Are Pandemic-Induced Driving Habits Here to Stay?

Americans are itching to return to the old way of life, and that includes driving.

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COVID-19 altered many aspects of our lives, including what, when, where, how, and how much we drive. But will those changes continue indefinitely? Signs point to no.

Massive Disruption in the Early Days

At the start of the pandemic, when the virus spread like wildfire and we didn’t have a vaccine, the world had to adjust. As governments across the U.S. issued stay-at-home orders, people turned to e-commerce and delivery services to get their most basic needs met. The work-from-home movement gained traction, schools shut their doors, and restaurants, entertainment venues, and recreation centers hit the pause button. As a result, the average number of miles driven by Americans plummeted by a massive 40% in April 2020 compared with April 2019, according to the Federal Highway Administration.

A Return to Normal or the New Normal?

In July 2020, consultancy firm KPMG published a study predicting these lifestyle changes would lead to a lasting 10% drop in annual miles driven. Now, however, it seems this forecast was way off the mark.

Many workplaces have demanded employees return to the office at least a few days a week. Schools are back in session, and people are going to concerts, sporting events, movie theater screenings, and restaurants again—all of which correspond to a dramatic increase in vehicle travel. In fact, in March of this year, Carfax Banking and Insurance Group reported that driving activity has almost edged back up to pre-pandemic levels.

Carfax’s data also suggested that driving speeds—which increased dramatically during the pandemic as drivers encountered near-empty roads—have not come down. Given this, it’s perhaps unsurprising that the number of U.S. traffic deaths rose in 2020 and 2021 despite the dip in driving activity. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 42,915 people died in motor vehicle crashes last year, a significant 10.5% increase from the 38,824 fatalities in 2020. Meanwhile, 2019 recorded 36,096 fatalities.

What’s Next?

It’s still too early to tell, but it doesn’t seem that people are willing to accept limiting their mobility forever. Some experts predicted that airlines would take years to return to pre-pandemic levels and the cruise ship business was over. To put it plainly, they were wrong. Business and leisure air travel has surpassed 2019 levels, and cruise lines are optimistic for a full recovery by 2023.

The same will likely happen for personal car travel, particularly given the public’s hesitation to return to public transit. Part of that has to do with lingering fears of contracting the virus from strangers in an ill-ventilated bus or subway car, but it also comes down to the change in once-predictable, now-flexible commuter habits. Cars allow us to go where we want, when we want. And after two years of shutdowns and other restrictions, people are eager to ditch the new normal and go back to the original formula.

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Mark Hacking
Mark Hacking is an award-winning writer with over 20 years’ experience covering the automotive scene for some of the leading publications in the world. Mark holds an FIA International Race License and has his sights set on competing in the Rolex 24 at Daytona in the future. He was the first automotive journalist to race in the Ferrari Challenge Series (in 2013) and the Jaguar I-PACE eTrophy Series (in 2019).