Americans decide to drive fewer miles
Two years of record-high gasoline prices have forced auto-crazed Americans to do something they have not done in more than two decades: Drive less. Few have made drastic lifestyle changes. But to the surprise of many economists, U.S. motorists ch...
Two years of record-high gasoline prices have forced auto-crazed Americans to do something they have not done in more than two decades: Drive less.
Few have made drastic lifestyle changes. But to the surprise of many economists, U.S. motorists changed their ways enough to cut the nation's per-driver mileage by 0.4 percent in 2005, ending a string of increases dating back to 1980, government data show.
Other reports over the past year on mass transit ridership, total miles driven nationwide, gasoline demand, vehicle sales and retail and restaurant spending reinforce the notion that U.S. drivers made significant -- and in some cases, lasting -- adjustments to offset steadily rising gasoline prices.
"In 2005 and into 2006, we did see consumers start to change their driving behavior," said David Portalatin, director of industry analysis at NPD Group Inc., which tracks consumer spending. "That's a very hard thing to change, because I've either got to change where I work, where I live, or what kind of car I drive in order to actually consume less gasoline."
It's a small but important shift for a nation many believed was impervious to rising gas prices because drivers were unable or unwilling to rein in their gas-guzzling ways. Lofty energy costs have generated such concern that President Bush devoted a significant chunk of his past two State of the Union speeches to addressing the nation's oil addiction.
"The message is that price matters," said Daniel Yergin, chairman of Cambridge Energy Research Associates, a Boston-area consulting company that recently published an analysis called "Gasoline and the American People." The study highlighted the decline in per-driver mileage and a cooling appetite for the largest of sport utility vehicles, among other things, and concluded that expensive gasoline was transforming "America's love affair with the automobile."
Even though gas prices have dropped substantially from their highs in 2006, "there's a greater sense of insecurity, and people don't want to be caught emptying their wallet at the gasoline pump," said Yergin, author of "The Prize," a Pulitzer-winning history of the oil industry.
Oil companies, however, need not fret. A steady economy, growing population and longer commutes will keep U.S. gasoline consumption chugging along for years, despite the up-tick in sales of fuel-saving hybrid cars and the growing use of biofuels such as ethanol.
Some transportation experts say that a handful of new factors are starting to turn the tide, causing some consumption changes to stick despite lower prices.
Some believe drivers are reacting to the increasing volatility and the steady upward march of gasoline prices over the past few years.
After enjoying lower pump prices in 2001 and 2002, consumers saw the yearly average cost of gas jump by double-digits in each of the next four years.
Another reason is that the nation's baby boomers are getting older, and many are approaching retirement age. Older drivers tend to drive less, especially if they are freed from a daily commute. Today, more than 14 percent of U.S. drivers are older than 65 -- nearly double the level in 1980, according to the study by the Cambridge energy research group.
And some consumers are increasingly driven to conserve fuel because of a growing uneasiness about the nation's addiction to oil, the instability of oil-rich countries and the harmful climate effects that stem from petroleum use.
But Americans clearly have their limits when it comes to conserving fuel. One item that's definitely not on the to-do list: driving slower. Several states have boosted highway speed limits over the past two years.
"I'm surprised that I see people driving at 75 or 80 miles an hour on Interstate 680 out here," Chevron Corp. Chief Executive David O'Reilly said during an August interview at the oil company's headquarters in San Ramon, Calif. "If they drove at 60 miles an hour, they'd save 5 percent or 10 percent of their gasoline consumption."