Sign of the Times: In the U.S., More Cars Are Trashed Than Bought

Last Updated Apr 8, 2010 2:32 PM EDT

In the last 15 months, more cars were scrapped and sent to the crusher than were registered in the U.S. That's a reflection of the economy that might eventually actually affect America's ever-growing automotive population, currently at 244 million.

Between July 1, 2008 and September 30, 2009 (a period that includes the Cash for Clunkers program, which scrapped hundreds of thousands of cars), some 14.8 million cars and trucks were sent to the boneyard, but just 13.6 million new ones were registered, according to auto marketing company R.L. Polk that reported that salient fact also found that Americans are keeping their cars longer. The average age of light-duty vehicles on the road today is 10.2 years, compared to a little over eight years old in 1995.

According to Polk, factors behind the trend include "the economy, limited financing and leasing options available in the market, extended warranties offered by OEMs, and improved vehicle durability and quality of vehicles." It's not all bad news for car companies and their suppliers. Mark Seng, a Polk vice president, sees "significant opportunities for repair services and parts demand for the aftermarket as vehicles are falling out of warranty as they age."

Even though both the U.S. economy and (to a limited extent) car sales are showing signs of recovery, Polk says it expects current trends on scrappage and registrations to continue through 2010.

The evolving changes in the car population should be seen in the context of many years of explosive growth. A new book, Carjacked: The Culture of the Automobile and its Effects on our Lives (Palgrave MacMillan) by Catherine Lutz and Anne Lutz Fernandez, takes a jaundiced look at the auto's oversized influence. The authors point out, for instance that two-thirds of nine out of 10 U.S. households now have at least two cars, compared to just 20 percent in the early '60s.

Despite technical gains, fuel economy has remained basically flat for 20 years, and you can in part blame the expansion of truck sales for that. The largest pickups sold 250 percent more in 2006 than they did in 1992, Carjacked says.

and we're also driving a lot more. According to the Department of Transportation, Americans traveled almost 3 trillion miles in 2008, almost twice as many miles as in 1983. And between 1990 and 2007, vehicle miles traveled (called VMT) grew at twice the rate of U.S. population increase.

The authors say they want to help people "take back control of our lives from the car," but judging by Americans continued love affair with the automobile (possibly soon to transfer to cars that plug in) this marriage looks like a lasting one.

Photo: Flickr/IFranz