Highway Miles

Car shopping can be a frustrating experience. Thanks to dubious salespeople, a liberal use of the word sale, as well as the ambiguous and deceitful nature of bartering, we have reason to suspect that we may be getting duped, especially when we’re shopping for a used car.

We try to make ourselves informed consumers by e-searching reviews, recalls and prices. We may even write ourselves a list of important questions to ask, such as:

  • How long have you owned this vehicle?
  • Why are you selling it?
  • Has it been involved in any accidents?
  • Do you have the service records?
  • Can I take it for a test drive?
  • Can I take it to my mechanic?
  • How many miles are on it?

But despite our best efforts, we often can’t shake the feeling that we’re not being told the whole story. No matter its condition, the seller always assures us that we’re paying a fair price for a quality vehicle. They even try to convince us not to trust the odometer.

Used car owners will tell us that the mileage on the car doesn’t really reflect its condition. They’ll explain how the vehicle was driven gently and that the only reason for the high mileage is that it was used for commuting. But should the fact that the car was driven on the highway every day really relieve our fears? No, it shouldn’t, and here’s why:

First of all, although it’s true that a vehicle will look worse after 5 miles in a destruction derby than it will after the same distance on a quiet rural avenue, the idea we should ignore a car’s high mileage because it was accumulated through commuting is ridiculous.

Aside from special cases, vehicles are only used for two things: driving in town and driving on highways. And while highway driving may be slightly less taxing on certain components, city driving is hardly harmful by comparison. If it were, then we’d be taking the freeway at every opportunity in order to avoid the ruinous hazard of traversing city streets.

This also may cause us to wonder what mileage really means when it comes to wear and tear. Are we just talking about the number of rotations of the drive shaft? Of course not. Mileage tells us the extent to which the vehicle was used.

The odometer is a window into the life of the car. It allows us to imagine how many rocks have chipped the paint, how many spilled coffees have stained the upholstery and how much gum has accrued beneath the seats. Sure, it doesn’t tell the whole story, but high mileage does indicate that the vehicle was highly used.

Another problem with attempting to convince potential buyers to ignore highway miles is that this strategy assumes that there are viable alternative explanations as to why a vehicle might have high mileage.

The average annual mileage of a vehicle falls somewhere between 10,000 and 15,000 miles (16,000 and 24,000 km). When we encounter a vehicle with an average annual mileage of, let’s say, 25,000 miles, there’s really only one conclusion to make: it was driven on the highway. Of course, there are special cases. It’s possible that the car was used for local business deliveries, but this is rare, especially since those vehicles are usually driven into oblivion.

The third and final issue lies in the fact that all vehicles are driven in town, even the ones used to commute. Perhaps it’s to a slightly lesser extent, but commuter vehicles must at least travel to and from the highway, which is often a significant distance.

So even if there was a notable difference in wear and tear between driving in town and driving on the highway, which there isn’t, all vehicles are subjected to a similar amount of city driving. This means that the vehicle with higher mileage will, barring other factors, be in worse condition than the car with less mileage.

Maybe we can’t be expected to be completely transparent about the fault in our cars, but we shouldn’t pretend that highway miles don’t count.