Public Highway Expectations

Journal Staff


Public reliance on 911 is evident in the recently released “2016 Motor Vehicle Occupant Safety Survey: 911 Systems,” conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). But not only do those answering the survey expect that a phone call will bring rapid response, a majority also expects receiving pre-arrival instructions while waiting for the ambulance to arrive and texting as a ready alternative to calling.

Survey results, published January 2020 in the NHTSA Traffic Tech Technology Transfer Series, were compiled from a questionnaire made available online or mailed (paper survey) to participants selected in a probability-based sample. Nearly 50% of the 12,000 representative motor vehicle occupants (whether as a driver or passenger) queried responded.

Questions were geared toward results that would assist in the National 911 Program’s efforts to develop a fully integrated 911 system. Indirectly, the survey highlighted the importance the public places on 911 and EMS and, in some cases, revealed expectations inconsistent with 911’s current situation nationally.

Vehicle emergencies

The first part of the questionnaire asked respondents to rank the type of road emergency that would most likely prompt their 911 call. Motor vehicle accidents were ranked highest, followed by reckless/aggressive driving, suspected drunk driving, broken down car impeding traffic, and pedestrians walking/cycling in the roadway. An “other” category cited obstacles such as highway construction and an animal maimed or killed while crossing the road.

More than half of the 100% called to request an ambulance or rescue squad. Slightly less than half of the 100% called to request police, and 10% called for fire department assistance.


Nearly all respondents—91% of the 5,410 completed surveys—expect pre-arrival instructions from emergency dispatchers (“911 operators,” as referred to in the survey). Expectations, however, do not match national emergency medical dispatch capabilities. In 2018, 2,020 PSAPs reported that they “provide EMD [emergency medical dispatch] and follow a special protocol” out of the 5,232 total PSAPs (primary and secondary) nationwide, a percentage less than half (39%).1 A related 911 program report noted that 33 states have PSAPs with EMD protocols, and 16 of those have quality assurance requirements for compliance.2

Survey results revealed two more misconceptions about 911 capabilities, although not on the same scale as pre-arrival instruction expectations. Almost one-third of the respondents (30%) were confident a "911 operator” could identify a caller’s location without the caller explicitly stating where they were. Texting was the most frequent action a caller would take in the event of 911 center overload situations during a disaster (21%), followed by social media or email.

Location and texting capabilities, however, are not universal, as detailed in the 2019 National 911 Progress Report. Findings from the report include: 3

  • Thirty-one states reported adopting strategic plans for Next Generation 9-1-1 (NG9-1-1), an increase from 20 states since 2015
  • Twenty-two states reported installing and testing an NG9-1-1 part, function, or component at the state level
  • Thirty-three states reported receiving text-to-911 messages, compared to 17 states in 2017
  • Fourteen states reported that 100% of their 911 systems are processing and interpreting location and caller information using NG9-1-1 infrastructure

Public support

Survey results suggest a public willingness to pay more to enhance the service that’s part of a national (and international) system to seek assistance in an emergency. Close to three-quarters of the respondents (69%) are willing to pay at least $5 more in fees or taxes to locate callers faster.

Download the final 2016 Motor Vehicle Occupant Safety Survey, Volumes #1 Methodology Report and #4 Emergency Medical Services and Other Traffic Safety Topics at nhtsa.gov.


1 Kryda K, Sheppard K. “The 2016 Motor Vehicle Occupant Safety Survey: 911 Systems.” 2020; January. https://rosap.ntl.bts.gov (dot_43783_DS1.pdf) (accessed Feb. 11, 2020).

2 National 911 Program. “National 911 Progress Report.” 2019; November. https://www.jems.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/12/2019/12/National-911-Program-Profile-Database-Progress-Report-2019.pdf (accessed Feb. 12, 2020).

3. See note 2.