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Air quality a concern, driving is not, state survey shows

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Posted: Thursday, July 10, 2003 10:00 pm

A new state survey shows that while California residents are concerned about air quality, they're less likely to think their own driving habits are a source of the problem.

"There is a recognition among Californians that automobile emissions are a major contributor to air quality, and there is a desire to conserve to reduce our dependence on foreign oil," said Mark Baldassare, research director at the Public Policy Institute of California, which did the survey. "But that recognition doesn't show in their behavior."

In the survey of 2,002 California adults, 58 percent said they believed "air pollution was a serious health threat to themselves and their immediate family." A further 37 percent of respondents reported that either they or an immediate family member had a respiratory problem.

Emissions from passenger cars account for more than half of all smog-producing pollutants, and almost half of all state residents know that, according to the survey.

But only 13 percent reported being "very concerned" about their vehicle's emissions, and 31 percent said that they were somewhat concerned. Moreover, 29 percent of Californians drive a van, pickup or sport utility vehicle. Among Central Valley residents, the figure rises to 34 percent.

"It's no surprise at all that people don't feel they're part of the problem and don't want to give up their cars," said San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District spokesman Anthony Presto. "The thing that continues to surprise me every day is how much they love and stand by their SUVs."

In the Central Valley, only 33 percent said their vehicle emissions were the primary cause of air pollution, and 21 percent believed most local air pollution is generated outside the area.

Presto said only 27 percent of the northern San Joaquin Valley's air pollution comes from the Bay Area, and that figure drops farther south in the valley. Despite perceptions, Presto said most Central Valley air pollution is homemade from vehicle emissions.

There were also similar concerns about air pollution, regardless of vehicle size. For example, 13 percent of compact car drivers said that they were very concerned that their car pollutes too much - the same rate as seen in SUV, van and pickup drivers.

Presto said he was also surprised that 64 percent of those larger vehicle owners were very or somewhat satisfied with their vehicle's fuel economy.

Baldassare said those numbers can be explained because respondents have already come to terms with their choices. For example, an SUV driver probably knew before he or she purchased the vehicle that it would be expensive to fill. Other survey results showed California residents statewide like to drive, like to drive alone and spend a lot of time doing it. Of employed Californians, 73 percent said that they drove to work alone, and more than half said they liked to drive a great deal or a fair amount. They also drive a great deal or a fair amount.

"We really need people to change their lifestyle habits," Presto said. "We need people to take mass transit, carpool, bike, roller skate or walk."

While they love to drive, California residents are also the most environmentally conscious people in the nation. Sixty-five percent favor protecting the environment at the risk of curbing economic growth, far above the national average of folks who feel that way.

State residents also overwhelmingly supported forcing vehicle manufacturers to improve fuel efficiency, even if this means higher car costs, and offering tax incentives for drivers who buy fuel-efficient hybrid gas/electric cars.

Despite Californians' love for clean air, the survey suggests they're not willing at this point to get out of their cars to do it.

"I know that we will achieve cleaner air some day," Presto said. "The difficult aspect is changing people's lifestyles."

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