US Drivers support cellphone restrictions. But support them more when framed as less restrictive.

Updated: Aug 26

In an online sample of American drivers (N=648), we investigated the influence of language on support for legislative, technological, and organizational strategies for reducing cellphone use while driving (CUWD).

We found that support varied across strategies—less restrictive strategies were supported more than more restrictive strategies. For example, 87% of the sample supported school or workplace pledges to not drive distracted whereas 80% supported school or workplace bans on CUWD.

But the language used to describe the restriction matters. The same strategy was supported more when it was described using less restrictive language. Apps and technology that “help you drive without using your phone” were preferred to those that “prevent you from using your phone.” See the figure below. Similarly, laws that monetarily fine people who use phones while driving were preferred to “bans” on using phones (although “bans” are just another way of describing a law that punishes CUWD with fines). Finally, insurance programs that charge good drivers less are preferred to those that charge poor drivers more.

Our findings highlight that the language used by policy makers and other stakeholders will influence the public’s support for a strategy. Insurance companies also will have better luck attracting customers if they talk about safe driving discounts rather than penalties for dangerous drivers, and app developers should frame their technology as helping people avoid dangerous behavior rather than preventing them from engaging in dangerous behavior. Finally, support for enforcement of cellphone use will be undermined if laws are described as bans.

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 (