THE DETAILS: A new report from the environmental nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) examined the economic impact of another such spike and found that drivers in some states could end up spending 11 percent of their income on gas if oil prices reach 2008 levels. The report computed the average gas price in each state, along with the number of drivers and their average income, and found that residents in Mississippi, Montana, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and South Carolina now pay the highest percentages of their incomes on gas, at 5 to 6 percent. Residents in New Hampshire, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, and Connecticut now pay the least, at less than 2 percent.
However, if gas prices spike again, residents in that first group could be spending 9 to 11 percent of their income on gas. For comparison, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that the average American spends about 10 percent of disposable income on food. It’s not necessarily because gas prices are higher in those states, says the report's author Deron Lovass, NRDC's federal transportation policy director. The numbers are based on the average household income of those states and how much driving residents must do—either because of sprawling development, lack of public transportation, or less fuel-efficient vehicles.
WHAT IT MEANS: In other words, should gas prices spike again, you could be spending more money on gas than food. "Given that we're talking about $3 a gallon for gasoline and we're not even in June, the odds are pretty good we'll see prices rise as they did in 2008, which was just an incredible year in terms of increases," says Lovass. He says that the transportation bill that Congress will begin debating after its spring recess should focus on funding more public-transportation projects and smarter city planning that will allow people to walk or bike more, rather than drive. "We need to start providing drivers with more options," he says.
That, of course, could take years. “The best thing to do right now is use public transportation whenever possible, and telecommute if you have that option, to avoid driving entirely," Lovass says. At the very least, he adds, it's a good idea to line up transportation or commuting alternatives, such as public transport or carpooling, if prices do spike. "And when you drive, try to make your car more efficient," he says. "Do common-sense things such as keeping your car tuned up, changing the air filter regularly, taking heavy items out of your trunk, and removing roof racks when you don't need them." Bonus: Getting by on less gas means fewer pollutants are released into the air and, to the extent that you get around on foot or by bike instead of driving, you get a little more exercise.
Here are four more simple gas-saving tips to cut your gas bill.
#1: Idle less. When your car is idling—in a slow drive-thru lane, at the drive-up ATM, or waiting for your spouse to run into the store for a quick trip—you're getting zero miles per gallon. According to the California Energy Commission, idling for two minutes uses the same amount of gas as driving a mile, so cutting out excess idling is key to improving gas mileage. The commission recommends cutting off your engine if you plan on idling for more than 10 seconds. (Hybrids get such good gas mileage in part because their engines shut off after idling for a certain length of time.) Better still, avoid drive-thrus and other “idling” situations altogether. You'll save gas and cut down on air pollution.
#2: Plan ahead. Combining trips can save you up to $220 a year on gas, writes Elizabeth Rogers in her new book Shift Your Habit: Easy Ways to Save Money, Simplify Your Life, and Save the Planet (Three Rivers Press, 2010). To help you get every last mile from your tank, plan your trips so your farthest stop is first and the remaining stops are on your way back home. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, cars use more fuel when you start from a cold engine, but once the engine is warmed up, subsequent trips use less fuel.
#3: Drive steady. Keep a steady pace, whether on city roads or highways. Use your cruise control as often as is safely possible. Also, be a "hypermiler," a person who uses the gas and brake pedal as little as possible, and stops infrequently. When you're in traffic jams, for example, let your car coast as much as you can, rather than speed up and brake each time traffic moves. Even if you're traveling at a snail-like five to 10 miles per hour, you'll save gas and reduce the wear on your brakes.
#4: Park under a tree. Sure, the bird droppings are annoying, but parking in shade on a hot day reduces your dependence on air-conditioning. A car's AC uses fuel and can increase polluting nitrogen oxide emissions in some vehicles, according to the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy. When you're driving under 45 miles per hour, get in the habit of shutting off the air-conditioning and rolling down the windows, Rogers advises. Doing this consistently can save you $160 a year on fuel costs. However, going faster than that with the windows open creates drag, so you'll lose the fuel savings you’d gain by having the AC off.