Car rates

Soaring gas prices leave drivers stranded with ’empty’ wallets

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Sonny Alaniz was driving home after midnight when his ATV came to a halt on a rural Texas road, with the gas tank unmistakably empty.

The nursing student and his seven passengers, who were out to celebrate his 22nd birthday this last Saturday in May, had no choice but to jump and push. They drove 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 stay home,” he joked.

It’s a familiar situation, especially since the relentless rise in prices forces motorists testing the limits of their fuel gauges: AAA responded to 50,787 calls out of gas in April, a 32 jump percentage compared to the same month last year. More than 200,000 drivers have been similarly blocked this year, the auto club said. And gasoline prices have risen precipitously since April, making the financial pain even more acute.

National video journalist Hannah Jewell explains why gas prices are rising and how you can find cheaper gas. (Video: Casey Silvestri/The Washington Post)

Fuel prices began their most recent spike after Russia invaded Ukraine in February, rocking energy markets. The US average for a gallon of gas has jumped 62% to $4.96 since last year, according to AAA data. Motorists in 16 states are paying an average of at least $5 a gallon, while California topped $6. Filling up with gas, depending on the vehicle, can cost upwards of $100, which equates to 14 hours of after-tax income for some low-wage workers.

Escalating spending, combined with rising costs for food, housing and other essentials, is pushing consumers to play the inflationary mole, making tougher choices about how much they can spend and when. Some drivers can do a partial fill-up if they’re in a rush for cash at the end of a payment cycle, says Patrick De Haan, head of oil analysis at GasBuddy.

“If you only have five or ten dollars left before your next paycheck, that’s what you do,” De Haan said. “It tells us that people are really hurting from high gas prices.”

A survey by the Washington Post-Schar School confirms this: 44% of drivers randomly contacted between April 21 and May 12 said they only partially filled their car’s gas tank, a figure that rises to 61 % for drivers earning less than $50,000.

And more than 6 in 10 drivers have made the decision to drive less – by making fewer trips to the grocery store, for example – while more than 3 in 10 said they drive at lower speeds, which can improve fuel consumption.

Gasoline demand, measured as a four-week rolling average, fell to 8.8 million barrels per day for the week ended May 20, according to the US Energy Information Administration. If you exclude 2020, this is the lowest level for this time of year since 2013.

Alina Hille, 35, has a habit of cutting it between refills, but had never missed one until a recent Monday afternoon, sidelined on a street in St. Louis with her son from 4 year old and 7 year old daughter in tow. The three drove to the nearest gas station, where the loaner gas canister was taken out with another customer. So Hille, who works as a therapist for a nonprofit, bought a one-gallon canister for $1.50, filled it up, and managed to get home in time to hop on a Zoom call.

She has found ways to cut spending – she is working from home more often and is more likely to walk her children to school – but the financial challenge runs deep: From Wednesday a fill-up would cost her £67 $―$9 more than one a month ago.

“I find myself not doing the things I used to do with the kids anymore because of gas prices,” Hille said. “We used to go for car rides when they were restless or trying to drive to playgrounds or places they had never been before.”

Now, she says, “I prefer to buy groceries.”

Even as Gas Prices Shake the Economy, Americans Can’t Stay Off the Road

Back in South Texas, Alaniz said fuel prices forced changes to her commute and college plans. He used to commute about 60 miles from his family’s ranch near Alice to Corpus Christi, where he attends college, in his Chevy Silverado 2500, a large pickup truck that he says squeaks 14 mpg on the highway.

Even with a part-time job, the burdens became unbearable. “You talk about $60 gets me half a tank,” he said.

So he trades in his Chevy for a smaller truck that gets better mileage. He is also moving to online classes for the next semester.

These wholesale lifestyle changes illustrate a tipping point: studies have shown that consumers do not adjust their fuel spending much in response to short-term price changes, at least not in comparison to other purchases. dailies. On the contrary, it usually takes sustained increases to affect behavior, said Roger Ware, an economist at Queen’s University in Ontario.

“People will stick to their short-term driving habits because they see no alternative to achieving their goals, whether commuting or recreational driving. However, over a period of months or years, a lot will change if prices stay high,” Ware said.

If prices stay high, he said, more commuters will switch to public transit or carpooling. Consumers will also be more inclined to redesign their vehicles and trade them in for more fuel-efficient options. And some people will move closer to work to make commuting easier, or do more of their work remotely.

Price hikes, coupled with more Americans returning to their pre-pandemic driving habits, could contribute to the spike in out-of-gas calls, according to David Bennett, AAA Repair Systems Manager.

Only about 2% of AAA’s total roadside assistance calls each month are fuel-related, a proportion roughly equivalent to pre-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 two years,” Bennett said. “They are looking for opportunities to go exploring.”

For Danielle Socha, who does food deliveries for three apps in the San Diego area, a tank of gas costs about $83. She ran out so many times that it became a running joke with her friends and family.

“My gas gauge is broken,” she said. “I’m not getting a reading on my car and it keeps happening.”

She keeps an empty canister in her car so she can walk to a gas station if needed. Socha says she sometimes gets dirty looks from passers-by, but she’s also benefited from acts of kindness. In the most recent incident, a young man helped push his 2013 Volkswagen Jetta off the road when he saw it waving a white rain jacket in the air.

Price hikes have also led to bizarre cases of fuel theft. A San Diego couple called police after finding a hole drilled in the bottom of a car emitting a steady stream of gas, according to a March 21 report from CBS8. Similar incidents have been reported in Memphis, Las Vegas and other cities.

According to Newsweek, three Florida men have been arrested and charged with racketeering for stealing thousands of gallons of diesel directly from gas stations, transporting them in 300-gallon “gas bladders.”