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Americans Have Been Driving Less, But Now They're Just Sitting at Home

Is a recent drop in auto fatalities linked to people becoming shut-ins?

Joe Skipper/Reuters

Some good news for the environment and, well, for staying alive: Driving rates and fatal car wrecks are on the decline in the United States.

But there’s bad news for health: Americans haven’t replaced driving with physical activities, preferring instead to putter around the home, according to a new study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

Americans (Millennials, in particular) drove an average of 600 miles less each year from 2004 to 2014, according to the paper’s author, Noreen McDonald, a city planning specialist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. That same period saw a significant drop in road fatalities, which could be attributed to safer vehicles and better driving, or to less time spent behind the wheel. Data analyses suggest the latter.

However, the recent spurning of the car likely isn’t a result of more folks living in dense urban areas, where public transit is widely available and short-distance trips are common. It also isn’t because more folks are biking, walking, rollerblading, or anything of the sort, says McDonald. Rather, she argues that the cutback corresponds with “the global economic crisis, rising gas prices, and a general shift in lifestyle habits, including evolving attitudes about travel.”

Here’s more of her theory from a university press release:

These results accord with analyses from the transport literature that show the drop in driving occurred because Americans were going fewer places, not because they were switching from cars to travel by bus, foot, or bicycle….

“Americans have stayed home more in the recent decade for a complex set of inter-related factors,” [says] McDonald. “Technologic advances have eliminated the need for some face-to-face interaction. High gas prices, rising debt, stagnant incomes, and increases in unemployment have made driving more costly. Finally, delays in employment, partnering, and parenthood have lowered the need for certain types of trips.”

But the current situation might not last. Today’s slightly more favorable economic landscape seems to be putting more Americans back into cars, which is probably why 2015 saw 2,348 more fatal car accidents than 2014. “The challenge that we must all now work toward,” says McDonald, “is how to maintain the safety record on American roads as population growth, low gas prices, and an improving economy lead to more travel.”

About the Author

  • John Metcalfe
    John Metcalfe is CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, based in Oakland. His coverage focuses on climate change and the science of cities.