Highlights of Findings 99

A Survey of the Attitudes of the American People
on Highway & Auto Safety

A Public Opinion Poll conducted by Louis Harris for
Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety

September 1999

(A copy of the Full Report in Acrobat Format, which includes graphic charts,
may be obtained by clicking HERE.)

Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety (Advocates), an alliance of consumer, health, safety and insurance groups working together to advance highway and auto safety, recently sought to determine how Americans feel about specific highway and auto safety issues, policies and programs. To do so, Advocates commissioned a well-known national pollster, Louis Harris, to survey a cross-section of 1,005 adults in August 1999. This is the third poll Harris has conducted for Advocates.

A variety of high priority problems in highway and auto safety were probed. Some questions extended trend lines from previously asked questions in 1996 and 1998 while others explored new areas concerning older and younger drivers, intersection safety and the priority the federal government places on auto safety standards. The survey was conducted in conjunction with the release of a report on September 16, 1999, by Advocates called "Stuck in Neutral - Recommendations for Shifting the Highway and Auto Safety Agendainto High Gear."

Some of the key findings of the public opinion poll are:

Clear Mandate for Federal Safety Regulations

By convincing majorities, the public strongly supports federal involvement in setting safety standards rather than leaving it to states and localities and jeopardizing uniformity. Public support of this view continues to grow in each successive poll. In 1996, 87% and in 1998, 89% of the respondents supported a strong federal role in establishing highway and auto safety standards. In this recent poll 93% say it is important "for the federal government to be concerned with these areas of safety." Across the board, Americans believe federal involvement is important, but the percent of those who feel it is "very important" is greatest among women, minorities, and those with a postgraduate degree.

--Time for New Auto Safety Standards

Basic auto safety standards have not been revised in 30 years, but cars have changed dramatically in that time and so have safety technology and knowledge. By more than a 2-to-1 majority, Americans say "it would be wise to set new standards for auto safety." By a majority of 69% to 25%, the public rejects the notion "that old standards ought to be left alone." Again, women felt more strongly about auto safety than men (74% vs. 64%), but a majority of both groups believe that it's time for action. Interestingly, more young people (74%) are concerned about reviewing safety standards than older people (55%).

--Public Favors Increased Federal Spending on Auto Safety

Knowing that the federal government spends $9 billion a year on airline safety, but only

$300 million on auto safety, Americans are willing to back up their concern for auto safety with their tax dollars. By a margin of 77% to 21%, the public favors boosting federal spending on auto safety. Forty-nine percent (49%) say the budget for auto safety should increase "somewhat" while 28% believe it should "go up a great deal."

Public Worried About Intersection Safety

Most motor vehicle crashes occur at intersections. With the aging U.S. population and the onslaught of new teenage drivers because of the "Echo Boom," intersection safety and the threat to pedestrians is an emerging highway safety issue. As a result, Americans perceive intersections as danger zones. Three (3) out of 4 favor the use of cameras to catch red light runners, and similar numbers support other measures to improve safety.

--More Intersection Improvements Favored

Simple measures such as changing traffic signal timing, adding left turn lanes and making signs less confusing can improve intersection safety for pedestrians and drivers alike. The majority of Americans (70%) say their cities should pay greater attention to intersection safety improvements. Nearly a third believe these improvements deserve "much more" attention.

--Cameras Get the Green Light

Red light runners better beware: 74% of Americans favor state laws that permit cities to install cameras at intersections to catch those who ignore traffic signals. Approval for intersection cameras grew from 65% in 1998. As these cameras are increasingly used in cities and suburbs, they are gaining popularity with the public. Today's level of support for cameras varies by age. The elderly are the greatest supporters (81%), and even young people favor cameras by a more than a 2-to-1 majority.

--Dangerous Intersections Need More Attention, Especially for Pedestrians

The vast majority of Americans (85%) feel more attention should be paid to making intersections safer for pedestrians. Once again, more women than men feel strongly, and support for "much more" attention being paid to the issue is greater among those over 50. It doesn't seem to matter where one lives to be concerned about intersection safety. Whether residing in a city, suburb, or rural area, a majority of Americans, in nearly identical numbers, feel that much more attention should be paid to intersection safety.

Frequent Driver Testing Makes the Grade

All Americans, regardless of age, favor more frequent testing of two groups known to have higher fatality rates: younger and older drivers. However, testing all drivers when they renew their licenses was met with strong disapproval, with the most notable opposition coming from those 50 years of age and older.

--Young and Old Drivers Need More Frequent Tests

By large majorities, people want both younger and older drivers tested more frequently. There is greater overall support for more frequent license testing of older drivers (83%) than for younger drivers (72%). Younger and older drivers themselves recognize they need to be tested more often. Sixty-nine percent (69%) of those between 18 and 29 say young people should take the driver's license test more frequently. Among those over 65, 80% favor testing older drivers more often.

While support for more frequent testing of younger and older age groups is strong across the board, Americans of all ages oppose requiring all drivers to take a driving test each time they renew their licenses. Opposition to such a requirement is 62% to 37%. Interestingly, young people are nearly evenly split on the question with 49% in favor and 50% opposed.

Large Vehicles Cast Big Shadow Over Public Psyche

The majority of people are clearly worried about the hazards posed to drivers and passengers by vehicles such as sport utility vehicles (SUVs) and large trucks.

--Public is Polarized on the Dangers of SUVs

Sport utility vehicles comprise the fastest growing segment of the new car market. Even though SUVs are undeniably popular, the majority of Americans -- 67% -- believe these vehicles are dangerous. Even among SUV owners themselves, nearly half (44%) believe their vehicles are dangerous. Owners of passenger cars are the most fearful of SUVs with 70% calling them dangerous. There are distinct age and gender differences on this question. People under 50 view SUVs with less trepidation, and men are less concerned than women (58% vs. 76%). Advocates' previous survey in 1998 found 40% of Americans were "very concerned" about "severe accidents that can result when bigger vehicles, such as sport utility vehicle and pickup trucks, hit smaller cars."

--Wake Up Call to Tired Truckers

Truck-related crashes result in more than 100 deaths a week and truck traffic is growing. According to government studies truck driver fatigue is a major factor in truck crashes. These statistics alarm Americans and they want trucks equipped with new technology that would diminish the risks posed by fatigued drivers and enhance safety. A large majority of Americans (81%) favor installation of driver warning systems and black boxes in trucks to improve enforcement of truck safety rules. Advocates' previous polls also showed that the majority of Americans are concerned about the safety of big trucks on our roads. Eighty-one percent (81%) of 1998 respondents said "sleep-deprived, sleepy truck drivers" are a serious safety problem. In response to a question in 1996, 83% of the public is opposed to any changes in the number of consecutive hours that a truck driver is allowed to drive on a highway from the current 10 hours to 12 hours.

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