“I passed!” the 16-year-old Anniston High School student shouted to her mother, Parashonta Johnson, waiting on a bench outside the State Troopers post in Jacksonville to hear the good news about her daughter’s driver’s license test.
“She’s already excited about getting a car,” Johnson said. “She wants to go tonight and get one.”
While most 16-year-olds are happy to get behind the wheel, Americans in general are putting fewer miles on their cars. According to a study released last week by the United States Public Interest Research Group, the number of miles driven annually per person dropped by more than 10 percent in 18 states from 2005 to 2011, but Alabama saw a 3 percent increase.
The group’s study, titled “Moving Off the Road,” found an overall 8 percent drop in the mileage the average American drove during that period. Alabama was just one of four states -- along with Louisiana, Nevada and North Dakota — that bucked the trend with an increase in mileage.
“If you go back more years and cast a wider net, you see Nevada and Louisiana had years prior to 2005 with higher percentages,” said Phineas Baxandall, the study’s author. “So really, it’s just Alabama and North Dakota who are driving more.”
Why Alabama has seen an increase in driving isn’t explained in the study, but Baxandall suggested the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina could explain Louisiana’s and Alabama’s rates, although that doesn’t explain Mississippi’s double digit-drop in the study.
But Jack Plunk, a principal planner with the East Alabama Regional Planning and Development Commission, said land use in the state makes driving a car the only way to get around.
While Baxandall said he hopes his study will encourage lawmakers to back away from increasing road projects and look toward funding alternative forms of transportation, Plunk said he doesn’t see that happening anytime soon in Alabama.
“They’re doing just the opposite,” Plunk said about state lawmakers. “In fact, fuel and gas tax in this state specifically cannot go to fund public transportation.”
But even if drastic changes to policy took place overnight, Plunk said, a lot of drivers still wouldn’t change behavior.
“If gas prices doubled tomorrow, a lot of us wouldn’t have the option to use public transportation,” Plunk said. “We couldn’t get on the bus, or ride your bike, or even carpool.”
Baxandall said the study looked at numbers before the recession and after the start of the economic recovery to prove that the decrease in numbers wasn’t solely based on the economy. But some Alabama drivers said the climbing cost of gas prices keeps them off the road.
“Who wants to go anywhere with those outrageous prices,” said Brandi Fowler, while filling up her gas tank Tuesday afternoon at Walmart. Fowler, a Weaver resident, said she drives 20 miles to her job in Oxford seven days a week.
“Here in Alabama we’re a little cheaper than some places,” Fowler said. “So maybe that’s why we drive more.”
Mike Allen, who was making a gas stop at Walmart on Tuesday, said he was driving a lot more five years ago when he lived in Pell City and commuted every day to his job at the Anniston Army Depot. He moved to Saks to cut down on the commute.
“Every penny saved counts,” Allen said. “If I’m buying more gas, I’m not buying groceries.”
It’s not the working class that has factored most into the decrease in miles, though. Plunk said a younger, more urban population has started to see a shift in preference to public transportation — a method that eliminates the burden of driving, and opens up more free time to use smart phones and other devices.
According to Eddie Wheeler, the general manager of Sunny King Ford in Anniston, marketing suggests that a younger generation isn’t buying cars.
“That demographic has pretty much gone away,” said Wheeler about college-aged students. “You really don’t have first-time buyer programs anymore aimed at college kids. That started to disappear about four or five years ago.”
Baxandall said that’s symbolic of a larger trend in the country of what he calls the end of the “driving boom.”
“For 60 years we saw an increase in driving,” Baxandall said. “It used to be part of the American dream was to own your own car. Well, we’ve reached a peak in that, and now there’s a push in the other way by a younger generation that’s more environment-conscious.”
But many Alabama 16-year-olds are itching to get on the road, said Anniston resident Erica Brown while stopping to fill her gas tank on Tuesday.
“My kids go to Wellborn High School, and every morning you see kids pull in with their new cars,” Brown said. “The second they turn 16, they want a car and get out of here.”
Or, at least get to work. Parashonta Johnson said that while her daughter might think of a new car as freedom, Johnson sees it as a way to make sure she can get herself to work on time at her job at Zaxby’s.
“It’s a lot of responsibility,” Johnson said. “She needs that job, so she needs a car.”
Staff writer Brian Anderson: 256-235-3546. On Twitter @BAnderson_Star.