Americans drove less in March 2008, continuing a trend that began last November, according to estimates recently released from the Federal Highway Administration.
“That Americans are driving less underscores the challenges facing the Highway Trust Fund and its reliance on the federal gasoline excise tax,” said Acting Federal Highway Administrator Jim Ray.
The FHWA’s “Traffic Volume Trends” report, produced monthly since 1942, shows that estimated vehicle miles traveled (VMT) on all United States public roads for March 2008 fell 4.3 percent as compared with March 2007 travel. This is the first time estimated March travel on public roads fell since 1979. At 11 billion miles less in March 2008 than in the previous March, this is the sharpest yearly drop for any month in FHWA history.
Though February 2008 showed a modest 1 billion mile increase over February 2007, cumulative VMT has fallen by 17.3 billion miles since November 2006. Total VMT in the United States for 2006, the most recent year for which such data are available, topped 3 trillion miles.
Additionally, the U.S. Department of Transportation estimated that greenhouse gas emissions fell by an estimated 9 million metric tons for the first quarter of 2008.
The estimated data show that VMT on all United States public roads have dropped since 2006. The FHWA’s Traffic Monitoring Analysis System (TMAS) computes VMT for all types of motor vehicles (motorcycles, cars, buses and trucks) on the nation’s public roads. These data are collected through over 4,000 automatic traffic recorders operated round-the-clock by state highway agencies. More comprehensive data are published in the FHWA’s “Highway Statistics” at the end of each year.
Collision repairers know that motor vehicle owners driving less is bad for them but good for insurers. A recent Wall Street Journal article reported that Lehman Brothers upgraded Progressive and raised earnings estimates on Progressive and Allstate on its expectation that less driving means fewer accidents.
The report quoted Progressive spokeswoman Katherine M. Bell as saying that "it’s difficult to ascribe one factor, such as higher gas prices," to any one change such as frequency of accidents.
But another insurance spokesperson said the connection between less driving and fewer accidents "intuitively" makes sense. However, Allstate spokesman Rich Halberg said even if drivers get into fewer accidents, the benefit could be partially outweighed if the cost of repairing vehicles rises due to higher material costs.
Bob Hartwig, president of the Insurance Information Institute, said that through the fourth quarter of 2007, he
has seen no evidence that rising gasoline prices has made much of a
change in driver habits. But now that gas prices have gone over $4 per gallon, drivers may finally do something drastic.