Saturday, December 06, 2008


Whither are we driving ourselves?

When gasoline prices went over $4 per gallon, peaking in July at nearly $4.50 in the New York City area[1], it went without saying that people were driving less. “Driving habits are changing,” proclaimed the pundits.

But driving habits did not change. Prices dropped, first gradually to $3.70 or so, then dramatically down to just over $2 — we haven’t seen that in about three years. And at the earliest signs of the decline, we were all back on the roads as much as ever, driving everywhere.

We have short memories, and we don’t think ahead.

At those peak times, May through July, we heard that SUV sales were finally dropping. People were reconsidering their vehicle purchases with the spectre of $5 or $6 per gallon looming. Fuel hogs would soon be things of the past, like the dinosaurs whence the fuel comes. “Car buying habits are changing,” declared the doyens.

But car buying habits did not change. When I asked a car salesman on my volleyball team about it in October, with prices then around $3.40, he said, “Yes, when gas went way up the SUV sales did drop. But as soon as it started going down, people started looking at the SUVs again.”

We have short memories, and we don’t think ahead.

But the most surprising effect of rising and falling gas prices came on NPR’s All Things Considered on Wednesday afternoon, in an item about the ups and downs of running an auto body shop:

One problem — the surge in gas prices — has eased. “When gas starts getting above $3, our business definitely slows down,” Tavares says. “People are not driving as aggressively. We have Jupiter Road right here. We can see how people drive every day.”

Now that the price of gas in Dallas is back under $2, drivers are speeding up again, which is good news for Quality Colors. With the price drop, Tavares says, “We started hearing tires squealing and engines revving, and you couldn’t tell what color the cars were, they were driving down Jupiter so fast.”

Fascinating: people — at least in Dallas — don’t drive more gently because it avoids collisions and the concomitant damage to their cars (and the expense of repair). They drive more gently because it saves gas. That has the nice side effect of causing less damage, but as soon as gas is cheap again, they go right back to crashing their cars. Outstanding.

One might think they’d say, “Hey... I slowed down to save gas, but look here: I stopped getting into car crashes. Maybe I should stick with this, and not have to get my car fixed all the time.

But one would be wrong.

We have short memories, and we don’t think ahead.

[1] See this site to look at gas price history.

No comments: