Gas prices have soared about 15 percent in the past six months, hitting $3.94 a gallon on average nationwide.
The mood of motorists? Meh.
Partisan finger-pointing aside, polls suggest that most people aren’t as worked up over gas prices as they were four years ago, when a gallon of regular hit a national average of $4.11 a gallon. Nor has there been as much clamor for drastic measures, such as tapping the Strategic Petroleum Reserve in Texas and Louisiana.
“I think we all have adjusted,” said Lara Clayton, of Los Alamitos, Calif., as she spent nearly $60 recently to fill up her 2008 Lincoln Town Car. “We just don’t drive as much, and we are careful to combine errands.”
That’s one reason for the comparative complacency, and economists and industry observers say there are others.
A big factor is that the current run-up in fuel prices has been nowhere near as steep as in 2008, when prices escalated 35 percent in six months.
Having already seen prices cross the $4 barrier, motorists are less likely to become outraged when they see it happen again, said Michael Sivak of the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute. And because the costs of other items have risen – notably food – it stands out less as a household budget-buster.
“If we adjust for inflation, gas costing $4 a gallon now is analogous to gas costing $3.72 four years ago,” Sivak said.
Another factor is that more people are driving fuel-efficient cars, as older gas-guzzlers are gradually replaced with new vehicles that get better mileage.
Auto sales figures last week demonstrate that trend. Through the first three months of the year, sales of small cars accounted for 27 percent of retail car sales, said research firm J.D. Power & Associates. Toyota sold a record 29,000 of its Prius hybrids last month, making it the sixth-most popular vehicle in March. More than 40 percent of the vehicles General Motors sold last month had the smaller four-cylinder engines.
With more hybrids and four-cylinder engines in the mix, the vehicles sold in February 2012 get nearly 17 percent better mileage than those purchased in February 2008, Sivak said.
One reflection of that is evident in figures from the U.S. Energy Information Administration and the Federal Highway Administration. Americans drove just 1 percent fewer miles last year compared with 2010, but the nation used 3 percent less motor fuel.
That may help explain the results of a recent Washington Post poll. Asked whether “recent price increases in gasoline caused any financial hardship for you or others in your household,” 63 percent of the respondents said yes. That’s well below the 77 percent that answered yes during the price surge of 2008, and it was the lowest affirmative response to the same question in five years.
Still, Americans are feeling the pain, and if prices cross the $5-a-gallon line, there could be a lot more furor. Gallup polled drivers last month and found that about 14 percent said that even gas priced under $4 a gallon forced them to make lifestyle choices. And 28 percent said a price point in the $4 range caused them to reduce spending in other areas.
But the tipping point comes above $5, at which level 76 percent say they would start changing spending habits. With the national average for regular gasoline still under $4 a gallon, Gallup said its data suggest that “there is room for a considerably greater increase in gas prices before Americans say prices will begin to have widespread, serious consequences on their spending and lifestyle patterns.”