Americans are adopting a host of measures in response to soaring petrol prices including driving more slowly to conserve fuel, going out of their way to find cheaper prices and even driving off from pumps without paying.
As petrol yesterday climbed to a new national record of nearly $3.65 a gallon (40p a litre) – with the price topping $4 in many places – drivers are trying to cut back on car use and swap once ubiquitous gas-guzzlers for more fuel efficient cars.
There has also been a surge in “drive-offs” across the country, where motorists leave petrol stations without paying.
In one Seattle case, a thief was caught on CCTV using a master key to unlock a station’s pumps after dark to fill up several barrels, CNN reported.
Elsewhere, motorists have been waking to find the petrol siphoned from their cars.
The US government and consumer groups have been offering online advice on how to save fuel, and money, by everything from braking more smoothly and cutting speeds to improved car maintenance.
One group is even offering an online calculator for drivers to work out how much money a few changes could save.
Recent surveys reveal other habits adopted by drivers trying to spend less include searching online for petrol stations with the cheapest prices or half-filling their tanks.
Meanwhile, country-wide, owners of thirsty four-wheel drive vehicles are desperately trying to offload them and buy more fuel-efficient replacements.
Data shows sales of new SUVs and pickup trucks have slumped dramatically in recent months with dealerships offering increasingly attractive incentives to buyers.
Even in car-loving, image-conscious Los Angeles, motorists are down-sizing.
“A Prius is a luxury car now,” Debi Derryberry, the voice of several cartoon characters including Nickelodeon’s Jimmy Neutron, told the Los Angeles Daily News.
“It’s the new actor’s car. Every successful actor now is driving a Prius, so driving a gas-sucker is being completely tuned out to the Earth.”
Other changes experts expect to see over coming months is people eschewing long road trips for holidays closer to home.
The price of petrol is playing a role in the presidential campaign with Senators Hillary Clinton and John McCain backing a federal petrol tax “holiday” during the summer months. Mrs Clinton’s rival, Senator Barack Obama, however, is opposed.
In Boise, Idaho, a Democratic congressional candidate spent more than $4,000 subsidising fuel at one petrol station for an hour, allowing scores of motorists to fill up on cheap petrol.
Walt Minnick, a Democrat running in Idaho’s 1st District, said his aim was to bring attention to the high prices although Republican rivals branded the event a “publicity stunt”, the Idaho Statesman reported.
Some economists have predicted high petrol prices could have a “dramatic” impact on America’s greenhouse gas emissions as US motorists begin to fundamentally alter their driving habits.
By Catherine Elsworth in Los Angeles
Last Updated: 12:51AM BST 09/05/2008