two personal interviews were conducted. Twenty eight of the 31 informants were interviewed in focus groups. These group interviews lasted an average of 1.5 hours in length. Focus group interviews were conducted and video/audio taped by one member of the research team (with extensive experience in all aspects of focus group interviewing). Focus group audio and video tapes were analyzed by both members of the research team. The two personal interviewsCone of one person and the other of two informantsCranged from 30 to 60 minutes in length. The interviews were recorded using a hand-held recording device. Tapes from the two interview sessions were transcribed by another member of the research team. Transcribed data were then analyzed by both members of the research team. Overall, the level of interview structure evolved from unstructured to semi-structured over time. This structural evolution in the collection of data (see Spiggle 1994) was iteratively based, with (semi-structured) questions asked in later interviews being based on issues emerging in earlier (unstructured) interviews.

Our 31 (interview) informants consist predominantly of non-traditional, upper-level business students living and workingCmost often full-timeCin the Los Angeles metropolitan area. These persons mirror the ethnically diverse area from which they are drawn, with the most prominent (self-reported) ethnicity being Hispanic (10 informants), followed by White/Caucasian (5) and African American (4). [Other informant ethnicities include: Indian (2), Chinese (2), Egyptian (1), Russian (1), Hungarian (1), Bulgarian (1), American Indian (1), African (1), Arab (1), and Israeli (1).] In terms of gender, female informants outnumber their males counterparts 18 to 13. Finally, with respect to age, 18 of the 31 informants reported that they are between 20 and 24 years of age. The age of the remaining 13 informants breaks down as follows: 25-29 years (4), 30-34 years (7), and 40-44 years (2).


Our data are presented below in accordance with data collection method employed. We first present data gathered via personal observation. Data from focus group and personal interviews are then collectively considered.

Personal Observation Data

Thirty four distinct instances of "vehicular consumption behavior" were observed. [The word "distinct" is here employed to connote the fact that the researcher was unable to accurately document the occurrence of some vehicular consumption behaviors due to their sheer volume. For example, the researcher noted that individual cellular phone usage incidents were "too many to count" while passing through the (trendy/upscale) Westwood area of Los Angeles.] These instances involve the following types of vehicular consumption behavior (in order of volume of occurrence): cellular phone usage (15+); eating (7); drinking (3); reading (2); putting on makeup (2); music consumption (i.e., heavy air guitar) (1); drinking and eating (simultaneously) (1); reading and writing (simultaneously) (1). Given the findings of the NETS study and subsequent media coverage, the high incidence of cellular phone usage observed was no surprise. Also of little surprise was the observed commonality of eating (e.g., ice cream, yoghurt, and candy bars) while driving. Other data, however, are suggestive of aspects and consequences of vehicular consumption behavior not previously discussed. Perhaps most notable, a very small percentage of the (several hundred) of drivers observed were found to be engaging in behavior that could be construed as consumption behavior. Our data thus suggest that DDB may not be as commonCat any one point in timeCas previous DDB studies and media coverage may lead one to believe.

Further, to our surprise and demonstrative of an issue not previously addressed, our data suggest that more vehicular consumption behavior takes place on side streets than on freeways. This is surprising given the fact that it would seem to be safer to engage in consumption acts on Los Angeles’ notoriously congested freeways (where traffic often moves at what is little more than a snail’s pace). Our data thus suggest that perhaps vehicular consumption behavior takes place: 1) regardless of the type of traffic, and 2) with little regard for the level of relative safety.

Finally, in accord with but adding detail to previous discussion of DDB, our observational data also highlight the potentially dangerous nature of vehicular consumption behavior. Ten of the 34 observed instances of vehicular consumption behavior involved potentially hazardousCarguably potentially fatalCbehaviors. [By potentially hazardous we mean that the person observed engaging in the DDB is an undeniable threat to the safety of other drivers (and themselves).] These incidents include: 1) a man in a small pickup truck drinking coffee and running a red light at a high rate of speed, 2) a woman eating an ice cream cone while she pulled out in front of the researcher (and the rest of traffic) on a busy side street, 3) a man using his cell phone (and driving far slower than the rest of freeway traffic) causing everyone stuck behind him to change lanes/go around, 4) a man weaving in and out of lanes at about 80 miles per hour on the busy freeway while eating, 5) a cab driver who pulled out in front of the researcher that was both eating and drinking (from a carton of milk), and 6) a woman driving very fast and changing lanes erratically while doing her makeup on a busy side street.



