Americans Driving Less, Still Spending Cash On Cars

Even as Americans are easing up on the gas pedal, they're spending money on their cars and trucks.

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Tax day has come and gone, leaving those expecting a refund from Uncle Sam with the promise of some extra cash burning a hole in their pocket.

What will they spend it on? That new car smell.

In line with this year's blockbuster auto sales numbers, more than 20 percent say they'll take their refund check to the nearest dealer and trade up for a new or used vehicle, a recent eBay Motors/Harris poll found.

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But a new set of wheels isn't the only thing on the minds of American drivers. With the aging fleet of cars on the road—the average vehicle age is the highest it's ever been at more than 11 years old—more than 80 percent of those surveyed will sink their refund money into maintenance and repair. Another 14 percent plan to pay for cleaning and detailing services, while almost 20 percent would replace their vehicle's tires.

Overall, more than one third of Americans receiving tax refunds will spend at least a portion of their tax refund on some vehicle-related expense, the survey found.

There's no question the demand for new vehicles and the need for services to keep existing vehicles in tip-top shape exists—auto sales are booming and repair shops are seeing a steady stream of business. But as a recent Slate piece points out, this surge in demand comes at a time when Americans are actually driving less.

After seeing a steady increase during the 1980s and 1990s, VMT, or vehicle miles traveled, leveled out and has actually declined in the wake of the Great Recession. The drop-off was initially blamed on the downturn, but even as the economy has rebounded a bit and added jobs over the past several months, Americans have kept their foot off the right pedal.

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That's translated into a drop in demand for gasoline. So much so that the United States became a net exporter of refined petroleum products last year, primarily because refineries can fetch healthier prices for their products abroad where demand is steady or rising.

Why has the poster child car-crazy country seen a drop in driving and gasoline demand? There's no one answer, but experts say everything from increased online shopping to higher gas prices to a demographic shift away from suburbs has contributed to the pullback in driving.

Still, although Americans are driving less, that doesn't mean we've kicked our addiction to automobiles. We still want and have cars. Plenty of them actually. The total number of passenger vehicles in operation is more than 240 million, the highest it's ever been, according to Clayton Stanfield, manager of dealer training at eBay Motors.

"People are keeping their cars longer and they're fixing them," he says, noting that in the past, Americans didn't keep cars long enough to have to make repairs such as replacing brake lights or other parts that wear out over time.

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That's changing now that Americans are holding off on trading up to a newer vehicle and hanging on to their existing cars longer, Stanfield says, and it's especially evident during tax season. In 2011, searches for parts and accessories jumped almost 23 percent during tax season he says, after growing 17 percent the year before.

"There are people who look at their tax refund as extra money," Stanfield says, and they'll put it towards maintenance and repairs on existing vehicles or purchasing a new vehicle.

Meg Handley is a business reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, or Google+. You can also reach her at mhandley@usnews.com.