Economist: Fewer vehicle miles traveled is ruining America

The United States Federal government measures vehicle usage nationally and at the state level as “Vehicle Miles Traveled” or VMT. Instead of tracking traffic crashes, fatalities and serious injuries in absolute terms, traffic safety is generally measured in terms of VMT. Nationally, for example, we currently have fewer than 100 crashes per 100 million vehicles miles traveled, and a hair north of one fatality per 100 million VMT. It’s a great measure if you assume everybody must drive — you want to reduce your personal chances of causing injury every time you get in the car.

FedEx truck vs cars Menlo Park

But a way to reduce the absolute number of crashes and their consequences (lost body parts, lost brain function, lost lives), is to reduce vehicle miles traveled. If you don’t drive a car in the first place, you’re much less likely to accidentally end a life. With cheaper gas, higher employment and, hence, more vehicle miles traveled, traffic fatalities have jumped an astounding 14% the first half of 2015 compared to 2014. This is the highest level since before the recession.

Because the fatality rate is outstripping the growth in VMT, time spent behind the wheel isn’t the only culprit. Traffic researchers believe distracted driving is contributing greatly to this recent increase in fatalities.

Hand this information over to a group of economists, however, and they pull something magical out of their hat: roads are becoming more dangerous because you crazy Millennials don’t drive as much.

A new report from Standard & Poors Credit Research (“Millennials Are Creating Unsafe Conditions On U.S. Roads–But Not In The Way You Might Think” purchase for $850 if you want to read the whole thing) claims this new trend of driving less, and driving in smaller, more fuel-efficient cars, leads to less gas tax revenue (which is true), which in turn leads to less funding for road projects (also true), which in turn makes driving more dangerous! (ummmm…. what?)

I don’t have $850 free to read the report and see how they come to this conclusion, but I suspect it might have something to do with poorly maintained roads. Around here, our crappy roads result in people slowing down a little because they don’t want to buy a new front-end every three years. (Hmm, because fatalities are outstripping VMT in 2015, I wonder if the highway maintenance spending spree since last year might also contribute to this year’s fatality rate?)

Because Millenials choose to spend their money on locally built housing instead of imported cars and fuel, S&P predicts financial doom for America:

“This drop in funds available to construct and repair the country’s infrastructure could, in our view, weigh on growth prospects for U.S. GDP, as well as states’ economies, and, in some cases, where states and municipalities choose to replace the lost federal funds with locally derived revenues, could hurt credit quality,” said Standard & Poor’s U.S. Chief Economist Beth Ann Bovino.

I don’t know what S&P recommends as a solution. Do they want people to spend more on Canadian petroleum to improve the U.S. economy? The Federal gas tax has been fixed at 18.4¢ per gallon since 1993, well before today’s Millenials could vote or drive. That 18.4¢ buys only 60% of highway spending compared to 1993 dollars. And nobody talks about the significant roadway damage caused by the trend in larger vehicles that Gen Xers like me bought in the 90s and early oughts.

Instead of spiraling into bankruptcy, perhaps local governments can right-size overcapacity roads to reduce unnecessary maintenance expense. Maybe they can change their land-use policies to encourage more compact development so they don’t have hundreds of miles of roads serving far-flung developments that can’t pay for their own infrastructure.

California is now investigating a VMT tax under the authority of SB 1077 to replace the current gasoline tax. You can attend a Women’s Transportation Seminar on this topic on Thursday, October 29, 2015 at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History. This is a great networking event with knowledgeable people. Registration is required.

Tip of the Jack-O-Lantern to Murph.


  1. So, I assume the same economists think there are too few cars on the road. They should come experience the mousetrap in Denver at rush hour!

  2. Yes, more important to hurt people than to hurt credit quality. I’m sure those damned car-free millennials aren’t putting their freed-up cash into the economy, or anything like that. They should instead be paying car and insurance companies to put more ads on TV.

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