Encouraging hands-free cellphone use may be an effective way of reducing distraction-related crashes

Setting aside the differences between the strategies we asked about in our online sample of American drivers (N=648), drivers that supported the strategies more overall had greater anti-CUWD beliefs, perceived CUWD as more risky, and reported lower negative reactions to warnings against distracted driving.

People who felt worse about warnings were also more likely to report that they drive distracted more often. Thus, the most distracted drivers are also going to be the least supportive of strategies to reduce distracted driving and the most difficult to educate about the risks of distracted driving.

We were also curious about whether and who might react poorly to the messages. Reactance is a combination of negative emotions to messages (e.g., annoyance or anger with messaging) and beliefs that the messages are manipulative and risks are exaggerated or overblown. We’ve found in this and other surveys of drivers that reactance is one of the strongest predictors of dangerous driving behavior.

Fortunately, reactance in our study was unrelated to support for hands-free use of cellphones while driving. One way to sidestep resistance to messaging and overcome the challenges of convincing people CUWD is risky is to tell them they can still use their phone—just use it hands-free.

Large-scale studies of drivers suggest that hands-free use of phones to hold conversations is less risky than manually using phones while driving (e.g., to dial, text, or scroll). If drivers who currently manually use their phones switch to hands-free, it should reduce the number of crashes. States that have hands free laws have fewer fatal crashes.

Because cellphone use is more common and more dangerous in younger drivers, and younger drivers are more reactant to anti-distraction messaging , these laws have particular potential to protect young drivers.

This research was supported by grants from The Risk Institute at The Ohio State University, Ohio Department of Transportation, and the National Science Foundation (SES-1558230), and will be published in Traffic Injury Prevention (https://doi.org/10.1080/15389588.2021.1964076).