To keep people from texting and driving, remind them of the deadly consequences — and the choice they have to change their behavior

Eyes on the road. Don't text and drive.

University of Missouri research examines strategies for preventing texting and driving as health messages that highlight the deadly consequences but don’t limit a person’s freedom to choose their behavior

Contact: Sara Diedrich, 573-882-3243,

Citing the grim statistics alone should be enough to convince people to stop texting and driving.

  • More than eight people are killed and 1,161 are injured each day in crashes reported to involve a distracted driver, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
  • Drivers in their 20s make up 25% of distracted drivers in fatal crashes.

But a new study from the University of Missouri found “death awareness” played a significant role in promoting the adoption of texting-and-driving prevention behaviors. When individuals were primed with reminders of their mortality and the potential consequences of their actions, they were more likely to indicate that they would refrain from texting while driving and adopt safer behaviors behind the wheel.

Additionally, the findings indicated that reactance — or the resistance to being persuaded or controlled — played a paradoxical role in texting-and-driving prevention. When individuals were primed to experience reactance and exhibited initial resistance to prevention messages, researchers found death awareness effectively reduced those individuals’ resistance and positively influenced their behavior.

Zack Massey
Zachary Massey

“When you message people about behaviors that could harm their health, you want to be careful not to induce reactance by using terms that imply they have no choice because that could trigger resistance,” said Zachary Massey, an assistant professor of science communication and strategic communication at the Missouri School of Journalism and co-author on the study. “And if there’s resistance, they might reject the message.”

Massey said crafting prevention messages to warn people about threats to their well-being is tricky — even if the statistics about the health threat appear dire. Convincing drivers — especially young drivers — to stop texting and driving is no different.

Massey’s experimental study examined how young adults respond to different versions of a preventative health message that combines two psychological factors that influence individual behavior — death awareness and reactance.

Reactance is especially profound in teenagers and young adults, who often resist attempts to change their behavior. It can reappear at other stages in life as well.

The experiment employed a comprehensive approach, combining survey data, experimental scenarios and statistical analysis to gain insights into the factors influencing how people respond to texting-and-driving messages. The researchers recruited 208 participants between the ages of 18 and 31 who were randomly assigned to write a short essay either about their death or about experiencing dental pain. Participants then read different versions of texting-and-driving prevention messages adapted from governmental websites. One version of the message threatened participants’ behavioral freedom to choose — “There’s really no choice when it comes to preventing texting and driving: You simply have to do it!” — and the other version supported participants freedom to choose — “You have a choice when it comes to texting and driving: Avoid texting and driving whenever you can!” Participants who wrote about their death and then read the message supporting their behavioral choice showed the strongest indication of changing their texting behavior while driving, providing a possible avenue for practitioners that must communicate deadly consequences of health behaviors to people who may be resistant to those messages.

“This is tricky, tricky ground to work on,” Massey said. “We have to tell people about something they might not want to hear that could have deadly ramifications if they don’t listen to what we’re saying. But if we warn people and threaten their behavior to choose, it could backfire. We have to warn people about deadly threats, but we need to figure out how to frame that information so they will listen.”

“The effects of death awareness and reactance on texting-and-driving prevention” was published in Risk Analysis. Co-author on the study is Elena Bessarabova, assistant professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Oklahoma.

Updated: August 10, 2023

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