The Federal Highway Administration said Wednesday that U.S. motorists drove 12.2 billion fewer miles in June than in the same month a year earlier, a drop of 4.7 percent to 250.2 billion.

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As gasoline prices were hitting record levels in June, Americans were hitting the brakes.

The Federal Highway Administration said Wednesday that U.S. motorists drove 12.2 billion fewer miles in June than in the same month a year earlier, a drop of 4.7 percent to 250.2 billion.

It was the eighth consecutive monthly drop and the biggest June decline ever, the agency said.

Driving on rural interstates fell nearly 7 percent, which is “a pretty good indication that multistate commercial traffic and regional vacation travel are down,” said Doug Hecox, a spokesman for the Federal Highway Administration.

Highway officials expected metropolitan areas to show the biggest decline because people have mass transit as an option, but it came in rural areas instead.

“There may be broader economic reasons,” Hecox said, including high food prices and a tough job market. “The effects of that may be digging deeper in rural areas,” he said. “People in the middle of the country may just be staying home.”

Rockford, Ill.-based Road Ranger USA, operator of 73 service stations in seven Midwestern states, most in rural towns and near interstates, has seen gas sales fall 5 percent this year along interstates and urban areas and 15 percent in rural areas such as Freeport, Ill., said company president Dan Arnold.

“We’re in the eye of the storm,” Arnold said. “Summer travel is down a little bit, but in smaller communities it’s down more significantly. They have less disposable income, so higher gas prices affect them disproportionately. It just comes down to having less money to spend, so you stay home”

Gasoline prices have been falling in recent weeks as oil prices have dropped more than 20 percent from their July 3 record high of about $145 a barrel. The current average price for a gallon of regular is $3.78 nationwide and $4.03 in the Seattle area, AAA said.

Gas prices aren’t the only deterrent, said Lisa Schweitzer, a transportation-policy expert at the University of Southern California.

“Not only is it expensive to get anywhere, but you have to pay more for whatever you do when you get there,” she said.

June was the eighth straight month of decline in driving, and 2008 is on pace to be the first year of decline since 1980. Americans also used 400 million fewer gallons of gas in the first quarter, according to the highway administration.

Driving miles are expected to decline again when July numbers come out because that’s when gas prices peaked at more than $4 nationally.

But highway officials expect motorists will get back behind the wheel eventually and the miles to start climbing again.

The longest stretch of year-over-year declines in highway miles driven was the 24 months from January 1979 to December 1980, Hecox said.

Although the current falloff has a way to go before it reaches that length, “it’s certainly been a lot steeper,” he said.

As car owners think twice about getting behind the wheel, more drivers are taking trains.

Amtrak ridership rose 14 percent in July to nearly 2.8 million.

Ridership is up 11 percent for the year and on track to break last year’s record of 25.8 million.

Brett Sweeney and Dean Buckner, colleagues at a box manufacturer, were car pooling back to Minneapolis after traveling separately to Chicago for business.

Sweeney, who travels five or six times a year to Chicago, took the train to the city for the first time, saying he saved more than 50 percent over the cost of driving by his estimate.

“If I could have gotten a bus ticket, that was even cheaper, but the buses were all full,” he said.

Compiled from the Los Angeles Times and The Chicago Tribune