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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Americans cut down on the number of miles they drove for the sixth straight month in April, resulting in the biggest six-month decline since the oil shock of the 1979-80 Iranian revolution, new government data shows.
As record gasoline prices push more and more commuters onto public transport and vacationers to trim trips, U.S. highway travel fell 30 billion miles between November and April, down 1.7 percent from the comparable period a year earlier, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.
That was the steepest decline since Americans cut back their driving by about 500 million miles over two years in 1979 and 1980, when there were gasoline shortages and price spikes after the Shah of Iran was overthrown, said department spokesman Doug Hecox.
In fact, the current 30-billion-mile drop in highway travel is likely more than all the previous declines combined during the 66 years that the department has been collecting such information, Hecox said.
"It's a pretty severe decline that we've seen," he said.
During April alone, Americans drove 1.4 billion fewer highway miles, down 1.8 percent from a year earlier and 400 million miles less than in March.
The high cost of gasoline has cut highway travel almost 20 billion miles, or 2.1 percent, during the first four months of this year, the department said.
Rural areas, where families drive more and spend a larger share of their income on gasoline, have seen the biggest decline in highway travel.
Travel on rural interstates for the January-April period is down 2.9 percent and off 3.1 percent on other rural highways.
A new report on Thursday from an energy advisory group reflected the drop in total highway travel, saying U.S. gasoline demand may have peaked last year and will likely decline in 2008 for the first time in 17 years.
Cambridge Energy Research Associates said long-term shifts in consumer behavior, such as buying more fuel-efficient vehicles, is helping to push gasoline demand lower.
"Americans are now driving less and demanding greater fuel efficiency from their vehicles when they do drive," said Aaron Brady, CERA's global oil director.
Sales of mid-size sport utility vehicles fell 38 percent last month compared to a year earlier. Sales of better-mileage passenger cars, which were less than half of all vehicle purchases last year, jumped to 57 percent in May.
The downside for the government is less money to pay for highway projects and public transportation, which is funded by an 18.4-cents-per-gallon gasoline tax and a 24.4 cents-per-gallon diesel fuel tax.
"As positive as any move toward greater fuel efficiency is, we need to make sure we have the kind of sustainable funding measures in place to support needed highway and transit improvements well into the future," said Acting Federal Highway Administrator Jim Ray.
CERA said gasoline prices still do not cause as much economic hardship as they did during the 1980s, but they are getting close to the "pain point" of just over $4.20 a gallon for an average annual price.
Editing by Christian Wiessner