Dateline Flyover, USA:
I have just spent some (tiring) time driving the phenomenal American interstate and in-state highway systems. Travels were along a 12-lane expressway through the centre of a Midwestern capital and a rural, two-lane road system in the heart of the Ozark Mountain range. All of the driving was in Flyover, USA, the pejorative term that refers to the part of the country that the coastal elites never get to, but which elects past and future presidents. (Toto, we are in Kansas again.)
Gasoline prices for my rented, brand new SUV (900 baht a day including basic insurance) ranged from between $3.70 and $4.10 a gallon, or about 31 to 34 baht per litre.
Like all pump prices worldwide, these are near the top prices in history for the US. People around the globe are trying to adjust to these new transportation costs, and here are some observations on how Americans are coping.
First, they are not driving slower. There is obviously no support here for any kind of renewed speed limit of 55 miles an hour, as happened during the oil shocks of the 1970s.
My personal test was to set my cruise control at 60 mph (about 96 kilometres an hour), which is an excellent fuel conservation speed. I never passed anyone; even the 18- and 24-wheel tractor-trailer trucks were whizzing by me.
Speed limits on highways in Flyover USA are generally between 70 and 80mph, and the typical car and pick-up driver goes 5 to 8mph above that. He and she want to get where they are going as fast as possible without getting an expensive speeding ticket from the state police patrols, which generally provide a leeway of about 10mph before they pull you over.
Next impression: People are driving less. Statistics actually show that during May, the US vehicle miles dropped 3.7 per cent year on year.
In 4,000 miles of travel, I never hit a highway traffic jam, even in areas advertised as under heavy construction. Fellow travellers commented at rest stops and motels that driving seemed a little easier, with fewer vehicles on the roads than, say, last summer.
I predict that the figures for the big holiday summer-holiday months, July and August, will show that a lot of people stayed at home or closer to home than usual. The big entertainment meccas like Disney parks and Las Vegas are already reporting fewer arrivals than they had hoped.
That drop in vehicle miles indicates that a lot of people are putting their feet up instead of putting their foot down. Gasoline inventories in the United States grew by 8 million barrels-plus between June 20 and July 18, according to official government officials. That is a period when supplies normally decline as Americans hit the road. Fuel prices have dropped accordingly.
So the figures indicate that Americans are adjusting to higher pump prices by cutting back on the number of trips.
But maybe not. The desk agent at Budget Rent A Car System where I got my cross-country vehicle not only disagrees. He says flatly that business has never been so good.
“I can’t get enough compact (small) cars and SUVs,” he said. “People with small cars want to rent an SUV to take the family on vacation. People who own SUVs are looking to save money by renting a compact for long drives.”
One possible way to analyse this already-incomplete information then, is this:
- Americans are combining a lot of short trips they used to take separately. They go to work and stop off to shop instead of going to work and later going to the market.
- They are planning their long trips by cost. They will pile the whole family into a single SUV, but a business trip will be taken in a relatively small car, and thus the spike in the rental business.
- Driving is the means to an end, and not the end. This explains why no one has slowed down on the roads.
For all of the above reasons, and probably others, crude oil lost $15.92 a barrel in July, its biggest-ever monthly drop. Pump prices are currently dropping a tad worldwide, as everyone adjusts to higher prices and inflation in various ways.