Are 'traffic' and 'driving' interchangeable? Is one speaker wrong? Or both? Or neither? Why?

Speaker 1 - [sigh] I spent half an hour in traffic.

Speaker 2 - How long does it [the commute between work and home] take when there is no traffic?

Speaker 1 - Half an hour

Speaker 2 - So it took an hour?

Speaker 1 - No, half an hour

Speaker 2 - So, you spent half an hour driving, not half an hour in traffic.

Speaker 1 - No, I spent half an hour in traffic!

Speaker 2 - But you said it takes half an hour when there is no traffic, so you spent half an hour driving from work to home, you weren't stuck in traffic!

Speaker 1 - Yes! I spent half an hour in traffic!

Speaker 2 - But you spent that half hour driving, you can't spend that same half hour a second time, once it's gone it's gone.

Speaker 1 - It does not matter how many cars there were, or if they slowed me down. I was in my car in traffic. Traffic means cars on the road.

Speaker 2 - But why not just say 'I drove half an hour,' or 'there was no traffic, so the commute was only half an hour,' if you sigh then say you 'spent half an hour in traffic' it seems like you were in a traffic 'jam' for half an hour before being able to drive at a normal speed or that half an hour is longer than it usually takes.

Speaker 1 - Just because people use traffic as a negative doesn't mean it's correct. I am driving in a car, on the road, therefore I am traffic. Traffic refers to vehicles on the road.

Speaker 2 - But you said "ugh, I spent half an hour in traffic." You used the traffic with a negative connotation. But the traffic didn't use up your time, driving did. You spent half an hour driving.

Speaker 1 - Driving in traffic!

Speaker 2 - "I was driving in traffic for half an hour" makes sense, but why bother using the word traffic if the amount of cars on the road made no difference to how long it took to get from point A to point B?

Speaker 1 - You just contradicted yourself, you're looping!

Speaker 2 - No, I know 'traffic' has different uses. 'I was stuck in traffic,' 'there is lots of traffic in the city,' 'I like to observe the traffic from on top of the hill,' 'Let's traffic drugs,'. But 'I spent half an hour in traffic,' is not the same as 'I spent half an hour driving' if the amount of vehicles on the road were not enough to slow you down. That's why you don't say I spent 3 hours in traffic if you are in the countryside and only two cars pass you.

Speaker 1 - I could. I am traffic, I spend time in traffic.

Speaker 2 - Yes, you are part of the flow of traffic. But the traffic didn't use up your time today, driving did. You spent time driving.

Speaker 1 - I can spend time driving, putting on lipstick, thinking, talking in traffic - doesn't mean I spent my time four times over.

Speaker 2 - I know you can put lipstick on while you wait in a traffic jam, or talk while you drive. It's called multi tasking. You drove from work to home in your car, on the road. During that time you were part of traffic. But You spent half an hour driving, traffic did not use up your time.

why question is not clear using common resources:

Traffic as a noun seems to be defined consistently in a dictionary or online:

*Definition of traffic (noun):


A2 the number of vehicles moving along roads, or the amount of aircraft, trains, or ships moving along a route:

There was heavy/a lot of traffic on the roads this morning.

We got stuck in traffic for several hours.

New measures have been introduced to try and ease traffic congestion in the city.

Five people were injured in a traffic accident (= one involving vehicles).

US I heard about the accident on the traffic report on the radio this morning.

Air traffic has increased 30 percent in the last decade.


1 Vehicles moving on a public highway:'a stream of heavy traffic' ...


1. vehicles moving on a public highway.

"a stream of heavy traffic"

synonyms: vehicles, cars, lorries, trucks

"the bridge is not open to traffic"

congestion, traffic jam, jam, tailback, hold-up, bottleneck, gridlock, queue, stoppage, obstruction;

informal snarl-up

"they might be stuck in traffic"



Simple Definition of TRAFFIC:

all the vehicles driving along a certain road or in a certain area ...

Full Definition of TRAFFIC:

... 4 a (1) : the movement (as of vehicles or pedestrians) through an area or along a route (2) : the vehicles, pedestrians, ships, or planes moving along a route (3) : congestion of vehicles {stuck in traffic} ...


1 the vehicles that are travelling in an area at a particular time

At that time of night, there was no traffic on the roads.

the huge volume of traffic in the city centre

rush-hour traffic

And spent is defined as used, and unable to be used again.

So does the sentence "I spent half an hour intraffic" mean "I was held up in traffic for half an hour"? (And am therefore delayed) Or is it the same as "I was driving in traffic for half an hour"

As spent appears in the sentence, but driving does not, is it clear that the speaker meant they were driving, without being slowed down. (Of course it is understood that traffic can refer to a flow of vehicles along a road)

But Does the presence of spent indicate negative use of traffic (as it's usually used to complain that you were 'delayed by traffic')?

If so, does that mean "I spent half an hour driving" is more accurate when no extra time was used up waiting in traffic, or driving slower.

  • No, the words are not interchangeable. But that doesn't mean what "Speaker 2" suggests. "Install chains before traffic in snow" doesn't mean the same as "Install chains before driving in snow." But "driving in rain," "driving in fog," and "driving in traffic" are all understandable phrases and useful ideas. All can be stressful even if they don't affect transit time.
    – jejorda2
    Commented Aug 25, 2016 at 13:52
  • 3
    There are no exact synonyms. 'in traffic' and 'driving' are close but not the same. 'in traffic' necessarily implies that there were a lot of cars around you while driving, which is a lot more specific than just 'driving' by itself.
    – Mitch
    Commented Aug 25, 2016 at 13:58

3 Answers 3


Speaker 1 is not using the word 'traffic' in its normal sense. Yes, it means the passage of vehicles along a road, but "I spent half an hour in traffic" would normally imply that the speaker had been delayed for an extra half hour by traffic congestion.

  • Common usage does not overwrite uncommon, specialized, semantic meanings. Also, normal is a word being thrown around too carelessly. You can't really say normal usage is Traffic as stuck between a long car conga line. Also also, speaker still can be traffic/delayed while there aren't any vehicles around him - roadblock, such.
    – Sakatox
    Commented Aug 25, 2016 at 13:57

Speaker 1 semantically can be correct, In most cases, No.

Going by simple semantics, no, they're not interchangable.

Consider the following:

You are driving in an empty desert road, not even bugs accompany you on your dire trip. When someone asks you what you are doing, and you can choose between:

You probably choose the latter.

In some situations, sure, it can be used "synonymously", but without a bustling metropolis car traffic being constantly present, i do not see it as such.

Traffic means vehicles are being driven/moving, in presense of others. Driving means a vehicle is being driven by someone.

In that sense, Traffic encapsulates the meaning of (Edit:) driving, but the colloquial use of Traffic has shifted to a negative "I'm stuck" format.


Driving is an activity; traffic a concept, so clearly they are not interchangeable.

Being “in traffic” might almost be considered equivalent to “driving” but carries the implication of being “𝘴𝘵𝘶𝘤𝘬 in traffic”. Without specific foreknowledge, merely “driving” carries the implication of normal movement without undue interruption.

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