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Status Report, Vol. 45, No. 12 | December 2, 2010 Subscribe

Public seeks safer roads but still takes risks

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 U.S. residents age 16 and older, conducted in the spring for the foundation's third annual Traffic Safety Culture Index, 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 percent of motorists say driving feels less safe today than it did 5 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 percent said it was unacceptable to text or email while driving. At the same time, 24 percent 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 percent of drivers reported some texting and 6 percent reported emailing (see "Drivers phone and text even at riskiest times," 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.

Actions by others that drivers see as threats to their safety
Very seriousSomewhat seriousMinor threatNot a threat
Text messaging or emailing88%8%2%2%
Driving after drinking alcohol87%9%2%1%
Driving when too sleepy70%22%7%0%
Talking on cellphones62%25%10%2%
Driving aggressively58%30%8%3%
Speeding50%31%13%4%
Risky things that drivers admit to doing within past 30 days
 NeverJust onceRarelyOftenRegularly
Drove without using safety belt76%4%11%4%5%
Read or sent text message while driving76%3%14%4%2%
Drove when it was hard to keep eyes open73%9%15%2%1%
Drove through light that just turned red66%10%20%3%1%
Drove 15 mph over speed limit on freeway53%5%24%10%7%
Talked on cellphone while driving31%10%26%18%16%

Source: AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety’s 2010 Traffic Safety Culture Index

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 over the speed limit on a freeway, but 46 percent reported doing it in the past 30 days.

Red light running

Ninety-three percent 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 percent 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 percent said they've done it multiple times.

Safety belt use

Eighty-six percent of drivers said it's unacceptable not to use a safety belt. But nearly 1 in 4 reported having driven without one in the past month. Nearly 1 in 10 reported doing this fairly often or regularly. Forty-nine percent 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 percent calling it completely unacceptable. Eighty-three percent said they would lose some respect for a friend if they found out the friend had done so.

About 11 percent 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 percent said it happened within the past month. The percentage of fatally injured drivers with blood alcohol concentrations of 0.08 percent or higher has held steady at about one-third since the mid-1990s.

Highway safety

When asked to rank the importance of 3 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.

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