NEW YORK, March 12 (Reuters) - U.S. motorists took to the roads in record numbers in December, capping the fastest annual increase in miles driven for a decade, federal data showed on Thursday, a surge that analysts attribute to cheap gasoline and uptick in car sales.
Motorists drove an estimated 251.4 billion miles in December, up 5 percent from last year and the most miles ever for the month, according to data released Thursday by the Federal Highway Administration. It was the 10th consecutive month of year-to-year growth and the fastest rate for any month since 2001.
Overall, motorists drove nearly 3.02 trillion miles on U.S. roads in 2014, the highest number since 2007 and the second-highest since data collection began 79 years ago, the federal data showed. Miles driven rose by 1.7 percent for the year, the biggest growth rate since 2004.
The data helps explain the large 4.4 percent increase in U.S. gasoline consumption in December to 9.3 million barrels per day, the highest since the U.S. Energy Information Administration began reporting the number is 1945.
“Two things come to mind: huge numbers in new vehicle sales in November and December and much lower gas prices,” said Robert Sinclair, spokesman for AAA, which predicted that December’s holiday season would be record breaking.
He noted that vehicle sales for the November and December were the highest in history for the two months, with nearly 3 million vehicles sold.
“People with new cars like to drive them,” he said.
A mild start to the winter this year also boosted traffic, following last year’s historic snowfalls, analysts said.
U.S. gasoline prices have fallen with global oil prices, sinking to roughly $2.50 a gallon in December, much cheaper than the previous year. U.S. gasoline prices were $2.44 a gallon on average Thursday, a discount of more than dollar a gallon from last year.
Sinclair said the savings are expected to continue throughout the year and that he expects the surge in motorist volume to continue.
Americans’ driving habits are a closely watched indicator for oil traders since U.S. gasoline use accounts for about one-tenth of global oil demand.
“If gasoline prices fall even further, we could be in for brisk summer at the pump,” said Patrick DeHaan, a senior petroleum analyst with GasBuddy.com. (Reporting By Jarrett Renshaw and Robert Gibbons; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)