In what could be a silver lining for the global financial crisis Americans are driving less, buying fewer cars, using less petrol and fewer of them have died on the country’s roads so far this year. And the use of public transport has soared as a result.

In fact what we’ve seen this year in America is verging on the historic — car sales have fallen so sharply that annual rates will be the lowest for two decades, and General Motors, Ford and Chrysler have been brought to the brink of collapse.

Car sales fell 37% in November compared with the same month last year.

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General Motors isn’t waiting for the $US14 billion in bailout cash to arrive from Washington — it has slashed its first quarter 2009 production to the point where the company will fall behind Ford in output if the latter company doesn’t cut its output estimates.

Amid all the confusion over the fate of the bailout package for Ford, GM and Chrysler, GM announced that it had cut 250,000 units from its projected production level for the first quarter.

According to the US Department of Transportation, driving in America has undergone its most dramatic continuous decline in history. From November last year to the end of October this year, Americans drove 100 billion fewer miles, compared with the same 12 month period ending October 2007.

US Transportation Secretary Mary Peters said in a statement that the drop in driving has continued even as petrol prices fell from their peak in mid-July. The nationwide average price for unleaded gas was $US1.656 per gallon of unleaded on Friday, according to the motorist group AAA. It peaked at $US4.114 a gallon on July 17.

According to the department, October saw Americans drive fewer miles than in any month since 1971, according to the DOT. Americans drove 3.5% less, or 8.9 billion fewer miles, compared with October 2007. There is a downside to this: the fall is resulting in less petrol being sold and less tax income for the US road renewal program. Transportation officials said they were concerned the drop would sap funding for the nation’s highway system. Crikey reported several months ago that the Department’s Trust Fund holding the tax revenue had to be recapitalised by the Government because it was running out of funds.

The American Public Transportation Association said last week that public transport use in the September quarter had its biggest jump in 25 years petrol prices peaked. The report says that more than 2.8 billion trips were taken on public transportation nationwide from July to September, an increase of 6.5% compared with the same period last year. This follows a rise in public transport last year as oil and petrol prices started rising from mid year onwards.

And the good side of all this (besides the benefits to the environment) is that fewer Americans have died on the country’s roads in accidents this year: the road toll is down sharply. The Transportation Department says that early figures show a near 10% fall in the number of road-related fatalities in the 10 months to the end of October.

The early estimates from the Department show that 31,110 people died on the nation’s roads from January through October, compared to 34,502 in 2007 during that same 10-month time period. In addition, the fatality rate per 100 million vehicles miles traveled for the first nine months of 2008 is 1.28, compared to 1.37 for 2007.

And this is reflected in petrol consumption — for the month of September, US consumption was 53.20 million gallons, down 7.3% on the 57.91 million used in the same month of 2007, despite plummeting prices at the bowser.