Most Americans are adjusting to higher gas prices without cutting back on their driving this summer. But they're not happy about it -- and the tipping point may be just over a dollar away.
Sixty percent in this ABC News poll say the price of gasoline is causing them financial hardship, and nearly three in 10 say it's "serious" hardship. Yet only 15 percent plan to cut back on their driving in the weeks ahead -- far fewer than said so after the last two gas-price spikes, in September 2005 and last May.
Cutting Back on Driving
|Sept. 2005||50 %|
|May 2006||30 %|
Is less driving on the horizon? It depends on the price of gas. Americans on average say they'd significantly cut back on their driving if gas hit $4.16 per gallon. That compares to an average $2.99 in the U.S. Department of Energy's weekly survey last week -- the second highest on record in nominal terms, surpassed only after Hurricane Katrina.
Another is that after a year in which gas hasn't fallen below $2.15 a gallon, people are just getting used to it, however unhappily. Indeed, the number who call it a hardship is down by 10 points from a record 70 percent last April, and "serious hardship" is down further, by 15 points.
The money has to come from somewhere; to pay at the pump most Americans say they're mainly either spending less on other things (39 percent) or saving less (20 percent). That could prove problematic; reduced consumer spending elsewhere, which Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke noted in Senate testimony last week, could fuel an economic slowdown.
The pain of gas prices falls disproportionately on lower-income Americans. Among people with households incomes under $25,000 a year, 68 percent call gas prices a hardship and 38 percent call them a serious hardship. Among people in $75,000-plus households, the level of hardship is 20 points lower.
Hardship also is greater among people who live outside of metropolitan areas -- they have to drive more -- and, likely for the same reason, among people with children at home.
Hardship from Gas Prices
|Hardship Net||Serious Hardship|
|All||60 %||29 %|
|Income Below $25,000||68 %||38 %|
|Income Above $75,000||48 %||19 %|
|Living in Non-Metropolitan Areas||69 %||38 %|
|Living in Metropolitan Areas||58 %||27 %|
|People with Kids||68 %||32 %|
|People with no Kids||55 %||26 %|
There also are differences among groups on what price might cause people to cut back significantly on their driving. Numbers peak among higher-income Americans, who say it'll take an average $4.64 gas for them to drive much less, Westerners ($4.60; they're already paying the nation's highest prices); and men ($4.31).
Not only do just 15 percent of Americans say they plan to drive less in this poll, but fewer, 10 percent, say they'll be driving less specifically because of the price of gas. (About as many, 12 percent, say they'll be driving more, possibly the effect of summer holidays.)
One factor is the approach to measurement; other polls have asked people if they'll be driving less because of the price of gas. Majorities say yes, but the question is a leading one. This poll instead asked people if they plan to drive more, less or about the same amount in the weeks ahead; and if less, why.
On the price that would cause drivers to cut back significantly, $4.16 is the average answer. The median -- the midpoint of answers -- is somewhat lower, $3.50 a gallon. That's because a few people say they wouldn't cut back on driving unless gas hit $10 a gallon or even $50 -- figures that drive up the average response.
This ABC News poll was conducted by telephone July 14-19, 2006, among a random national sample of 1,015 adults. The results have a three-point error margin. Field work by ICR-International Communications Research of Media, Pa.