Missing here is the great graphic that was pretty much the main reason for writing this story. It simply compared the contemporary and inflation-adjusted monthly average price of a gallon of regular, unleaded gas since 1976. I could describe it further, but let’s just leave it at this: I can’t find an image of the darn thing anywhere. Sorry about that.
By WILLIAM M. HARTNETT
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Is there any doubt that Americans are nearly pathological in our obsession with the price of gasoline?
Entire Web sites are dedicated to pinpointing stations where we can fill up for a few pennies less than the rest. And who doesn’t have a friend willing to drive miles out of their way for cheap gas, someone who still recounts that blessed day in 1999 when he paid 98 cents for a gallon of midgrade – midgrade! – in Valdosta?
Here, then, is some good news: All those recent, breathless reports about “record-breaking” gas prices are bogus.
In fact, when inflation is taken into account, today’s gas prices aren’t even close to those of the late 1970s and early 1980s, when calamities such as the Iranian revolution and the Iran-Iraq war sent prices into orbit.
In today’s dollars, the average price of a gallon of regular unleaded gas in March 1981 was $2.98. If you just winced at the thought of spending more than $50 to fill up your Honda, be thankful that the current national average is a relative bargain at about $1.75 per gallon.
What’s more, the typical American is significantly wealthier today than in the 1970s or ’80s, meaning we spend an ever-smaller portion of our income on gas.
In 1980, an average-income person who drove 50 miles a day in a car that got 25 miles per gallon would have spent 9 percent of his or her annual earnings on gas.
In 2002, under the same conditions, the figure would have been only 3 percent.
Yet we still obsess.
A recent CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll showed that 56 percent think gas prices are a major problem, and another 13 percent call it a crisis. The cost of gas has even become a presidential-campaign issue.
“I think there’s a national impression that it’s an entitlement to us that we don’t have to pay high gas prices,” said Randy Bly of AAA Auto Club South. “But the picture really isn’t as bad off as it seems. And the way people drive, they don’t seem to be concerned about wasting fuel.”
Aggressive driving, speeding and drag-racing-style launches at stoplights are big gas guzzlers, Bly said, but rising prices don’t appear to have led to a corresponding decline in the number of lunatic drivers.
For all our complaining about paying more for gas, in other words, we don’t seem willing to do much that might save a few gallons.
Why would we? Even now, gas is still so cheap that even large price hikes make a relatively small dent on our wallets.
Consider a theoretical round-trip between Miami and Los Angeles in a 2004 Toyota Camry, which averages 26 mpg. A 10-cent per-gallon increase in the price of gas would add only $21 to the cost of the 5,500-mile trip.
“If you look at the overall budget of a family vacation, fuel cost is the cheapest part of the trip,” Bly said. “The only individual that might think twice about taking a long vehicle trip is someone with a motor home.”
Or someone on a tight income, Riviera Beach resident Wiley Drew said Wednesday as he filled up his Ford Escape at a BP Connect station in West Palm Beach. Drew and his wife are retired and travel often.
“When you’re on a fixed income, you have to kind of think about it when you’re budgeting for a trip,” Drew said.
Still, Drew said the price of gas is just one consideration in whether to take a trip.
Consumer psychologist Kit Yarrow said the complexities of gas prices make our fascination understandable.
“Gas is a mystery to most people,” said Yarrow, a business professor and head of the psychology department at Golden Gate University in California. “It doesn’t seem to make any sense. People feel out of control, and possibly taken advantage of.”
Such powerlessness is compounded by the absence of other options. If the price of orange juice rises, you can switch to tomato juice, Yarrow said, but when gas prices increase, “You can’t say, ‘I’ll just drive my electric car today.’ ”
Maybe what we all need is to take a deep breath and look at the gas-price hysteria in context. A cup of coffee might help, though at $1.09 for a 16-oz. cup at that BP station ($8.72 per gallon!), it might put a dent in your wallet.
Copyright 2004 Palm Beach Newspapers, Inc.
Palm Beach Post (Florida)
April 4, 2004 Sunday
SECTION: BUSINESS, Pg. 1F
LENGTH: 843 words