You’ve probably noticed that there are more motorists on the roads now than there have been in the last few years. In fact, in just the first half of 2015, 15 billion more miles were driven on United States interstates. Why?
If you’ve driven anywhere in America lately, you’ll have noticed that gas prices are lower now than they have been in recent years. When gas is cheap, more people take to the road more often and are less likely to take public transportation, opting to take their own cars instead. Higher numbers of younger and “less experienced” drivers can afford to buy gas and drive on a regular basis. And rather than hopping on a plane or train for a getaway, some vacationers choose to travel to their destination by driving.
But it isn’t just about cheap gas. While gas prices are falling, the economy is improving. Consumers have more discretionary income – meaning that there is more money in the hands of consumers, which can contribute to more vehicles on the roads and therefore more accidents. So although it feels good to fill your tank for a fraction of what you’ve been paying the last few years, there is a dark side to spending less at the pump. Here’s how these two trends – falling gas prices and an improving economy – can contribute to serious problems for drivers.
More People Are Driving Now
For the first time since 2008, the unemployment rate is just below 5 percent (compare this to its peak of 10.1 percent in 2009). With more people employed full-time, more miles are being driven. On average, those who are employed drive 20 more miles a day compared to those who are unemployed. And with the U.S. expected to generate more than two million jobs for the fifth year in a row, the number of motorists is likely to increase substantially.
An increase in employment not only means that there are more work-bound drivers on the road, but also that there are more people with greater discretionary income and higher confidence in their financial situation. These consumers are also spending more on goods and services, which is great for the economy; consumer spending accounts for about 70 percent of all economic activity. These extra expenses, including shopping, dining out, or attending a game or show, often involve getting in the car and driving. And the more people that are on the road driving, the more likely an accident is to occur.
Tips to Stay Safe on the Roads
The cost of fuel may be low right now, but it won’t stay that way forever. And some of the best tips to help you save on gas also encourage safer driving. Here are three great ways to drive more safely and efficiently:
Keep your tires well inflated. Loss of tire pressure can increase drag on a vehicle, making the engine work harder to achieve and maintain speed. By keeping your tires inflated you’ll improve the steering of your car and reduce the amount of heat that is generated in the rubber. This will help prevent tire blow outs which can be catastrophic. Be sure to check your tire pressure every month. As the temperature drops, so too will your tire pressure. You’ll need to increase the pressure in colder months.
Roll up the windows when driving over 55 MPH. It may sound counterintuitive, but rolling up the windows and turning on the A/C can actually help improve fuel economy and make for safer driving.
The amount of drag that is exerted on a vehicle with its windows rolled down greatly increases at speeds over 55 MPH. This drag is significant enough to use up more fuel than the A/C does. Additionally, driving with the windows down at such speeds can be dangerous. The amount of noise from the wind can make it difficult to hear sirens, horns and other traffic conditions. The wind at your face can also cause you to squint and obscure your vision.
Maintain a safe distance between cars. As driving speeds increase, you should keep a buffer zone between yourself and the car in front of you. If you find that the car behind you is driving dangerously close, switch lanes if possible.
When driving on the highway at speeds of 55-65 MPH, you should maintain 3-6 seconds of space between yourself and the car in front of you. Not only will this give you more time to stop safely, but it will allow you to maintain a steadier speed and save fuel. Drivers who tailgate have a tendency to rev their engines frequently. This inefficient way of driving consumes a greater amount of fuel than maintaining a steady pace.
Just remember that no matter how carefully you drive, accidents can still happen. Make sure you have the right car insurance to protect yourself.
Another great way to stay safe behind the wheel (and cut down on gas) is to avoid traffic. Here are a few tips you can use to avoid getting stuck in gridlock.
- Drive in to work with coworkers so that you can use carpool lanes to beat traffic while also saving on gas.
- Find a few alternate routes to work that involve taking back roads. This will make for a shorter drive if there is traffic on your main route.
- While you’re getting ready for work in the morning, listen to the traffic report.
- Figure out when traffic builds up on your normal routes. Sometimes leaving five minutes early can help you beat the traffic and shave 15 minutes off your commute.
In addition to these tips for avoiding traffic, there are plenty of apps you can download and use to plan routes around traffic. Most of these apps function like GPS systems, and will calculate and recalculate your route based on live reports of traffic conditions. Here are three awesome apps for beating traffic:
- Waze. This app functions like a social network, with users reporting accidents and congestion as they drive. Waze assesses other drivers’ reports and helps you determine your fastest route. It even shows three optional routes and their traffic conditions.
- USA Traffic & Weather. For drivers who tune into the traffic report, this app is a must. You’ll get all the information you need on traffic- and weather-related road conditions to help you determine your own routes before driving.
- iOS 9 Maps. Apple’s GPS app helps you improve your commute by providing transit routes for buses, subways, trains and even ferries. Additionally, it provides real-time traffic information that tells you the cause of the backup and provides alternate routes.
Car Buying Habits
The cost of fuel can also influence decisions about whether to purchase a new car for yourself or a second car for your family, and what type and size of car that might be.
Last year, new vehicle sales reached pre-recession levels, and many of the cars that have recently made their way onto the road for the first time are more expensive compared to the cars that traversed the highways and byways the last time you bought a vehicle. This is partly because people are buying larger vehicles again. Those peak days when SUV owners had to spend a small fortune to fill up their gas tanks are over, at least for now.
Oil and other commodity prices have always fluctuated, and they are ultimately less predictable in the long term than consumers might wish. It’s one thing to be thankful for the current bargain we’re getting when we drive, but it’s also a good idea to keep in mind that this situation might be temporary.
For now, being aware of the downsides of cheap gas (and an improving economy) can motivate drivers to be more careful on the roads. And if gas prices rise again, at least we can look forward to seeing fewer cars on the road and maybe fewer accidents.
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