The Washington Post

In survey, many drivers admit to the very behaviors they say are most dangerous

Even though 94 percent of survey respondents said cellphone use and sending text messages were dangerous, more than a third of them said they had read texts or e-mails while driving. (Robert F. Bukaty/AP)

American drivers once again have identified their enemy as themselves.

When quizzed in an annual survey, they have admitted that they often are guilty of the very same behaviors they view as a menace on the road.

Almost everyone said that drunken driving was unacceptable, and three-quarters described drunk drivers as a serious threat. Yet 14 percent of them said that within the year they had driven with an alcohol level probably near or above the legal limit, AAA’s Foundation for Traffic Safety reported.

The survey of 3,147 people, taken in June, used online technology said to create a representative cross section of the U.S. population. People were asked about their driving habits in the month, or year in some instances, preceding that.

Cellphone use and sending text messages were dangerous, 94 percent said, but more than a third of them said they had read texts or e-mails while driving. A quarter of them also said they had sent messages. Two-thirds said they had talked on their cellphones, and a third said they do so regularly.

“This ‘Do as I say, not as I do’ attitude that persists among drivers needs to change before we can experience a traffic safety culture where safe driving is the norm,” Peter Kissinger, head of the foundation, said in a statement.

The foundation said that 74 percent of drivers thought it was unacceptable to go more than 15 mph above the speed limit on a freeway, but more than half admitted doing that.

Although 94 percent said the same excessive speeding was unacceptable on a residential street, a quarter of them admitted that they had gone more than 15 mph above the limit.

Nearly all drivers said that when a traffic light turns red, people should stop if they can do so safely, but 37 percent said they have run a red light.

Falling asleep behind the wheel was identified as a serious problem by 96 percent of drivers, but a third of drivers said that they have nodded off at least once.

The safety value of a seat belt has been long established, and 86 percent of drivers agreed that they should be used, but almost a quarter of drivers said they had not used one at least once in the month before they were surveyed. Nineteen percent said they had failed to do so more than once.

Recent federal data showed that 32,885 people were killed in vehicle crashes in 2010, the lowest number in 60 years. The drop has been attributed to better safety features in vehicles — seat belt improvements, safer air bags, better vehicle stabilization, advancements in highway design and high-profile campaigns against drunken and distracted driving.

“We are moving in the right direction when it comes to safety on our roads, but we need to do much more,” Kissinger said. “Changing driver behaviors is not rocket science. It’s harder.”

Ashley Halsey reports on national and local transportation.

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