1996 Louis Harris Poll Results

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

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

May 1996


Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety (Advocates), a leading national highway safety advocacy group, is an alliance of consumer, health, safety and insurance groups working together to advance highway and auto safety. In May, 1996, Advocates 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 1,000 adults during the week of May 22-June 1, 1996.

A broad spectrum of issues was covered and great emphasis was placed on how important Americans feel the government role (both federal and state) should be in setting standards and passing policies and legislation.


I. Government Presence in Highway and Auto Safety

Despite conventional wisdom that the public wants less government involvement in regulatory matters, decisive majorities of Americans feel it is important for the government to play a strong role in highway and auto safety regulations.

Among the key findings in this area:


  • 94% say it is important to have federal regulations of car safety standards, with 77% stating such a presence is very important.


  • 91% feel that federal regulation of large truck safety on the highways is important, with 74% viewing federal involvement very important.


  • 91% believe federal involvement in assuring safe highways is important, with 78% saying such a role is very important.


  • 87% say it is important to have the federal government setting strict rules about food and product safety, highways and airline safety, and safety on the job, with 62 citing such regulation as very important.


  • 80% feel a federal presence is important in passing laws which mandate safety belt use, with 61% saying federal involvement in this area is very important.


  • 77% believe it is important for the federal government to pass laws to get people to wear motorcycle helmets, with 61% stating such laws are very important.


  • 73% say a federal presence in controlling excessive speed on highways is important, with 47% stating this presence is very important.


  • 72% believe it is important to have the federal government setting safe speed limits, with 48% stating that this role is very important.


II. Strong Support for Youth Highway Safety Issues

More than 9,100 Americans under the age of 21 were killed in highway crashes in 1995. Highway crashes are the leading cause of death and injury of Americans under the age of 30. Therefore, a central focus of the poll dealt with young people. The poll showed that the public wants the most government involvement in areas that affect youth, such as strengthening and enforcing child safety seat laws, underage drinking and impaired driving, and graduating licensing.


A. Child Restraint Laws

  • By 84% to 14%, a decisive majority of the adult public favor making it mandatory for all states to require that all children traveling in vehicles operated by anyone, not just their parents, no matter where þthe children are riding must be buckled into special children's safety seats.


  • By an even higher 90% to 6%, the public nearly unanimously believes that þall people driving children, whether they are related to the children or not, should be made responsible for ensuring that the children are properly belted in.þ


B. Underage Drinking and Impaired Driving

  • A 91% to 7% majority favors passage of uniform laws, under which, þwhen teenage drivers test positive for any alcohol, they are subject to immediate revocation of their driverþs license, and will be subject to strong penalties for driving under the influence.þ Among the youngest group, those 18 to 19, an 88% to 12% majority support such laws.


  • By 78% to 18%, a majority of adults nationwide oppose any effort þto roll back the legal drinking age from 21 years of age.þ Among those under 30, a smaller but still substantial 65% to 31% majority also opposes any such downward change.


C. Graduated Licensing

On the proposal to enact graduated licensing laws to phase in the full driving privilege for teens, the Harris poll questioned the public on several key components of the proposed law:


  • An overwhelming 89 percent to 8 percent majority supports teen drivers holding a learner's permit for at least six months before they qualify for a license and that an adult driver must be in the vehicle with the teenagers. Seventy-seven (77) percent of young people agreed.


  • 79 percent favors a teen driver moving up to a restricted license for six months to a year after taking a behind-the-wheel test. A 2 to 1 majority of young people agree.


  • A majority of 88 percent to 9 percent agree that "finally, if after a year or so, the teenager has not violated speed or drinking-when-driving laws, the teenager will be issued a full driver's license." And, 79 percent of teens agreed.


  • By 62 percent to 30 percent, a substantial majority of American people agree with the provision that "a young driver, for the first six months of licensure would not be permitted to drive after 10pm or 11pm." A clear 56 percent to 39 percent majority of young people disagreed.


