Americans are traveling tens of billions of miles fewer than they did last year — the biggest drop ever, the Federal Highway Administration said Wednesday.
Home improvement contractor Kerry Carpenter thought he could save money by living out in the country, where houses are cheap, and commuting to jobs in and around Washington, D.C. But his red full-sized pickup truck is now sucking down $50 worth of gas per day.
"My fuel costs are more than my mortgage is by a couple hundred bucks," he says.
Carpenter's solution? Working 12-hour days to save on trips into town. He runs fewer errands, too.
It's happening all over the country. In April, Americans drove 245.9 billion miles — 1.8 percent less than a year ago.
"April marks the sixth month in a row that we have seen a decline in vehicle miles traveled across the country," says Jim Ray, the FHA's acting administrator. "We're seeing Americans drive less across the board."
The agency has been collecting data since 1942. Ray says vehicle miles traveled have risen steadily from one year to the next. Driving did taper off during the energy crisis of the 1970s and early 1980s when gas prices were high. At that time, drivers cut back by 500 million miles. But highway officials liken that to a plateau — and this to a cliff.
"It is the steepest decline in vehicle miles traveled ever recorded," Ray says. "What we're estimating now for the 2007-2008 figures are 30 billion miles. So we're seeing a difference of 60-fold."
And that's in just the first six months.
Rural interstate highways saw the biggest change — a 5 percent drop in vehicle miles traveled.
The Midwest, West and the South have seen sharper declines than the Northeast. In April, driving was down nearly 3 percent in Alabama from a year ago.
"We used to take Sunday drives, but not so much any more," says Dan Claussen, who had pulled off at a rest stop along Alabama's Interstate 59. "Not with gas prices where they're at."
Tom McKay, who lives with his wife in Texas, agrees.
"You know, I don't get to go to my mother-in-law's which is a couple of hours away," he says. "I don't go as much to her ... house to help her out now because of the gas prices."
McKay and his wife had hoped to drive to Maine from their home in Texas. Instead, they settled for a shorter vacation visiting relatives in North Carolina.
Ray says a nationwide decline in driving of 1.8 percent might not sound like a lot, "but 1 or 2 percent across the country adds up to a lot of miles not traveled.
"What's really going to be interesting is to see what people decide to do through the summer months."