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Drivers Unfazed by High Gas Prices Fuel demand, driving habits show no sign of changing

New York Times Tuesday, October 10, 2000

As the price of fuel has climbed sharply this year, thousands of American drivers have stopped using expensive premium gasoline, and some families have tried to eliminate the small number of driving trips they deem unnecessary.

Few people, however, have sharply cut back on their driving or have begun shopping for cars based primarily on fuel efficiency, according to interviews nationwide and government and auto industry data. The nation is on pace to use almost the same amount of gasoline as it did last year, which was the most ever. And while the popularity of the very largest sport utility vehicles has softened recently, gas-guzzling SUVs and other light trucks continue to gain market share.

Americans, in short, are tinkering.

"We've seen some effect," said John Lichtblau, chairman of the Petroleum Industry Research Foundation, "but it's small."

Oil demand, consequently, shows little sign of abating in the United States. With Americans accounting for about one quarter of the world's energy consumption, the strength of gasoline demand in recent years is a major reason, economists say, that prices have moved to their current level.

Some 60 percent of the public reports being worried about energy costs, according to the Gallup Organization. That helps explain why both Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore have focused on the issue during the campaign's final weeks.

But "people are reluctant to change their driving habits unless they're forced to do it in a dramatic way," said Christopher W. Cedergren, an analyst at Nextrend, a market research firm in Thousand Oaks, Calif., that has been interviewing SUV owners in recent weeks.

In addition, even after rising steadily for the last 20 months, gas prices remain significantly lower, adjusted for inflation, than they were during the 1970s and early 1980s. In 1980, for example, a gallon of regular unleaded gas cost over $2.50 in today's dollars, according to, a consulting firm in West Chester, Pa.; this year, it has cost an average of $1.50.

Perhaps equally as important, upper-income consumers have enjoyed much larger gains compared with other Americans, and many have developed a distinct taste for SUVs. The average owner of a large SUV -- which typically goes about 13 miles on a gallon of gas -- is part of a family with $103,000 in annual income, according to General Motors. Wealthier Americans are relatively indifferent to gas prices.

This summer, Americans spent about 2.7 percent of their after-tax income on gasoline and fuel, reports, and the number has not exceeded 3 percent since the end of the 1990-91 Persian Gulf War.

Even though both gas prices and borrowing costs have risen over the last year, neither increase has been big enough to trip up the light-truck boom. Together, minivans, pickup trucks and sport utility vehicles accounted for nearly half of all new vehicles bought in the United States during the first nine months of the year, said Mark Cornelius, the president of Morgan & Co., an automotive consulting firm in West Olive, Mich.

For many drivers today, spending a few extra dollars -- or even $10 or $20 more -- when they go the pump is a small price for being in a vehicle that is not dwarfed by others on the road.

"As much as I'd like to be more fuel conscious, I'm not going to compromise my kids' safety," said Doug Johnson of Austin, Texas. His wife drives an SUV; he drives a pick-up truck.

Federal research has shown SUVs to be no safer for their drivers than cars.

Anyhow, Johnson said, "higher gas prices don't make that much difference in the total cost of owning a car."

-- Martin Thompson (, October 10, 2000

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