  • The last area tested specified that "when first licensed, young drivers would not be allowed to transport other teenagers without an adult being present." A narrow 49 percent to 42 percent of the public agrees. A clear-cut 65 percent to 35 percent of teenagers disagree.


III. Automobile Safety and Consumer Information

Automobile safety is clearly in the forefront when it comes to selecting a new car in the 90s. The American people want safety features in their cars and passenger vehicles, including sport utility vehicles (the fastest growing segment of the new car market) and are willing to pay for such safety features. Furthermore, consumers want crash test results and other safety information available to help them make their purchasing decision.


  • By a clear 51% to 37%, a majority of adult Americans is convinced that þsport utility vehicles are not as safe as most passenger cars.þ About 1 in 3 (30%) believe they are þas safe as most passenger cars,þ and a small 7% feel they are þsafer.þ A sizable majority of 57% of all women feel sport utility vehicles are þnot as safe,þ compared with a smaller 44% plurality of men who share that view.


  • A 75% to 19% majority flatly say they would be willing to pay $200 to $300 more for a car þthat has better safety systems to prevent rollover, better roof crush protection, improved padding on the interior of the car, and better side protection.


  • An 85% to 11% majority of those surveyed want to see all purchasers of passenger vehicles have the government safety ratings of the vehicles (from crash tests) they are contemplating buying at the point of sale.


IV. Large Truck Safety

In the wake of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) pressure and other efforts to allow larger trucks and more consecutive hours of driving of trucks on the highways, the public adamantly opts for no compromises with current regulation of trucks on the nationþs highways.


  • By 83% to 13%, a majority of the public is opposed to the move to change the number of consecutive hours that a truck driver is allowed to drive on a highway from the current 10 hours to 12 hours.


  • 80% are fully convinced that þtrucks pulling two or more trailers are less safe than trucks pulling only one trailer.þ


  • By an even higher 88% to 7%, a majority also is opposed to allowing bigger and heavier trucks on the highways.


V. Safety Belt Use

While 49 states currently have safety belt laws, most are weaker or þsecondary enforcementþ laws that require police to issue a ticket for some other violation before a safety belt ticket can be written. The public is split down the middle on the proposal that these laws be upgraded to "primary enforcement" status where police are allowed to stop a driver solely for not wearing a safety belt.


  • By a close 51% to 46%, a majority opposes such a change to primary enforcement of safety belt laws.


  • Support for giving law enforcement officers the power to make such a change to primary enforcement of safety belt laws runs highest among suburban residents (52% in favor), women (51%), those 65 and over (59%), those with postgraduate degrees (56%), Democrats (53%), and Latinos (56%).


  • Most opposed are men (58% opposed), residents of the East and Midwest (54%), residents of small towns and rural areas (56%), young people under 30 (58%), political independents (57%), and Republicans (55%).


VI. Speed Limits and Aggressive Driving

The National Maximum Speed Limit (NMSL) was enacted by Congress in 1974 in response to a national energy crisis. However, one of the unanticipated benefits of the 55 mph speed limit was the dramatic drop in highways deaths. In 1995, Congress repealed the NMSL thereby allowing states to set their own interstate speed limits. As the following results show, while Americans support giving states this power, they are also concerned with the safety implications of the repeal.


  • By a 62% to 33% margin, a 2 to 1 majority of the American people support giving states the power to set whatever speed limits they want, including taking them off entirely.


  • However, a 66% to 29% majority of the public believes that accidents and deaths on the highways will rise again as a result of the repeal.


  • And a 64% to 31% majority feels that higher speed limits will contribute to even more aggressive driving.



Clearly now is not the time for the government to "back off" in the area of highway and auto safety. Highway deaths have increased each year since 1992. Last year, 41,798 Americans were killed and an estimated five million others were injured in highway crashes. Support for effective highway and auto safety policies and programs is as strong as ever. At a time when deaths on the highways are increasing, Americans want the government to remain involved in setting safety regulations that affect their safety and the safety of their families and friends on the highways. For a complete copy of the poll, please contact Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety at (202) 408-1711.

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