People nationwide driving less -- a lot less

July 28, 2008 7:39:39 PM PDT
Gas prices dropped another penny or two over the weekend and AAA now puts the national average at $3.96 a gallon. Bay Area prices are higher at around $4.44 in San Francisco and $4.37 San Jose. But, they are still 18 to 25 cents lower than the record levels reached last month.

And because of those prices, we are driving less -- a lot less. According to the Federal Highway Administration, we drove 9.6 billion fewer miles in the month of May than we did last year.

High gas prices are bad, right?

"I see a lot of people on bikes more, which is good for the environment," says San Francisco resident Anna Wong.

So good, in fact, that UC Davis researchers say if prices stay high, 2,000 people could avoid dying from pollution in the next 12 months. Harvard researchers say 1,000 lives a month could be saved with the accompanying decline in traffic accidents.

UC Berkeley transportation researcher Lee Schipper uses his car once a week to do all of his errands at the same time. He calls the reduction in miles driven by Americans "remarkable".

"My estimate is compared to where we should have been with gasoline prices constant in 2002 levels, we're about 15 percent below where we would have been. And that's far more than what people said Americans could respond."

But, he questions the data that shows 9.6 billion fewer miles driven this May as compared with last year. He says that statistic is an estimate at best because of the formula used to get it. He says the more accurate national fuel consumption survey ended in 1985.

"The incredible thing is the world's largest gasoline user doesn't know how efficiently we use gasoline."

Efficient or not, everyone agrees gasoline usage and miles driven are down. But, will it last? When prices took off, Chris Reed put his car in the garage, got on his bike and never looked back. He's now selling his car.

Reporter: "Even if prices went back down, do you think you would still ride?"

Reed: "Yes, I think the mind-set has begun that everyone wants to stay away from their cars."

That will mean a projected $5 billion dollar windfall for the state from California's sales tax on gas, which rises and falls with prices. Nevertheless, it would be a multi-billion dollar shortfall for the Federal Highway Trust Fund, which relies on per-gallon taxes that don't rise with price.

LINKS
Estimated 2008 Gasoline Price Breakdown & Margins Details


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