WASHINGTON – Americans love their automobiles, but not as much as they used to. Nearly seven in 10 drivers enjoy getting behind the wheel, while the rest think it's a chore. In 1991, nearly eight in 10 said they liked driving.
The biggest reasons for dreading the road: traffic and the behavior of other drivers. Only 3 percent point to high gas prices.
"Other drivers get on my nerves," said Steve Heavisides, a 45-year-old teacher from Vernon, Conn., who had just returned home from a short drive. "There was a women who could have gone right on red and she was just sitting there talking on her cell phone. People don't pay attention and that gets on your nerves."
About one in four drivers thinks of his or her car as "something special" instead of just a "means of transportation," according to a poll released Tuesday by the Pew Research Center. Nearly one in three thinks it has "a personality of its own."
Americans have been loving their cars for about a century, buying increasingly bigger, faster and more expensive cars while the rest of the world moves toward economy and efficiency. But the new poll suggests that driving is becoming more of a burden for many.
The souring attitudes evolved as many Americans moved farther from central cities, generating longer commutes and more congestion. By 2001, the U.S. had more personal vehicles (204 million) than licensed drivers (191 million).
Urban drivers endured an average of 47 hours of rush hour traffic delays in 2003, a threefold increase from two decades earlier. The worst problems were in Los Angeles, where the average driver suffered almost 100 hours of traffic delays. That's about four full days of waiting for the car in front of you to move.
"I sit there in traffic when it should take half an hour, now it's taking an hour and 15 minutes," said Stacy Baglio, 36, who drives 28 miles to her sales job in northern New Jersey. "People are weaving in and out of traffic. There is no common courtesy whatsoever."
Pew conducted the survey of 1,048 drivers from June 20 to July 16. It has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points. The results were compared with a Gallup poll done in 1991.
The new poll's results were consistent among drivers of cars, pickups and SUVs. There were few regional differences among drivers, although northeasterners were more likely than drivers in the rest of the country to have "shouted, cursed or made gestures to other drivers" in the past year.
The key to rediscovering automotive bliss: Zen out. Too many people think of driving as competition, says Leon James, co-author of the book, "Road Rage and Aggressive Driving." Happy drivers think of traffic simply as part of the process of getting from one place to another, kind of like the process of taking a shower to get clean, he said.
"Americans are nice people," said James, a psychology professor at the University of Hawaii. "But there are certain areas that have to do with games and competition, where we become less nice to each other."
Jennifer Geisinger seems to have it figured out. The 31-year-old Realtor from suburban Minneapolis said she loves to drive her 1999 Honda CRV.
"It's something about being in control and getting out on the road," Geisinger said. "I don't have a sports car and I don't speed. But I love my car."
Geisinger also has something in common with 68 percent of all drivers: "Oh I sing, of course," she said, adding that her stereo plays country, opera and Broadway show tunes.