SANTA MONICA, Calif. — Battered economic confidence and heightened financial fears of consumers are to blame for the declining car sales, according to

Car sales are expected to be down about 30 percent this month and about 15 percent this year, said Why? Today the Conference Board's consumer confidence index answered the question as it reported a plunge to 38 in October, its lowest level on record — a 41-year record.

A study of the issue by Edmunds' indicates that dealer showroom traffic is down significantly, but not universally among all demographics. Many Americans with decent credit ratings are staying away because they are worried about the economic future. On the other hand, many oblivious subprime consumers are still attempting to purchase vehicles - only to be turned down or handed tough terms when applying for loans.

"Some have surmised that the shortage of credit is to blame for declining car sales, but the credit squeeze has played only a subsidiary role," Edmunds' contributor Dale Buss asserts. "While some big captive-finance arms have greatly constricted credit, other lenders are picking up the slack."

Buss' research indicates that credit unions may emerge as the biggest market-share winners in the new auto-loan "derby."