Sonny Alaniz was headed home after midnight when his ATV lurched to a stop on a rural Texas road, the gas tank undeniably drained.
The nursing student and his seven passengers, who had been out celebrating his 22nd birthday that last Saturday in May, had little choice but to hop out and push. They slogged three miles before someone arrived with fuel, only to find the four-wheeler still wouldn’t start and had to be towed. “Next time, I’ll just stay home,” he joked.
It’s a familiar predicament, especially as the incessant run-up in prices has motorists testing the limits of their fuel gauges: AAA fielded 50,787 out-of-gas calls in April, a 32% jump from the same month last year. More than 200,000 drivers have been similarly stranded this year, the automobile club said. And gas prices have risen precipitously since April, making the financial pain even more acute.
Fuel prices began their most recent surge after Russia invaded Ukraine in February, upsetting energy markets. The U.S. average for a gallon of gas has swelled 62%, to $4.96, since last year, AAA data shows. Motorists in 16 states are paying at least $5 a gallon on average, while California has breached $6. Filling up a tank of gas, depending on the vehicle, can cost more than $100, which is the equivalent of 14 hours of after-tax income for some low-wage workers.
The escalating expense, combined with the rising costs of food, housing and other essentials, has consumers playing inflationary whack-a-mole, making tougher choices on how much they can spend and when. Some drivers may do a partial fill-up if they’re pressed for cash at the end of a pay cycle, says Patrick De Haan, head of petroleum analysis at GasBuddy.
“If you only have five or 10 bucks left before your next paycheck, that’s what you’re going on,” De Haan said. “This tells us people are really hurting from high gas prices.”
A Washington Post-Schar School poll bears that out: 44% of drivers randomly contacted between April 21 and May 12 said they have only partially filled their car’s gas tank, a figure that rises to 61% for drivers with incomes below $50,000.
And more than 6 in 10 drivers have made the decision to drive less – making fewer trips to the grocery store, for example – while more than 3 in 10 said they are driving at reduced speeds, which can improve gas mileage.
Gasoline demand, measured as a four-week moving average, dropped to 8.8 million barrels a day for the week ended May 20, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. If you exclude 2020, that’s the lowest level for that time of year since 2013.
Alina Hille, 35, is used to cutting it close between fill-ups but had never actually run out until a recent Monday afternoon, sidelined on a St. Louis street with her son, 4, and daughter, 7, in tow. The three trudged to the nearest fuel station, where the loaner gas can was out with another customer. So Hille, who works as a therapist for a nonprofit, purchased a one-gallon canister for $1.50, filled it up and managed to get home in time to jump on a Zoom call.
She has found ways to pare back – she works from home more often and is more likely to walk her kids to school – but the financial challenge is profound: As of Wednesday, a full tank of gas would run her $67 ― $9 more than a month ago.
“I find myself not doing things I used to with the kids because of the gas prices,” Hille said. “We used to go for drives when they are restless or try to drive to playgrounds, or destinations they haven’t been to before.”
Now, she says, “I’d rather buy groceries.”
Back in South Texas, Alaniz said fuel prices have forced changes in his commute and college plans. He used to make the roughly 60-mile drive from his family’s ranch near Alice to Corpus Christi, where he attends college, in his Chevy Silverado 2500, a large pickup that he estimates squeaks out 14 mpg on the highway.
Even with a part-time job, the charges have become unbearable. “You’re talking about $60 gives me half a tank,” he said.
So he’s trading in his Chevy for a smaller truck that gets better mileage. He’s also switching to online classes for the upcoming semester.
Such wholesale lifestyle changes illustrate a tipping point: Studies have shown that consumers don’t adjust their fuel spending much in response to short-term price changes, at least not in comparison with other everyday purchases. Rather, it usually takes sustained increases to affect behavior, said Roger Ware, an economist with Queen’s University in Ontario.
“People will maintain their driving habits in the short term because they do not see an alternative to meeting their goals, whether for commuting or recreational driving. Over a period of months or years, however, many things will change if prices stay high,” Ware said.
If prices remain elevated, he said, more commuters will switch to public transit or carpooling. Consumers also will be more prone to rethink their vehicles and trade them in for more fuel-efficient options. And some people will move closer to work to lighten commutes, or do more of their work remotely.
Price hikes, coupled with more Americans resuming their pre-pandemic driving habits, could be contributing to the spike in out-of-gas calls, according to AAA repair systems manager David Bennett.
Only about 2% of AAA’s total roadside assistance calls each month are fuel-related, a proportion that is roughly equivalent to before the pandemic. In March 2019, when fuel was cheap and more vehicles were on the road, there were 53,800 fuel-related assistance calls.
“People have been stuck at home for the past couple years,” Bennett said. “They’re looking for opportunities to go and explore.”
For Danielle Socha, who makes food deliveries for three apps in the San Diego area, a tank of gas runs about $83. She’s run out so many times it’s become a running joke with her friends and family.
“My gas gauge is broken,” she said. “I don’t get a read on my car and this keeps happening.”
She keeps an empty container in her car so she can walk to a gas station if necessary. Socha says she occasionally gets dirty looks from passersby, but she’s also benefited from acts of kindness. In the most recent incident, a young man helped push her 2013 Volkswagen Jetta off the road when he saw her waving a white rain jacket in the air.
The price hikes also have given rise to bizarre instances of fuel theft. A San Diego couple called police after they found a hole drilled in the bottom of a car, emitting a steady stream of gas, according a March 21 report from CBS8. Similar incidents have been reported in Memphis, Las Vegas and other cities.
Three Florida men were arrested and face racketeering charges on accusations of stealing thousands of gallons of diesel directly from gas stations, transporting it in 300-gallon “gasoline bladders” and reselling it, according to Newsweek.