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Covid-19 causes largest plunge in annual driving since World War II

Mileage in 2021 will post a significant gain over last year, but it will take some time before annual driving returns to pre-2020 levels, according to Lang Marketing

Fort Wayne, Ind.—Lang Marketing estimates that 2020 driving by all types of vehicles fell by more than 400 billion miles in the U.S., well below the 3.3 trillion miles recorded in 2019. This was the fourth year since 2008 that mileage on U.S. roads declined.

“Last year, Covid-19 caused the largest plunge in annual driving since World War II, more than the combined drop in mileage of the three previous annual declines over the past 12 years: 2008, 2009, and 2011,” states the report. “Mileage in 2021 will post a significant gain over last year, but it will take some time before annual driving returns to pre-2020 levels.”

Some of Lang Marketing’s additional findings are as follows:

Earlier Mileage Reductions

• The three earlier reductions in annual miles since 2008 were each just a fraction of the 2020 mileage plunge. Driving fell 1.8 percent during 2008, a result of the Great Recession, followed by smaller driving declines in 2009 and 2011 (0.7 percent and 0.6 percent, respectively).

• The approximate 12 percent plunge in 2020 driving was nearly five times the combined loss of mileage of the other three years of reduced driving since 2008.

Lower VIO

• The reductions in annual miles (2008, 2009, and 2011) occurred over a four-year period during which the number of vehicles in operation (VIO) fell by a total of more than 1 percent.

• Lang Marketing estimates that there were fewer vehicles on U.S. roads at the end 2020 than 12 months earlier. This will mark the first VIO annual reduction since 2012.

Mileage Recovery

• What began as a health issue in mid-March 2020, quickly developed into a social and economic crisis. Never before has the behavior of U.S. citizens been so rapidly and dramatically changed over a short time, primarily by public mandate.

• The two most unusual aspects of the historic drop in 2020 mileage were its magnitude and how much greater it was than the 2020 VIO decline. In previous years, driving declines happened concurrently with VIO reductions of similar magnitude.

Recovery Speed

Some analysts point to the narrowing monthly gap between 2020 and 2019 driving as an indication that mileage levels will soon return to pre-2020 levels. However, the unprecedented surge in remote working, high unemployment, and economic uncertainty all strongly suggest that there will be a “step-down” in monthly mileage (between 2 percent and 4 percent) that could persist for an extended period.

Lang Marketing predicts that it will be several years before annual mileage returns to pre-2020 levels, and even longer before there will be sustained growth beyond the 3.3 trillion miles recorded in 2019.

Recent History

If recent history is any indication of how long it will take for driving to return to pre-Covid levels, it took seven years for annual miles to shake off the impact of the 2008 Great Recession.

Up to 800 Billion Miles Could be Lost

Depending on how long it takes annual mileage to return to pre-2020 levels, the total mileage loss due to Covid-19 could be double the estimated 400 billion miles lost during 2020.

Lasting Aftermarket Impact

No matter how long it takes for driving levels to regain their pre-Covid levels, the billions of lost miles will leave a legacy of lower odometer readings, and the resulting lack of “wear and tear” on vehicles will put downward pressure on aftermarket product and service volume for a number of years.

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