Interview Data

As seen in Table 1, four categories of data emerge from our focus group and personal interview data. The first emergent category concerns vehicular consumption behaviors personally engaged in by informants. The second category deals with the timing of these behaviors (e.g., preferences for types of traffic and roads or times of the day). The third category of emergent data concerns the perceived reasons why informants choose to engage in these behaviors. The fourth and final category deals with vehicular consumption behaviors observed by informants. Each emergent category of data is addressed in further detail below.

Personal Consumption Activity. All 31 informants admitted to engaging in vehicular consumption behavior. The level of such behavior appears to in large part be a function of the amount of time spent driving. [Our 31 informants spend an average of 11.2 hours driving each week, with a reported high of 30 hours per week and a low of two hours.] Elton (black male, 34) discusses below what we found to be a fairly common pattern of vehicular consumption behavior among our eight informants spending large amounts of time (i.e., 15 or more hours per week) behind the wheel.

When it comes to driving with your knees, I’m always guilty. I’m one of those persons that always has two things going at any one timeCeating fruits or always a water or, you know, stop at a fastfood place and I’ll have a sandwich (gesturing with both hands up as if holding things) and a cup in the other hand then justCconcentrating on the road, of courseCbut I’m always using my knees to drive.

One of the most notable issues emerging from our data is the widespread incidence of vehicular eating. As can be see in Table 1, eating while driving accounts for 21 of the 48 data incidents in this category. Emergent issues related to informant vehicular eating are delineated in Table 2. As our data in this regard illustrate, eating in the car most often takes place in the morning and is for many an activity planned out in at times great detail well in advance of the meal. Consider, in this regard, the comments of informants Jenny, Elton, and Larry (when asked whether or not they plan their dining while driving ahead of time).

I do that. Like the day beforeClike tonightCI’ll say "well, I’m gonna get up and I’m gonna make toast and bacon and eggs and put 'em in a sandwich and I’ll eat that on the way to work." I do do stuff like that (Jenny, black female, 21).

... usually, when I do it [eat in the car] in the mornings, I’ll have the dish with the different fruits sitting next to me on the passenger seat... And I pretty much know what I’m gonna do [ahead of time], so if it’s gonna be fruits, if it’s stuff that I have to peel like grapefruits I peel it and cut it up and have it there so I know exactly what I’m dealing with but every now and then I’ll stop at a fastfood restaurant and pick something up and in those instances it’s spontaneous... but, for the most part, it’s fruit (Elton) [bracketed text added for clarity]

It’s always lunch for me... Oh yes (it’s planned)... Yes, or I know where I’m going to stop and pick it up. I know I can get a nine-piece Chicken McNugget a mile from where I work at and I’m gonna hit eight stop signs and when I park the car I can eat the ninth one [McNugget]. But it’s hard with the sauce, you know. (Larry, white male, 41). [bracketed text added for clarity]



Data also suggest that choice as to type of food consumed is dominated by concerns for something which can be consumed without making a mess and/or with one hand (e.g., chicken nuggets, bite-sized candies, sandwiches, and small fruits placed in a bag). With regard to the purpose of the in-vehicle eating behavior, we were surprised to have eight informants mention that they engage in such behavior not necessarily because they are hungry. Perhaps most notable here is data demonstrating that informants sometimes eat while driving in order to stay awake. Consider, in this regard, what Julia (Hispanic female, 34) told us about why she eats during her daily 1.5-hour, early-morning commute to work.

Julia: Well, usually, I’m eating my yoghurt... and I’m drinking also my juice and sometimes cookies or something like that. Because otherwise I get sleepyCvery sleepyCbecause we are moving very slowly.

Researcher: So, you are saying part of the reason you eat and drink these things is to stay awake?

Julia: Yes... Also, sometimes I sing...

Researcher: Is this somethingCdo you do this everyday?

Julia: Yes.

Finally, our eating-related data suggest that informants place importance on the fact that certain features of vehicles (i.e., automatic transmissions and abundant cupholders and surface space to place food upon) greatly facilitate the consumption of food while driving. Two informants went so far as to say they had purchased a vehicle with an automatic transmission at least in part because it would better allow them to eat while driving.

