Driving Less These Days? Join the Big American Club

If we're driving less, we're traveling by other means, hopefully, like buses. (Photo: Elena Rostunova/Shutterstock)

It’s official, Americans are driving a lot less, and it’s not because gas prices are high. Because they are not, in fact, high.

According to Doug Hecox, a spokesman for the Federal Highway Administration, our vehicles miles traveled (VMT) has declined for 14 straight months. Keep in mind that VMT has been on a steady upward curve since at least 2002. Charted, it looks like Rush Limbaugh’s blood pressure since Barack Obama was elected.

“The decline might have been triggered by high gas prices, but then it morphed into something else,” Hecox said. “The variables are hazy and blurry to a non-economist like me, but around the time gas prices started to go down last September, Wall Street melted down. The economy became progressively more difficult for a lot of folks, and that meant they were maybe not going to work every day, not going out for that luxury dinner or taking that road trip to Cape Cod.”

The largest VMT declines were in rural areas, suggesting that they’re the hardest hit economically, Hecox said.

The fuel economy of the average car was 22.098 mpg in 2008, compared to 22.039 in 2007. Not a huge change, of course, but when combined with the VMT drop it was enough to affect gas tax collection by the Department of Transportation: It was down $71 million in fiscal 2008 compared to the year before.

There are multiple good sides to this, of course. We used 5.25 billion fewer gallons of gasoline in 2008, the DOT says, and that means we imported less, too. Global warming emissions are in a direct line with fuel economy, so the worldwide drop in consumption is positive news there, too. Every gallon we burn generates 19.4 pounds of carbon dioxide, after all. Smog season is coming up, and we’re in better on that front as well.

Since gas tax revenues are evaporating, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood had the temerity to talk about taxing VMT instead of gasoline. A global positioning device in your car can track miles traveled since your last fill-up, and the tax applied to the price you pay at the pump. Oregon tried it as a pilot project, but it’s unlikely to go national anytime soon. Barack doesn't like it.

After LaHood’s musing, the White House made it plain the concept will be stillborn on his watch. “It is not and will not be the policy of the Obama administration, said Press Secretary Robert Gibbs. According to the Washington Post, the exchange with reporters last month continued this way:

QUESTION: So was Secretary LaHood speaking out of turn here? Was he...

GIBBS: I would direct you to Secretary LaHood on that.

QUESTION: Well, we actually interviewed him. So that...

GIBBS: Well, call him back.