We're driving less even as gasoline prices drop

Drivers clocked 9 billion fewer miles on the nation's roads in October even while gas prices were dropping, suggesting the downturn in driving that began a year ago is attributable to changing habits, not just energy costs.

Federal Highway Administration data released Friday show the number of miles driven dropped 3.5% in October from the same month a year ago. Between November 2007, when the driving decline began, and October, Americans drove 100 billion fewer miles. That's the nation's largest continuous decline in driving.

Gasoline prices averaged $3.15 a gallon in October, down from a high of $4.09 in July, according to the Energy Information Administration.

"The fact that the trend persists even as gas prices are dropping confirms that America's travel habits are fundamentally changing," Transportation Secretary Mary Peters said.

The data show the region it describes as the South Atlantic — eight states and Washington, D.C. — experienced the biggest decline in October of any region, 5% fewer vehicle miles. Montana's 8.4% driving decline was the largest of any state, followed by Utah with 7.4%, and South Carolina with 6.7%.

The highway administration collects driving data from more than 4,000 automatic traffic recorders operated around-the-clock by state highway agencies.

While driving declined, subways, buses, commuter rail and light-rail systems have reported record increases in ridership. Amtrak, the nation's intercity passenger railroad, said it carried the highest number of passengers and brought in the most revenue in fiscal 2008 in its 37-year history.

It's likely the economic crisis is an important factor in the driving decline, said David Goldberg, a spokesman for Transportation for America, a coalition of groups pressing for more alternatives to driving.

"We regularly see fewer trips being made in economic downturns," Goldberg said. "I think when we probe these numbers we'll find that a lot of people have figured out how to telework or how to go into the office fewer days. And having experienced that and made that work, I think they'll continue to save the money and the time and effort and reduce some of those trips."

Peters expressed concern that the decline in driving is widening a gap between federal gas tax revenue and the government's commitments to fund state and local highway repair and construction projects. Congress made an emergency infusion of $8 billion earlier this year from the general treasury to cover an expected shortfall in the fund.

"As driving decreases and vehicle fuel efficiency continues to improve, the long-term viability of the Highway Trust Fund grows weaker," Peters said.

Federal safety officials reported Thursday that auto fatalities dropped almost 10% in 2008 through October, a trend that is likely influenced by the driving decline.