Drivers in the Northwest can’t envision life without wheels

Drivers in the Northwest can’t envision life without wheels

The FINANCIAL -- As traffic woes ensnarl life in the Northwest, the latest poll from PEMCO Insurance suggests that residents here would rather suffer from the driver's seat of their own car than swap their ride for a car-free lifestyle.

According to the PEMCO Insurance Northwest Poll, about one in three drivers (31 percent) think it would be at least somewhat easy to reduce the number of cars that people in their household drive, but merely one in 10 drivers (9 percent) said they'd rather give up owning their vehicle to enjoy life without one.

In fact, across Washington and Oregon, just 3 percent of licensed drivers live a car-free life. The PEMCO poll finds that 95 percent of drivers here own or lease, or regularly drive a car owned by someone else – and most prefer it that way. A majority – 87 percent in both states – say they like having their own vehicle and couldn't imagine life without it.

"Whether it's convenience or comfort, our poll seems to support the notion that we embrace a car culture in the Northwest," said PEMCO spokesperson Jon Osterberg. "We'll be interested to track this trend over time as our urban areas get more crowded and alternative transportation becomes more mainstream. But for now, we're puzzled by the contradiction our poll results seem to offer against the frustration many of us see on the roads."

The PEMCO poll examined whether household composition has bearing on drivers' propensity to enjoy car ownership. In the Northwest, 88 percent of single-person households own at least one car, and two-thirds of all households (62 percent) – especially those with kids – own or lease two or more cars. Conversely, just one-quarter (26 percent) of households with two or more people share one vehicle.

The poll shows that drivers don't think going car-less will get any easier with time, either. About half (57 percent) think making do with fewer vehicles would be difficult today, and a similar number (48 percent) predict that it will be difficult five years from now, as well. 

For now, the poll finds that style and economy sway drivers the most when it comes to selecting a car, with safety a distant fourth priority among poll respondents. Most drivers (82 percent) consider price, along with fuel efficiency (61 percent) and body style (42 percent) as their top three factors for selecting a new or used car, while just one-third (29 percent) would consider a vehicle's safety features among their top three.

Nevertheless, seven out of 10 (71 percent) think crash-test safety rankings are very or extremely important, but only about half that number (39 percent) said they would be very or extremely willing to pay a 5 percent premium to drive a car that ranked as one of the safest vehicles on the road. One in four (25 percent) said they would not be willing to pay a premium for a safest-ranked car.

The PEMCO poll finds that parents are the most protective. Drivers with kids are more willing to pay more for safety – 48 percent are very or extremely willing to pay the 5 percent premium, while only 33 percent without children said the same.

"We suspect that consumers today expect the automotive industry to manufacture safe cars. Still, PEMCO actively supports highway safety, so naturally we'd like to see drivers make choices that prioritize safety," Osterberg said. "It's likely that as consumers demand more safety features, manufacturers will respond to stay relevant and competitive."

But as it turns out, Northwesterners don't buy new cars often. According to the poll, most drivers here believe 10 years is about the right amount of time to keep a car before replacing it. In both Washington and Oregon, drivers without kids – and those drivers tend to be older – are more likely to prefer keeping their vehicle longer.

Younger drivers under 35, conversely, are twice as likely as their older counterparts to keep their car fewer than five years (32 percent vs. 17 percent).

"We can only guess why younger adults and parents change cars more often – perhaps it's to take advantage of better safety features in newer cars, or maybe some need bigger cars as their families grow," Osterberg said.