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As economy reopens, Americans still driving a lot less

That’s likely to have wide-ranging economic impact on consumers

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Photo (c) Bertlmann - Getty Images
Despite some businesses reopening offices for employees and a steady rise in gasoline demand, rush hour traffic still isn’t what it used to be. A new survey by ValuePenguin found around 30 percent of consumers with a car aren’t using it to commute to work.

But as of August, 26 percent of employed Americans are back to their daily commute, including essential workers and those whose employers reopened their offices. That said, some are using their cars more than others.

People with children are more likely to be on the road at least once a day. And oddly, people who live in New England are driving more daily than people in other regions of the country.

The older you are, the less driving you’re likely to do. Only 22 percent of baby boomers and nearly the same percentage of the silent generation said they were using their cars daily in August.

The decrease in traffic that began in late March has affected consumer behavior and had an impact -- mostly favorable -- on consumers’ pocketbooks. Twenty-six percent of drivers said they no longer fill up with gas on a weekly basis, compared to before the pandemic.

Buying less gasoline

In January and February, 43 percent of drivers said they filled up at least once a week, but just 32 percent said they did in August. At the same time, the number of drivers who gas up less often than once per month doubled from 4 percent to 8 percent.

That probably means very stable gasoline prices heading into 2021. The Wall Street Journal reports that after rising in the early summer, gasoline demand has begun to drift lower again.

Because people were expected to drive less during the economic shutdown, just about every car insurance company temporarily cut insurance rates for drivers, expecting to pay fewer claims because of fewer accidents.

Those discounts are beginning to expire, but the survey found that many consumers have taken the opportunity to shop around for even less expensive insurance coverage. More than a quarter of drivers made changes to their auto insurance during the pandemic to save money. 

Changes to insurance policies

Of those, about half switched to another provider to get a better rate. The other half reduced the amount of coverage since they are driving less.

"Some savvy consumers are using their decreased driving to their advantage and are paying less for gas and auto insurance," said Matt Timmons, a research analyst at ValuePenguin.com. "While they may need to roll back those changes as driving returns to normal, most consumers don't expect normalcy to return anytime soon -- meaning it may be worth drivers' while to assess their auto insurance and other car use related expenses and consider making changes."

The pandemic has also reduced the use of ridesharing services like Uber and Lyft. About one in six consumers who had been using ridesharing before said they’ve stopped completely because of the pandemic. Another 13 percent said they’re still using those services but a lot less frequently.

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