Would You Paint Your Thumb Red to Stop Texting and Driving?


It's an old-school solution to a new world problem. Here's why it just might work.

defensive driving

We’ve written here at Quoted about the powerful pyschological motivations behind texting and driving, but we’ve yet to dive into another aspect of distracted driving that’s equally worthy of our attention: For many people, checking their phone for a notification or text message is so much of an ingrained habit, we might instead call it a compulsion.

In fact, studies have been done showing that the use of cell phones while driving can be much more closely linked to OCD than it can addictive behaviors. It’s a compulsion, not an addiction—and a compulsion drives you to do something you know is dangerous simply because you feel you have to. (Other examples of compulsive behaviors include shopping, eating, hoarding, and even nail biting.) It’s also important to note that this same study found that drivers are much more likely to text or check their phones in response to a notification of some kind, rather than initiating a conversation.

What is a Red Thumb Reminder?

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Knowing all this, it makes sense that one driver found a habit-based solution to such a common problem. It’s called the #redthumbreminder, and its creator explains how it works: “Inspired by my daughter’s technique of tying a piece of yarn around her finger to remember something for school, I decided to paint my thumbnail red so every time I picked up my phone from behind the wheel, all I would see was a big red thumb reminding me to put the phone away. As silly as it sounds, it totally worked. And now my hope is that it’ll work for everyone else. One red thumbnail at a time.”

His three steps are inarguably pretty simple:

  1. “Find some nail polish. Hit up the local mall. Or order some on Amazon. Maybe ask your sister. Or your mom.”
  2. “Paint the thumb nail on the hand you use to hold your phone. Or ask somebody to do it for you. It’s less messy that way.”
  3. “Be reminded. Stop using your phone while driving. Pass the word along to others. Feel pretty darn good.”

Red Thumbs Trending: What’s your Red Thumb Reminder?

Since the #redthumbreminder first popped up, it’s garnered some traction on social media. Just today, authorities and government employees in and around Denver got the topic trending on Twitter, posting thumb pics as a part of an effort by the Colorado Department of Transportation to end distracted driving: Over the weekend, three CDOT vehicles were struck by distracted drivers. (Three in one weekend, oy!)

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Will it Work?

What’s so cool about this solution is it actually takes cues (whether the creator knows it or not) from some basic tenets of habit reversal therapy, explained brilliantly here by New York Times reporter and author of The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg. The life cycle of any habit involves cues, routines, and rewards. Nail biters, you know how it goes: You’re bored or stressed at your computer, so you comb through all ten of your cuticles “fixing” them in a routine, and your reward is smooth skin and the feeling of having accomplished something. Experts say one key to changing a habit is by replacing the “routine” part of this cycle with something else satisfying, but keeping the cue and reward in place. That’s where the red thumb gets interesting—it would give drivers a chance to get a thorough understanding of their cues. (Is it always just a notification sounding? Are red lights particularly tough? Etc.) But where this technique might fall short, in terms of habit reversal therapy, anyway, is the routine replacement.

What do you think? Would you keep your thumbnail painted red to stop you from texting and driving? Would it be enough? (Come to think of it, maybe a Quoted experiment is in order for an upcoming post…)

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I'm a Texas-based Kansan who misses seasons but loves breakfast tacos. My journalism and short stories have been published all over, including at Popular Mechanics, USA Today magazines, SELF magazine and Black Warrior Review. I have an MFA in fiction, but I'll stick to the truth at Quoted.