Timing of Personal Consumption Activity. The second of our emergent vehicular consumption behavior categories concerns the timing of these behaviors (see Table 1). As previously mentioned, our data suggest that our informants engage in eating behaviors predominantly in the morning hours (i.e., the breakfast meal). Our data also suggest that informants often engage in vehicular consumption activity when their vehicles are moving slowly, especially during (congested) freeway travel. Overall, however, as also found in our observational data, our interview data indicate that informant preference for engaging in vehicular consumption in this type of traffic is not as strong as had been expected. Five informants, for example, explicitly stated that they engage in consumption activities while in virtually all types of traffic. Exemplary are the comments of Betty and Elton.

I would say that when you’re hungry you’re hungry. You are not going to waitCwhether or not there’s traffic or there isn’t. If you’re hungry and you’re gonna be on your way home... even if there’s traffic you still sort of eat in the traffic (Betty, Bulgarian female, 20).

Pretty much I’m always doing it, even if my destination is just five minutes [away] and I’m not going to be on the freeway at all... Eating to me is a habit (laughing), I’m always eating. (Elton)

Personal Consumption Motivation. Informant discussion of why they engage in consumption activities while driving centers almost unanimously about two motivating factors (see Table 1). The first involves the dual notion of leading time-impoverished "busy" lifestyles and perceived societal pressures to be increasingly efficient with one’s time. As exemplary of this notion, consider the manner in which informants Al (Hispanic male, 24) (in conversation with the researcher) and Greg (Hungarian male, 30) responded to questions about their reasons for engaging in vehicular consumption acts.

Al: I would have to say mainly because I’m in a rush. I don’t have time to cook. I don’t have time to eat a bowl of cereal. You know, it’s just that real busy lifestyle that I have right now. I basically don’t have time to do muchCespecially to cook. I have a lot of food but it goes rotten on me... You really want to make timeClike everyone... or just wake up an hour earlier... I don’t really do it on purpose. It’s just when I’m short on timeCI stop by the fastfood place and pick something up.

Researcher: It almost sounds like a matter of maybe sleep less and eat at home... or to get more sleep and eat in the car...

Al: Right.

Greg: I think really, in this kind of society, it’s kind of very rushing so you have to do like 2 or 3 things at the same time you know (others voicing agreement) to save timeCjust to save time (others: "yeh, yeh")... I don’t have time to contact my friend so I want to use my cellular phone because I am saving timeCnot just like driving or not just using the phone but saving time by using both.

The second motivating factor discussed by our informants is that of fighting either boredom or drowsiness through consumption. Exemplary is both: 1) the previously alluded to manner in which several of our informants eat to stay awake, and 2) how DDB is employed to "fill time" spent stuck in traffic. Consider in this latter regard the (simultaneously collected) comments of informants Javier (Hispanic male, 26) and Bonnie (white female, 21).

Bonnie: ... driving... I don’t feel like it requires as much attention as I know it should. So for me, listening to the radio is not necessarily enough entertainment so I feel when I do use the cell phone or whateverCthen I have [something to keep me occupied] at all times as well. But I feel that I’m, you know, sort of capable of doing thatCwhich may or may not be trueCbut I also feel that it’s something else for me to do...

Researcher: ... Actually, it almost sounds like you’re saying that it’s another activity to do while you’re drivingCsomething to keep you occupied a bit, make it not so boring maybe.

Bonnie: As far as cell phones are concerned I know that if I getCuse golf practice for example. When I’m finished on the golf course I usually pick up the cell phone and say "okay, I’m on my way home" to my boyfriend or "let’s meet for dinner" or whatever and I end up talking for longer thanCyou know, it’s not short. My cell phone isn’t usually [used for] short phone calls... it tends [to be] that I’m driving and there’s notCyou’re just sort of driving and you know you’re going to be in the car for 40 minutes. You might as well say "hey, how did your day go today?" and you might end up spending longer with the phone...

