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Rising gasoline prices may change driving behavior

By Paul Courson, CNN
  • Experts highlight ways to conserve gasoline
  • People drive differently when gas prices skyrocket
  • Ethanol hurts fuel economy

Washington (CNN) -- From lifting a lead foot to choosing a more fuel-efficient vehicle, experts believe the price of gasoline is now high enough to change driving habits.

"We're going to begin to see people worried," said AAA spokesman Lon Anderson, "now that we've passed that $3 point," drivers are bracing for pump prices to keep moving toward $4 a gallon.

Anderson said, "I'm sure they're going to be considering 'do I need to begin thinking about taking mass transit; do we leave the big SUV in the driveway parked and start driving the smaller car more."

In a news conference along with an economist from the American Petroleum Institute, the two groups repeated well-known fuel conservation techniques that are often ignored when gas prices aren't so bad.

"Slow down. Avoid jackrabbit starts. Pace your driving," said API chief economist John Felmy.

He also cited the more recent cost-cutting strategy of obtaining discounts at the pump for doing business at certain grocery stores. "Loyalty programs," he said, "you have joint efforts between some markets and fuel companies that actually have had some substantial discounts, 10-20-30 cents" per gallon, calculated at the gas pump for a registered customer.

And don't expect a used car market flooded with unwanted SUVs as it happened during earlier jumps in gas prices. Anderson, the AAA spokesman, said things have changed since then.

"Our SUVs today are a whole lot more efficient than they were before," Anderson said, "those were largely eight-cylinder, big power vehicles," now replaced by SUVs with smaller engines and less power.

Both groups said the widespread use of ethanol-blended gasoline has hurt what motorists can expect for fuel economy. Felmy said even when mixed at just 10 percent in a gallon of gasoline, ethanol's lower energy content will reduce the potential miles-per-gallon performance by as much as 3 percent.

Meantime, market analysts believe gasoline prices will continue to move higher, especially approaching the summer driving season. Yet Felmy, the API economist, says there's plenty of gasoline available as refineries crank record volume.

The pump price, he says, reflects the rising cost of crude oil, passed along to motorists at the retail level.

He acknowledged the markets have reacted to recent instability in the Middle East as one of the upward pressures on crude oil prices.