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The Daily News of Los Angeles

When the price of gasoline surges, two things are practically guaranteed: Motorists will bemoan the rising cost and, more tellingly, they’ll drive as much as ever.

“I hate it. I hate expensive gas,” Don Macklin, 71, of Kingston, Ontario, Canada, said as he pulled his Chrysler minivan into a Travelodge motel just off Interstate 95 near Fredericksburg, Va., 400 miles away from a vacation with his wife in Myrtle Beach, S.C. “But what are you going to do? I just factor it in.”

There is still a long way to go before hitting the price at which most drivers actually begin to conserve – either by purchasing more fuel-efficient vehicles or driving less, according to market research and historical data.

So despite Friday’s record-setting price of $1.75 per gallon of regular grade gasoline nationally, experts said only a tiny percentage of drivers will actually cut back, and even then only marginally.

“As prices go up, people will grumble,” said Dermot Gately, an economics professor at New York University who has studied the relationship between gasoline prices and demand. “But I don’t think their behavior, at least in the short run, will be affected.”

Though they’re no less vocal in Los Angeles, where the Automobile Club of Southern California reported prices crept down to $2.143 for regular, down from a record $2.202 set March 4, drivers have learned to live with high prices. So long as the spikes subside within a few months, drivers complain, but don’t garage their Hummers.

“Our thresholds are higher here, so there’s a ‘been-there, done-that attitude,”‘ said Jeff Spring, an Auto Club spokesman. “We’ve had $2 a gallon for three years in a row and nothing catastrophic happened.”

To try to get a handle on the jumpy gasoline market, the state Assembly’s transportation committee held an informational hearing in Los Angeles on Friday, with AAA, oil company representatives and consumer advocates testifying. Jamie Court, president of the Santa Monica-based Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, painted a dark picture in coming months, echoing many analysts’ prediction of $3 a gallon gas.

“The signs are not good, because the market will be anticipating a shortage, so if there’s any problems, there will be another price spike,” Court said after appearing before the commission. “It’ll only focus more political attention on the problem right now.”

Gasoline demand this summer is expected to be at least as strong as it was last year, according to the AAA, with more than 29 million Americans traveling by car on Memorial Day, the start of the peak driving season. For the year, U.S. gasoline demand is expected to rise 1.6 percent to more than 9 million barrels a day.

That’s not to say Americans indulge their appetite for fuel without some pain.

Holly Mistine, a 25-year-old model and professional belly dancer from Los Angeles, said travel expenses are cutting into her earnings.

Mistine bought an SUV last year to transport her props and costumes to shows, but now that she has to fill up “at least twice a week,” she wishes she’d gotten a smaller car.

Consumer Watchdog
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