Feb. 13, 2005 -- -- Freeways get clogged, minutes tick by and tempers sometimes flare, but there's another side to the daily commute for millions of Americans: Most of them actually like it.
So it goes (and stops-and-goes) in the nation's love-hate relationship with the daily task of getting around. In a country where 220 million adults average an hour and a half a day in their cars, views of traffic in America vary as much as highway conditions themselves, from the joy of the open blacktop to the misery of another rubberneck-inspired backup.
On balance, the road still offers more freedom than frustration. Three-quarters of Americans say driving often gives them a sense of independence, and nearly half say it's often relaxing. Four in 10 love their cars -- not just like them, but love them.
But there's a darker side: About a third can be classified as aggressive drivers. Six in 10 concede they sometimes go well over the speed limit. Sixty-two percent occasionally get frustrated behind the wheel, more than four in 10 get angry and two in 10 sometimes boil into road rage. And nothing fuels driver anger like getting stuck in a traffic jam.
From emotional responses to policy choices, this ABC News/Time magazine/Washington Post poll dissects public attitudes on traffic and experiences on the road, with some surprising results. The national survey supports ABC's weeklong, cross-platform coverage, "Gridlock Nation: America's Traffic Toll," starting Feb. 13.
For better or worse, America is a nation on wheels. To get where they need to go, 90 percent of Americans say they usually drive, reporting an average of 87 minutes a day behind the wheel. For car commuters, it's an average of 100 minutes; for parents with children at home, an average of 104 minutes (compared with 77 minutes for people without kids at home). The average household owns two cars, trucks or sport utility vehicles -- and one in four owns three or more.
Traffic overall is not decidedly dreadful -- 53 percent say it's pretty good in their area. But 47 percent say it's bad, and there's great local variance. Traffic is worst in big cities and suburbs -- but far better in the towns and rural areas where about half of Americans live. Regionally it's best in the Midwest and especially bad in the West, which on a population basis mainly means California.
About half of Americans say traffic in their area is worse now that it was five years ago, and about half expect it to be worse still five years from now -- both about 10 points less negative than they were in a 2000 survey. Westerners, suburbanites and people with long or often-delayed commutes are most likely to say traffic has gotten worse, and to expect it to worsen further.
Almost a quarter of Americans get stuck in traffic jams on at least a weekly basis. That's the same as it was five years ago -- no worse -- but still it represents about 50 million adults stuck on the road with something better to do. Among commuters, more, nearly a third, get nailed by traffic jams at least weekly.
Life for commuters can be heaven or hell. They report an average one-way commute time of 26 minutes (over an average distance of 16 miles). But the variance is huge: On the best days, the average commute is 19 minutes; on the worst days, 46 minutes. That means traffic, at its worst, can double the average commute time, adding 27 minutes each way.
And on average -- not at its worst, but just on average -- workers estimate that traffic congestion adds a half-hour a day to their drive, 15 minutes each way. That's an impressive time suck.
As an example of how much conditions vary, average commute times range from 19 minutes for people who work in towns to 34 minutes for people who work in big cities. And where people say the traffic is OK, it's 24 minutes; where poor, it's 32.
Views of traffic conditions over time have been unstable. In four Roper Organization polls between 1976 and 1992, anywhere from a low of 42 percent to a high of 59 percent said traffic in their area was good. The average was 49 percent, not far from the 53 percent measured in this poll.
One difference: A fortunate 14 percent now say their traffic is "excellent," the first time it has cracked double digits. About as many, 15 percent, give their traffic the worst rating, "poor."
Traffic engenders impressive avoidance strategies. Two-thirds of Americans sometimes take a less direct route to avoid snarls. Six in 10 sometimes leave earlier or later than planned to duck the worst traffic. Two in 10 have moved homes mainly to improve a commute.
A quarter have changed their work schedules, and 10 percent sometimes work at home to avoid a commute -- obviously not an option for many workers. This rises to a fifth of people in high-congestion areas, and a quarter of those who really don't like the drive.
Fourteen percent of Americans say they've taken the ultimate commute-avoidance measure: Changed jobs, or simply left a job, primarily because of the commute.
Policy choices are a contentious brew. Among some of the most-discussed options, the public is somewhat skeptical about high-occupancy vehicle lanes and downright hostile toward adjustable-rate or city-center tolls. Solutions such as quickly hooking and hauling breakdowns, retiming traffic lights and providing prompt traffic alerts are seen as the best choices, and automatic cameras to catch traffic offenders get 2-1 support. About half see building roads as very effective -- but most oppose gasoline taxes to fund it.
For most people, public transportation and carpooling remain far outside the fast track. While six in 10 Americans have public transit available, just 10 percent use it regularly, and just 4 percent of workers use it for their daily commute. (Ninety-three percent call driving more convenient.) Eighty-four percent drive alone to work, 8 percent drive with someone else and 80 percent of solo drivers aren't interested in car pooling.
Alongside the traffic, there's the other kind of congestion: Two-thirds of Americans are concerned about the effect of auto exhaust on their health, although fewer (four in 10) concede that their own driving is much to blame.
Yet, as noted, for all the watercooler gripes, 60 percent of people who work outside the home say they like their daily commute.
How so? One secret is a sane trip: Happy commuters tend not to work in cities, report below-average travel times and distances and say their local traffic isn't bad. Among people who work in towns or rural areas (four in 10 commuters), 71 percent like the commute; but among those who work in big cities (three in 10 commuters) it's 24 points lower.
Long commutes are no fun: Enjoyment is 32 points higher among people who spend 15 minutes or fewer each way on their daily commute, compared with those who take more than a half-hour. Similarly, people with a long-distance commute are 22 points less likely to say they like it.
Indeed, about a quarter of commuters say the main reason they like it is because they're blessed with a short or easy route. More, nearly four in 10, like the quiet time alone or the break between home and work. And others report simple pleasures such as the scenery or listening to music or the radio.
Detroit may enjoy one finding: By a 10-point margin, people who "love" their cars are more apt to like their commute. Environmentalists may dislike another: It's SUVs that win the most affection. Among the one in six Americans who drive an SUV, half love it. Among sedan drivers, by contrast, just 35 percent love their cars.
One common experience on the road is bad behavior. Majorities of motorists say they often see other drivers speeding (reported by 82 percent), driving inattentively (71 percent) or driving aggressively (64 percent).
Four in 10 often see others run a red light or stop sign; 34 percent often witness "impolite gestures," and 27 percent often see other drivers exhibiting road rage -- "uncontrollable anger toward another driver on the road."