Marylanders who took to their cars over the long July 4th weekend likely noticed the trend: fewer fellow travelers on the roads. The dip in holiday traffic was a revealing reflection of the bigger picture: On a year-to-year average, Americans are driving about 4 percent less, the biggest drop since the invention of the automobile.

A year ago that shift might have been blamed on high gasoline prices, but today a gallon of gas is about $1.45 cheaper than in 2008. The economic downturn and job losses have no doubt been a factor as well, but the U.S. has weathered recessions before - and oil shortages in the late 1970s that forced rationing at the pump - with less impact on American's driving habits.

Admittedly, there are parts of the U.S. where traffic has been picking up in recent months (at least according to the most recent federal Bureau of Transportation Statistics report), but the shift appears to be a relatively minor blip on the radar compared to the two-year trend.

One of the most immediate effects of the drop in driving has been a corresponding reduction in highway deaths. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported last week that about 7,689 people died in motor vehicle crashes in the first three months of the year, a 9 percent decline from one year ago.

At the current pace, U.S. highway fatalities could reach their lowest levels in a half-century.

Both trends suggest that something noteworthy is going on. Spurred by last year's high gasoline prices, people are economizing. They are combining trips, car-pooling, shopping closer to home, telecommuting and taking alternative forms of transportation when available. The reduction in fatalities suggests they may even be slowing down on the roads, a fuel-saving tactic that can also save lives.

This is a trend that ought to be cultivated. Fewer vehicle miles traveled translates into less greenhouse gases and other pollutants pumped into the atmosphere, less dependence on foreign oil, improved productivity and economic savings, and countless lives and serious injuries spared.

Such an approach requires not only a much larger investment in public transit so that alternative modes of transportation are available to all who would choose them; it also requires public policies that encourage people not to drive so much. That includes a more serious approach to smart growth that directs development (and redevelopment) to cities and towns rather than sprawl that chews up rural greenscape.

America's love of the automobile is well-documented, but people have also shown a willingness to change when circumstances require it. Public policy needs to catch up with the transformation in attitudes and behavior that's already so clearly in evidence.

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