Javier: I think it’s because of the city. The city’s always in a traffic jam and you’re frustrated and I guess sitting in traffic for an hourChalf an hourCbumper-to-bumper, it’s frustrating. So people need to do other things to relieve their frustrationCrelieve some stress. That’s why they read [or] talk to some friends on the phone. [bracketed text added for clarity]

Finally, note that at least suggested by many informants when discussing the issue of motivation for vehicular consumption is the notion of limited choice. Several informantsCsee, for example, the comments of Javier aboveCtold us that they are forced to spend so much time driving that: 1) they might as well make good use of this time (and at least do somethingCif for no other reason than to keep them from falling asleep), 2) they must often choose between engaging in vehicular consumption behavior or getting sufficient sleep, and 3) if they wait until they are out of their vehicles to engage in consumptionactivity they will have lessCpossibly noCtime to do the things they either need or want to do in the course of their busy days. Informant Anna (Hispanic female, 31) was explicit in this regard when discussing the reasons why she commonly applies makeup and eats while driving.

The makeup thing... you know, trying to get five more minutes of sleep. If I want to get the makeup on I can just get up five minutes earlier and do it at home instead of doing it on the road... The food thingCI don’t have time! My work, you know, I have a very, very busy job and it’s hard to find time to eat at work... I do try but most of the time I can’t and I want to come to school and I don’t want to be late and there is traffic and I just don’t have the time to eat and I’m hungry so I have to eat.

Observed Consumption Activity. Vehicular consumption observed by our informants closely mirrors the behavior they themselves engage in in several important ways (see Table 1). Eating, for example, is far and away the most prominent behavior in both categories. Drinking, reading, and stereo usage also rank similarly. However, notable differences between personal and observed behaviors are found in our data. Incidents of personal grooming and watching television (with screens mounted about the vehicle), for example, are much more prominent in observed (as compared to personal) behaviors. Likewise, cellular phone usage is far more common as an observed vehicular consumption behavior.

At least two possible explanations for differences in observed versus personal behaviors exist. It could simply be that our informants engage in these behaviors less frequently than do other Los Angeles-area drivers. Secondly, our data suggest that it is also possible that our informants are understating the extent to which they engage in these behaviors while driving. This is suggested in data in that informants frequently mention how they feel that many vehicular consumption behaviors are something they "never really think about" or things that have become so commonplace as to be "second nature."


Our exploratory research has implications in at least two important respects. First, public policy implications arise from the fact that our data suggest that DDB involves consumption activity which consumers often feel they have little if any choice but to engage in while driving. Second, data highlight issues and raise important questions for (consumer behavior and other) researchers to more thoroughly address in the future. The implications with regard to both issues are discussed in further detail below.

Public Policy Implications

The majority of debate concerning regulation of DDB is largely devoid of the consumption-related matters addressed in the present inquiry. Legislation which ignores consumer motivation for DDB and the issues of consumer choice and preference runs the risk of failure due to the fact that it deals with but the easily identifiable symptoms-not the more complex causes-of DDB-related problems.

Our exploratory data suggest that significant motivating factors leading to the occurrence of DDB include: 1) perceived consumer choicelessness that is driven in large part by (real or perceived) societal pressures to better (polychronically) use one's time, and 2) the fact that many people are forced to spend large amounts of time in their vehicles (and engage in DDB in an effort to combat boredom and/or drowsiness). Our data thus indicate that public policy makers would be well-advised to consider these matters when designing legislation aimed at decreasing the incidence of DDB. Our data also suggest that it is quite possible that the creation and implementation of effective DDB legislation is predicated on public policy makers first finding creative and customer-oriented ways to significantly reduce the amount of time that many people are forced to spend driving their vehicles. It is quite possible, in this regard, that such policy would render the DDB legislation/ regulation debate mute.

Implications for Future Research

The present inquiry highlights opportunities for DDB research to be undertaken from a variety of perspectives. Opportunities exist, for example, in the area of DDB-related social marketing research. This is due to the fact that many consumers who now engage in DDB apparently-as admitted by informants-fail to realize that these consumption acts are as potentially dangerous as they truly are. By the same token, research can address the issue of the extent to which consumers realize that their perceived need to always use their (drive) time more efficiently is in large part an "imaginary" social construction with potentially fatal consequences. Opportunities also exist in the area of better understanding consumer motivations for DDB. To what extent, for example, do consumers feel that they have no choice but to engage in DDB? Further, although not addressed in detail in the present inquiry, research could investigate the issue of how marketer responses to the perceived need to always use one's time more efficiently (e.g., as manifest in cellular phone advances, navigational systems, and in-vehicle Internet access) blur consumer realization of the fact that there are potentially high costs associated with the increasingly efficient use of time spent behind the wheel. Finally, future research should be conducted-in comparative fashion-in rural areas and other locales where consumers do not, on average, spend as much (idle) time in their vehicles as do persons in the Los Angeles area.


