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High gas prices muffle call of the open road

Squeezed at the pump, Americans drove less in June

August 14, 2008|Martin Zimmerman | Times Staff Writer

As gasoline prices were hitting new records in June, Americans were hitting the brakes.

The Federal Highway Administration said Wednesday that U.S. motorists drove 250.2 billion miles in June, a drop of 12.2 billion miles, or 4.7%, compared with the same month a year earlier. It was the eighth straight year-over-year monthly drop and the biggest June decline ever, the agency said.

Californians, who pay some of the highest gasoline prices in the nation, were a bit more reluctant to abandon their wheels than Americans overall. Miles traveled by Golden State drivers in June fell to an estimated 28.77 billion, down 3.7% from a year earlier.

"They're staying home in droves," highway administration spokesman Doug Hecox said of the nation's drivers. He noted that the drop in June was particularly notable because the summer months are usually the busiest times for road travel in the U.S. as families go on vacations.

In the summer, "people are roaming around and enjoying themselves -- until this year," Hecox said.

Albert Ghookassian of Glendale can relate to that. The full-size Toyota Tundra pickup he bought a year ago (combined city/highway mileage of about 15 miles per gallon) has mostly been grounded by high gas prices.

"I've put less than 5,000 miles on it," said Ghookassian, a Yellow Cab driver. "It hasn't even had its first oil change."

After setting records in June, average pump prices peaked nationwide on July 17 at $4.11 for a gallon of regular, according to AAA. In California, they peaked at $4.61 a gallon on June 19.

The falloff in driving "is consistent with the fact that gas prices were going up so quickly and to such a high level," said Elaine Beno, spokeswoman for the Automobile Club of Southern California. "It remains to be seen if it will continue."

Gasoline prices have fallen in recent weeks in response to a drop of more than 20% in oil prices from their July 3 record high of about $145 a barrel. (Oil closed Wednesday at $116 a barrel). The current average price for a gallon of regular is $4.09 in California and $3.78 nationwide, according to AAA.

Online auto data tracker reported recently that visitors to its site were showing more interest in bigger vehicles as gas prices fell.

But motorists topping their tanks at the Arco station at Wilson and Verdugo in Glendale on Wednesday afternoon said they still planned to cut down on their gasoline consumption.

"I used to drive to Vegas once a month, twice a month -- but not anymore," said Hector Martinez of Glassell Park. "I saw where oil prices were up $3 today, so I figured I'd better fill my car up before the price went back up."

Maybe he should have waited. Station manager Anita Barseghian said she planned to cut her price for regular overnight from $4.01 to $3.99.

The highway administration doesn't interview motorists when compiling its driving statistics, which are derived from information gathered by automated sensors. So the agency is reluctant to pin the drop in driving on gas prices alone, noting that the slowing economy, the housing crisis and overall increases in inflation have probably played a role as well.

The longest stretch of year-over-year declines in highway miles driven was 24 months, beginning in January 1979 and ending in December 1980, Hecox said. While the current falloff is far short of that record, "it's certainly been a lot steeper," he said.

That drop is burning a big hole in state and federal transportation budgets, which rely heavily on gas taxes to fund highway projects as well as mass transit operations.

Officials warned last month that the federal highway trust fund could be in the red by $3.2 billion or more next year, and Caltrans has said it could lose $930 million in funding.


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