Our Opinion: Driving pleasure slows amid cultural change

Anyone remember Fahrvergnugen?

The German word — translated as “driving pleasure” — was used by Volkswagen in a 1990 ad campaign.

Today, nearly a quarter of a century later, signs indicate driving pleasure is becoming as obsolete as the Ford Edsel or Chevrolet Corvair.

Among those signs:

• Driving in the United States has diminished nearly 10 percent since 2004, according to an Associated Press story published June 1. And the shift may be more cultural than financial, including the higher cost of gasoline. “There’s something more fundamental going on,” said Michael Sivak of the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute.

• Eager teens seeking drivers’ licenses, once a rite of passage, also have declined. Fewer than 70 percent of 19 year olds now have a driver’s license, down from 87 percent 20 years ago. Some observers believe the connections offered by social media have replaced the need for mobility once provided by cars.

• People are rediscovering simpler, and more environmentally friendly, modes of travel. “There’s a lot of people who want the less-driving lifestyle, definitely,” said Sam Newburg, an urban planning consultant. Commuting by bicycle, carpooling and light rail are becoming increasingly more popular.

• Marketing has changed. Fewer automakers are emphasizing a vehicle’s performance, handling and power. Instead, selling points include communications, connectivity and audio features — essentially a computer on wheels.

The logical extension of this trend is the driverless car, which automakers already are developing. Precursors of this technology — including back-up cameras that sense obstacles and beep warnings — now are available.

Against this backdrop, lawmakers and policy-makers must be careful not to fall behind the cultural shift.

How will a change in America’s driving habits influence infrastructure needs, tax policies, public safety and traffic laws?

Missouri voters in August will decide a three-quarter cent transportation sales tax — a departure from transportation’s past reliance on fuel taxes.

Proponents and opponents already have raised a number of arguments about the proposal. Add to the mix the question of whether a sales tax addresses or ignores the cultural decline in driving pleasure.

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