Motorists return to U.S. roads, driving more miles, using less gas

Tue Sep 23, 2014 11:59am EDT
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By Jarrett Renshaw

NEW YORK (Reuters) - U.S. motorists drove more miles this summer than at any time since the 2008 financial crisis, according to government data, but the cause and implications of the roadway revival may be different than in years past.

The slow recovery in total miles driven may have more to do with a resurgence in vehicle sales due to zero- or low-interest loans than a long-term return to increased driving. But some experts suggested the data may be misleading, with trends like increased telecommuting and an aging population spending less time behind the wheel.

Americans' driving habits are a closely watched indicator for oil traders since U.S. gasoline use makes up about one-tenth of global oil demand, but consumption is still weak as fuel-economy standards rise faster than miles driven.

Motorists drove an estimated 266.8 billion miles on U.S. highways and roads in July, up 1.5 percent from the same month in the previous year, according to recent data from the Federal Highway Administration (FHA). The July figure is just shy of the 10-year high recorded in August 2007, before the Great Recession resulted in massive unemployment and forced consumers to scale back travel. Total miles typically peak in July and August for vacation travel.

For the first six months of 2014, vehicle miles traveled, the FHA measuring stick, were the highest since 2008, before the outbreak of the financial crisis.

Low-interest financing has helped spur new car sales to the highest levels in more than a decade, encouraging more drivers to hit the roads, according to AAA spokesman Robert Sinclair.

“Most new cars get good fuel economy and gas prices are falling. Combine that with an economy that's slowly coming back and we see lots of road trips. Our travel projections for Labor Day showed a willingness of travelers to use credit cards to finance a trip, which could be a general trend," Sinclair said."   Continued...