Brock Dietrich thinks about what his daughter should be doing all the time.
She should be getting ready to graduate from high school this spring. She should be preparing for business school and looking forward to owning a hair salon someday.
However his daughter, Sydnee Williams, won't go on to accomplish these things since she died in a car crash just shy of her 18th birthday because she was texting and driving on an Ohio highway.
"What really struck me, what I have to live with, is that I used to text and drive in front of her," says Dietrich, 39, who now speaks about Sydnee's life to high schools in Ohio.
A majority of Americans agree that texting while driving is dangerous, but in a culture with more screen time than face time, keeping phones out of sight in the car is easier said than done, according to a new survey provided exclusively to USA TODAY Network.
Overall, 87% of respondents agreed that it is dangerous to text or check e-mail while driving, though 18% said they cannot "resist the urge" to use their phones behind the wheel, according to the survey by the University of Southern California Annenberg Center for the Digital Future and Bovitz Inc.
Sydnee Williams died in October of 2013, after her
(Photo: Brock Dietrich)
"People are admitting that it's dangerous to text and drive, but it's still a behavior that people cannot shake," said Jeff Cole, founder and director of the center.
The survey asked 904 drivers about texting and e-mailing behavior while in the car. Responses varied by age, with 17% of Millennials ages 18-34, admitting to always or often sending or checking online messages while driving. Whereas, 7% of 35-54-year-olds admitted to doing so.
It's nothing new that Millenials are more likely to text and drive, according to psychologist David Greenfield, founder of The Center for Internet and Technology Addiction and assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Connecticut.
"Younger people have essentially been weaned on technology. They don't know the existence of life without their cellphones or smartphones," Greenfield says. "They see technology as an extension of themselves."
Greenfield conducted a similar study about texting and driving in 2014 with AT&T. He says they found the same thing, people have a hard time controlling the urge to check their phones while driving.
REWARD IS WORTH THE RISK?
It's not just Millennials struggling to unplug while in their cars. Greenfield says that our smartphones have actually changed the way our brains work.
He likens texting while driving to a gambler at a slot machine.
When people receive information on their phone that is pleasurable, the brain releases a hit of dopamine, a chemical in the brain that makes you feel happy. People have no way of knowing if the text or notification they receive will create that feeling, so they feel the impulse to check their phone, according to Greenfield.
The constant push of notifications from Twitter, Facebook and news sites have increased the impulse to check phones immediately.
"People don't know their brains are being conditioned but that's what smartphones are doing — shaping our behavior without our realizing it," Greenfield said.
Since we are so attached to our phones, Greenfield cautions that education and awareness won't make people stop, but tougher laws might.
Forty-four states ban texting while driving, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
For Dietrich, who works with the Impact Teen Drivers, a national advocacy group that helps raise awareness about the dangers of texting and driving, the reminders about what can happen are always present.
"If you continue to text and drive, it's just a matter of time before it catches up to you and the consequences are devastating," Dietrich said.