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Foot off the gas pedal

With gas prices hitting $4 this summer, drivers in Maryland and across the country have been driving far less as they choose in growing numbers to take public transit, share rides or simply stay home.

Federal Highway Administration figures for June show a 4.7 percent drop nationally in vehicle miles traveled compared with the same month last year, and a 4.4 percent decline in Maryland. The national decline for the month was the steepest the country has seen since the oil shocks of the 1970s, said a federal highway spokesman, Doug Hecox.

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It's unclear whether people will revert to old habits if gasoline prices continue their decline of recent weeks. But there are signs that "change is in the air" as Americans choose to drive less, Hecox said. "They're finding they can get along OK - or reasonably OK - with less [fuel] consumption."

There's more to the decline in driving than cars remaining in the garage. As riders of Maryland's MARC system can attest, public transit use is growing to the point that the infrastructure is showing strain. The bike rack at Penn Station is increasingly well-used. Maryland Transit Administration buses are more crowded than ever, and more of the passengers are wearing suits and ties.

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"It's becoming a much more diverse bunch," said Richard Chambers, executive director of One Less Car, a pro-transit advocacy group. Buses are "packed," he said.

In Glen Burnie, signs of change could be seen recently along Ritchie Highway, where auto dealership after auto dealership had small cars and SUVs lined up along the road with their claimed mileage displayed on each windshield.

Meanwhile, traffic fatalities have declined nationwide amid signs that the cutback in driving has been greatest among the drivers most prone to risky behaviors - particularly low-income motorists and teenagers.

The drop in driving in June came as the average price of unleaded gas in Maryland hit the $4 mark and stayed there for the rest of the month - hitting a high of $4.05 on June 24, according to AAA Mid-Atlantic.

Since then, the average price has declined has declined to $3.73 as of yesterday, but few drivers seem to be taking that as a signal to revert to their previous ways.

At the Towson Texaco on York Road, where regular gas cost has dropped from $3.99 a week ago to $3.72, Bonnie Blas of Pikesville was filling less than half the tank of her minivan in the hope that she could find cheaper gas closer to home.

Blas, the owner of two small businesses, said she tries to be organized about her errands in an effort to drive less.

"I do what I have to do for business, but I do try to consolidate. If I have clients in one area, I try to see them at the same time," she said.

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Business is off

Mohammed Haflash, who runs the station, said business has dropped at least 30 percent since he took over the station a year ago. One reason: He sees fewer SUVs and trucks barreling down this stretch of York Road leading to the Beltway.

In the span of an hour yesterday, only three SUVs pulled in.

One was a Toyota 4-Runner, driven by Rocky Marcantoni, a 30-year-old martial arts instructor. It cost him $76.42 to put 20 gallons of "power plus" in his tank.

Marcantoni, who lives downtown, said he just returned from Europe and was thinking about buying a scooter to use around the city, but thought it might look a bit "dorky" stateside.

Some drivers, such as Vanessa Fountain, a state lottery worker, say gas prices have inspired them to walk more to run errands. Fountain, who lives in Randallstown, used to drive to Virginia Beach three times each summer to visit her son. This year, her first and only summer trip will be next week.

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When the gas prices spiked earlier this year, Simone Rice made drastic changes in her life. Her Ford Taurus became the car for her family of four; her husband's Ford Explorer SUV stayed home.

He works in East Baltimore; she works in Towson. They reworked the day care pickup schedule for their two children. She and her husband take turns keeping the car at work.

Rice would like to be a two-car family again. But she's not ready to gun the Explorer just yet.

"I guess we'll wait a little to see how far it drops," she said.

For other Americans, the recent rise in gas prices has been the push they needed to give mass transit a try.

Jawauna Greene, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Transit Administration, said ridership was up in June on every service it offers, from local buses to the Metro subway to light rail and MARC. The gains have come despite service problems that month on some of its systems - notably MARC and light rail.

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"The challenge for us is, as we get people coming on the system, that the service meets their expectations," Greene said. "We just hope they realize the cost-benefits of staying with public transit."

Virginia Miller, spokeswoman for the American Public Transit Association, said the gains in transit use also are being reflected nationally. She said transit agencies began seeing steady increases once gas prices exceeded $3 after Hurricane Katrina.

Money as motivator

"People are changing their behavior," she said. "You've got to have a really good motivation to change a habit, and that motivation is saving money."

For the people who sell us cars, the decline in driving is translating directly into sluggish business. Peter Kitzmiller, president of the Maryland Automobile Dealers Association, said sales of large and medium-sized vehicles are off 20 to 30 percent from last year.

Signs of change are also being seen in the number of deaths on American roads - a figure that has hovered stubbornly around 42,000 for many years.

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"In addition to us driving less, we are also driving differently," said Michael Sivak, director of the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute. He said figures from March and April showed drops in fatalities of about 20 percent while the declines in total miles driven were in single digits. That indicates, he said, that fewer drivers are speeding.

Sivak also noted that the biggest reductions in miles driven came on rural roads, which tend to be the most dangerous. Traffic in June was down 6.2 percent on rural highways nationally and 5.7 percent on those roads in Maryland.

"We expect there will be a continued reduction in vehicle miles driven," Sivak said. If the trends of March and April continue, he said, the number of highway deaths in the United States may dip below 40,000 for the first time since 1961.

Ragina Averella, a spokeswoman for AAA, said the organization doesn't expect any significant upsurge in driving unless prices fall to below $3 a gallon.

"Even though we have experienced a decline over the past month, which is encouraging, most people still realize that gas prices are still significantly higher than they were last year," she said.

The price this time last year: $2.75.

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michael.dresser@baltsun.com

rona.kobell@baltsun.com


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