Hard To Feel The Pull Of The Open Road When You’re Stuck In Heavy Traffic

Some romances are more durable than others, and America’s love affair with the car has been more than a quick tumble in the backseat. However, a new report from the Pew Research Center suggests the ardor is cooling—not because of gas prices but because of traffic.

In a 1991 survey of drivers, 29 percent said they like to drive “a great deal.” In the new poll, that number slipped by nearly one-third, to 20 percent. There was a corresponding increase (from 20 percent to 28 percent) in the number who said they regard driving as a chore. The “chore” vote has grown especially among lower-income drivers, from 14 percent to 36 percent. There has been a rise in the number of drivers who view their car as merely “a means of transportation” (from 56 percent to 75 percent) and a decline in the number who see it as “something special” (from 43 percent to 23 percent). When respondents who described driving as a chore were asked to cite their reason for feeling this way, the top responses were traffic congestion (23 percent) and “other drivers” (14 percent). Just 3 percent mentioned the expense.

In the multitasking era, drivers aren’t content just to drive. In the past year, 58 percent have talked on a handheld phone and 41 percent have eaten a meal while driving. Sixteen percent have engaged in “personal grooming” (such as putting on makeup) at the wheel, while a more literary 6 percent have read a newspaper, book or magazine while driving. Nearly equal numbers of men (38 percent) and women (37 percent) said they’ve “shouted, cursed or made gestures to other drivers in the past year.”

For all the complaints Americans have about driving, a majority still enjoy it. Sixty-nine percent said they like to drive. Twenty-seven percent of drivers (30 percent of men, 25 percent of women) said they went driving “just for the fun of it” in the week before being polled. Even among those who usually view driving as a chore, 13 percent said they’d taken a drive just for fun in the past week. Drivers in the 18-29 age bracket were especially likely to have taken a spin just for fun in the past week, with 36 percent having done so. Among people who like driving, what exactly do they like about it? Displaying their command of car-commercial clichés, 14 percent of this cohort “specifically mentioned the sense of freedom or independence while driving.” Even more said they like being alone and having time to think or relax (21 percent); 19 percent enjoy seeing the sights. Or maybe they just appreciate the companionship: Thirty-one percent of drivers said “they think of their car as having a personality.”