May 23, 2008 / 2:26 PM / 11 years ago

March driving down for 1st time since 1979: government

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - In a sign that Americans are curbing their driving in the face of record-high gasoline prices, data released on Friday showed highway miles driven in March fell 4.3 percent from a year earlier, the first March decline since the last major oil shock in the late 1970s.

An empty road stretches out ahead of a bus as it drives to an airport in Denver January 30, 2008. REUTERS/Jason Reed

According to the Department of Transportation, Americans drove 11 billion miles less in March 2008 than a year earlier, the first time estimated travel on public roads fell in March since 1979.

The data marks the sharpest year-on-year drop for any month in the history of the agency’s reporting, which dates back to 1942.

U.S. average gasoline prices hit $3.79 a gallon over the past week, up 57 cents from a year ago, according to U.S. data.

Record-high oil prices above $135 a barrel are pushing average pump prices closer to the crucial $4 a gallon level. Pump prices in seven U.S. states, including California, Illinois and New York, already average above $4 a gallon.

Signs are mounting that U.S. consumers — who use more oil than any other country — are finally curbing their energy use in the face of a widening U.S. economic downturn.

The trend recalls the oil shocks of the 1970s, when oil prices doubled and Americans abandoned boxy, heavy automobiles in favor of smaller, more fuel-efficient models.

Since November 2006, vehicle miles traveled fell by a cumulative 17.3 billion miles, according to data from the Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration, which collects the information from 4,000 automatic traffic recorders operated round-the-clock by state highway agencies.

Travel over the upcoming Memorial Day holiday weekend will fall for the first time since 2002, auto and travel group AAA said this month.

Some 37.87 million Americans will travel 50 miles or more from home for the holiday, which falls this year on May 26. That would be down 0.9 percent from 38.23 million last year, according to AAA’s survey, which was conducted among more than 2,000 Americans.

Crude oil prices — which comprise more than 70 percent of the cost of gasoline — have jumped about 30 percent since the start of 2008, driven by worries about tight stocks of refined products in the near term and mounting global demand over the longer term. Oil has risen sixfold since 2002.

Gasoline use already has slipped about 1 percent this year compared with last year, according to government and private reports. And the U.S. Energy Information Administration said last month it expected American gasoline demand to shrink this summer for first time since 1991.

Editing by Walter Bagley

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