Barker, Jeff (2001), "Cell Phone Measures Face Static," Baltimore Sun, January 31, 1B. Available: universe [accessed 2/9/01].

Battista, Bobbie (2000), "Are Americans Too Distracted When They Drive?," CNN Talkback Live, June 27 (Transcript #0006270OV14). Available: [accessed 6/28/00].

Bleed, Jake (2001), "Phone Companies Dispute Bill: Opponents of the Legislation Say Drivers Are Distracted by ManyThingsNot Just the Use of Cell Phones," Omaha World-Herald, February 3, 9. Available: [accessed 2/9/01].

Brice, Plott (2001), "Vote Lets Athens Drivers Grab On," Atlanta Journal and Constitution, February 7, IA. Available: http:// web. [accessed 2/9/01].

CNN (2000), "Campaign Encourages U.S. Drivers to Concentrate on the Road." June 27. Available: [accessed 6/ 28/00].

James, Michael (2000), "Don't Call Me!: As Number of Phone Users Swells, Legislation Targets In-Car Use In An Effort to Save Lives," Baltimore Sun, October 30, 1C. Available: http://web. [accessed 2/9/01].

Kagan, Daryn (2000), "Network of Employers for Traffic Safety Discusses Danger of Distracted Driving," CNN Live Event/Special 11:12, June 27 (Transcript #00062703V54). Available: [accessed 6/28/00].

Kaufman, Carol Felker, Paul M. Lane, and Jay D. Lindquist (199 1), "Exploring More than 24 Hours a Day: A Preliminary Investigation of Polychronic Time Use," Journal of Consumer Research, 18 (December), 392-401.

Nathan, Sara (2000), "Attention, Drivers: Distractions Cause 25% of Accidents," USA Today, June 27, 1B (Money). Available: [accessed 6/28/00].

Network of Employers for Traffic Safety (2000), "Leading Employers Join to Combat Distracted Driving." June 27 (Press Release). Available: [accessed 6/28/00].

Redelmeier, Donald A. and Robert J. Tibshirani (1997), "Association Between Cellular-Telephone Calls and Motor Vehicle Collisions," New England Journal of Medicine, 336 (February 13), 453-458.

Sherwood, Robbie (2001), "Senators Quash Cell Ban on Roads," Arizona Republic, January 18, B4. Available: [accessed 2/9/01].

Smart Motorist (2001), "Studies Show Distracted Drivers Are a Leading Cause of Motor Vehicle Accidents." Available: http:/ / [accessed 2/9/01].

Spiggle, Susan (1994), Analysis and Interpretation of Qualitative Data in Consumer Research," Journal of Consumer Research, 21 (December), 491-503.

Taylor, Chris (2000), "Driven to Distraction," Smart Money, November, 184-192.

Washington Post (2001), "Should Cell Phones Be Banned on Road? It's a Tough Call," January 18. Available: [accessed 2/9/01].

Wichita Business Journal (2000), "Please Don't Read This While Driving, Yakking, Eating-And Paying Bills," November 20. Available: stories/2000/1 I/ 20/tidbits.html [accessed 2/9/01].



Terrance G. Gabel, Truman State University
Nicholas Schandler, Truman State University


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 29 | 2002

Share Proceeding

Featured papers

See More


M2. Of Expectations and Experiences: The Moderating Effect of Valanced Expectations on Enjoyment of a Positive versus Negative Experience

Brian Gillespie, University of New Mexico
Molly McGehee, University of New Mexico

Read More


Deviating from the Majority When Resources Are Scarce: The Effect of Resource Scarcity on Preference for Minority-endorsed Products

Xiushuang Gong, Jiangnan University
Yafeng Fan, Tsinghua University
Ying Ding, Renmin University of China

Read More


Understanding the Framing of Recommendations

Jia Gai, Erasmus University Rotterdam, The Netherlands
Anne-Kathrin Klesse, Erasmus University Rotterdam, The Netherlands

Read More

Engage with Us

Becoming an Association for Consumer Research member is simple. Membership in ACR is relatively inexpensive, but brings significant benefits to its members.