Wheels in Motion – Public Seeks Safer Roads but Still Takes Risks

From Issue: 
Vol LV No. 2, April 2011

Drivers are concerned about the dangers of the road but haven’t given up habits like speeding and cellphone use that they acknowledge are risky, a new poll by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety shows.

The telephone survey of 2,000 US residents age 16 and older, conducted in the spring of 2010 for the foundation’s third annual Traffic Safety Culture Index (aaafoundation.org), found most people view highway safety as an important priority and look unfavorably on drinking and driving, drowsy driving, red light running, speeding in residential areas, and using cellphones behind the wheel. But many people admit to doing some of those things anyway.

While motor vehicle crashes remain the leading cause of death for people ages 3-34, fatalities have fallen to their lowest levels since 1950, thanks in large part to safer vehicles. Still, 52 per cent of motorists say driving feels less safe today than it did five years ago. Of those who say that, more than half cite cellphones, texting, or general distraction as one of the reasons. Other common explanations include aggressive or impatient drivers and increased traffic.

But when it comes to things like cellphone use and speeding, there’s a disconnect between the large majorities that condemn the behaviors and the substantial minorities who say they’ve engaged in them. These groups clearly overlap, although it’s unclear to what extent. Only in the case of alcohol-impaired driving do few drivers admit to driving recently while close to or over the limit.

Cellphones: Of respondents who reported driving in the past 30 days, 92 per cent said it was unacceptable to text or email while driving. At the same time, 24 per cent reported texting or emailing at least once in the prior month. That’s more than admitted to it in a 2009 Institute survey in which 13 per cent of drivers reported some texting and six per cent reported emailing (see Status Report, Feb. 27, 2010). When it comes to talking on cellphones, nearly two-thirds of people surveyed by the AAA Foundation said their own safety is very seriously threatened by drivers on the phone. But more than two-thirds said they had talked on the phone at least once while driving in the previous month. Of those who reported doing so, most said they don’t use a hands-free device.

Speeding: The public appears to recognize that excessive speed, which plays a role in about one-third of fatal crashes, is dangerous. Two-thirds of drivers in the survey said it’s not acceptable to drive more than 15 mph 25 km/h) over the speed limit on a highway, but 46 per cent reported doing it in the past 30 days.

Red light running: Ninety-three per cent of drivers said it’s unacceptable to go through a red light if it’s possible to stop safely, but one-third reported having done so. Almost a quarter of drivers reported doing so more than once in the past 30 days. Nearly 700 people were killed in crashes that involved red light running in 2009.

Drowsy driving: Ninety-six per cent of drivers said it’s unacceptable for people to drive when they are “so tired that they have a hard time keeping their eyes open.” However, more than a quarter of drivers said they’ve done it at least once during the past 30 days, and 18 per cent said they’ve done it multiple times.

Safety belt use: Eighty-six per cent of drivers said it’s unacceptable not to use a safety belt. But nearly one in four reported having driven without one in the past month. Nearly one in 10 reported doing this fairly often or regularly. Forty-nine per cent of passenger vehicle drivers killed in 2009 were unbelted.

Alcohol: Virtually all drivers said it’s unacceptable for people to drive if they believe they’ve had too much to drink, with 93 per cent calling it completely unacceptable. Eighty-three per cent said they would lose some respect for a friend if they found out the friend had done so. About 11 per cent of drivers said that on at least one occasion in the past year they had driven when they thought their blood alcohol concentration was close to or possibly over the legal limit. Of those, 15 per cent said it happened within the past month. The percentage of fatally injured drivers with blood alcohol concentrations of 0.08 per cent or higher has held steady at about one third since the mid-1990s.

Highway safety: When asked to rank the importance of three public health issues — flu, food contamination, and highway safety — half of all respondents said reducing the number of people who die in motor vehicle crashes should be the highest priority. However, most people said they would oppose a 10-cent per gallon gas tax to pay for improvements to the most dangerous roads.

See Safety Canada April 2011 PDF version for opinion charts.

Source: Insurance Institute for Highway Safety