Despite High Gas Prices, Americans Keep on Driving ; Fuel Will Have to Top at Least $2, If Not $3, for Drivers to Change Their Behavior

Article excerpt

As Daniel Franco fills up his Ford Sport Trac, he watches the dollar meter on the pump tick past $40 before it finally stops. "Just a few months ago it used to cost just $25," he says, shaking his head.

Like most Americans, Mr. Franco is not happy about the high price of gas. But he's also convinced there's not much he can do about it because, as for many Americans, driving is an integral part of his work. And he's not about to trade in his Sport Trac for a fuel- efficient Mini - he needs the room in the truck for his building materials.

With gasoline prices reaching new highs, some analysts expect Americans to be working to hold the line on fuel consumption. But so far, there are very few indications that's happening - in part, because the overall economy continues to grow.

Gas-guzzling SUVs continue to fly off showroom floors. In fact, the bigger ones are selling better than the more efficient compacts, according to WardsAuto.com. And groups that monitor Americans' driving patterns haven't seen any drop in demand at the pump. To the contrary, it's at an all-time record high of 8.8 barrels a day, according to the Energy Information Agency. And while there has been a flurry of "gas and dash" thefts, according to the Petroleum Marketers Association of America, the number pales in comparison with that during the energy crisis 20 years ago.

Indeed, most experts say prices will have to go a lot higher, and stay that way, before Americans trade their traditional SUVs for super fuel-efficient hybrids. "People simply haven't felt the pain adequately to change their behavior," says John Tobin, director of the Energy Literacy Project in Evergreen, Colo.

Experts say it will take a crystal ball to determine just where that threshold is. Last week, gas prices hit a new average high of $1.80 a gallon. Some analysts believe the magic number will be $2 a gallon. Others don't think Americans will change their habits until it hits $3 a gallon - which could come as soon as the Memorial Day weekend. …