Why Drivers Don’t Seem to Care About Rising Gas Prices

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Gas prices have been on the rise for weeks, and they’re set to spike in the months ahead. Does this sound at all familiar?

Thus far in 2013, drivers have been paying less for gas, on average, than they were a year ago. During the first week of January, for instance, the national average was $3.30 per gallon, or 7¢ less than it was 12 months beforehand. But prices are rising, and the difference between current prices and 2012 counterparts is shrinking. Lately, according to AAA’s Fuel Gauge Report, the average gallon costs $3.42 nationally, compared to $3.45 a year ago.

USA Today reports that prices have risen by 20¢ or more in recent weeks in several Midwest states, and that prices in California are expected to spike soon to over $4 per gallon, up from around $3.75 currently.

So is it time to panic? Nah. More likely, the reaction of drivers is more along the lines of, “Oh well, here we go again. What’re you gonna do?”

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And also: “Hey, prices are still cheaper than they were a little while ago.” The average price per gallon was $4.67 in California as recently as October, and many stations in the state were charging more than $5. After facing the most expensive year ever for gas in 2012, drivers have heard that prices are supposed to be cheaper in 2013.

Oil Price Information Services’ Robert Gough told the Des Moine Register, “Gasoline prices averaged $3.60 per gallon last year, and we think they’ll average between $3.25 and $3.50 per gallon this year.” The U.S. Department of Energy, meanwhile, has predicted an average of $3.44 per gallon this year, and $3.34 for 2014.

In the grand scheme, a short-term seasonal surge in gas prices probably isn’t enough to make drivers bat an eye. We’ve been hearing about the likelihood of dramatically higher gas prices for decades, and we’ve been living through periodic price spikes at least since the summer of 2008—which was followed by sharp hikes in springtimes of 2011 and 2012. New-car MPG ratings have risen accordingly, as drivers increasingly opt for more fuel-efficient vehicles and federal guidelines force automakers to steer away from the gas-guzzling vehicles of the past.

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The point is: By now, drivers expect rising gas prices, within reason. Last March, when prices hit all-time highs in some areas for the time of year, drivers were upset—but not enough to cut back on shopping, according to retailer data. What’s more, most Americans said they wouldn’t change their lifestyles in any major way unless gas prices topped $5 per gallon.

So gas prices might very well hit $4 in California in the next month, and they might even come close to that mark nationally by Memorial Day, as many have predicted. What’re you gonna do? Wouldn’t be the first time that’s happened. And at least prices should be cheaper than they were last year.