Poll: Gas-price pressure puts squeeze on drivers

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WASHINGTON (AP) – High pump prices are pinching the pocketbooks of seven in every 10 Americans, a financial hardship that more middle- and higher-income drivers say they are beginning to feel, an AP-Ipsos poll found.

With gasoline prices topping $3 a gallon for regular unleaded in many areas, people say they are driving less, cutting short vacations and curtailing their use of heating and air conditioning.

“Now, I’m just going to work and coming home – not doing anything else,” said Kathleen Roberts, who makes a daily, 100-mile round trip from York, Pa., to her teaching job in Baltimore.

The number of people who expect rising gas prices to cause financial problems in the months ahead has jumped from 51 percent a year ago to 70 percent now, according to AP polling. This increase has been dramatic among people who earn more than $50,000.

These concerns are reflected in consumer confidence polling this past week by Ipsos, an international polling firm. Confidence dropped sharply and was the lowest since October, when the country was recovering from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.

The average price nationally of a gallon of regular unleaded gasoline was $2.92 on Friday, according to AAA, the motorists’ club. The record high of $3.05 was set on Labor Day, according to AAA.

When asked what would be a fair price for gasoline, many of those surveyed said $2-a-gallon on average. That price has not been seen consistently for more than a year, AAA said.

“The U.S. economy is growing quickly, China is growing quickly and other countries are doing better – demand has gone up,” said Phillip Swagel, an energy analyst at the American Enterprise Institute.

Two-thirds of those surveyed said they have cut back on driving and have reduced the use of heating and air conditioning. One-half say they have trimmed vacation plans.

Hearing talk about short vacations upsets Susan Morang, a psychiatric counselor from Washington, Maine. She helps clients deliver antiques for sale during the summer tourism season.

“Each summer, you have to make the majority of your money to live on the whole rest of the year,” said Morang, who has cut her driving to the minimum.

Morang’s GMC truck guzzles gas, but she said she needs it to help clients haul their belongings. “A lady paid me $40 yesterday,” she said. “I used it to fill my gas tank halfway.”

According to the poll, just over six in 10 of those who make between $50,000 and $75,000 a year say gas prices are a hardship, compared with four in 10 a year ago.

Yet the price spikes have not influenced people’s views about fuel-efficient cars.

A year ago, four in 10 said they were considering getting a car with better mileage – the same number who say that now, according to the AP-Ipsos poll of 1,000 adults taken Monday through Wednesday. The poll has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Auto industry watcher Erich Merkle said gas prices would have to top $4 a gallon in the next six months to nine months to have a significant effect on the sales of SUVs and light trucks.

Jerry Taylor, an energy analyst at the Cato Institute, which favors limited government and free markets, said the price of gasoline as a share of a worker’s earnings is not that high when compared with the share of earnings 50 years ago.

But reports about “skyrocketing gas prices” do have an influence because “there’s a big market for fist-shaking and red-faced conniption in the media.”

Don’t try to tell Donald Denson of Gallatin, Tenn., that $3-a-gallon gas isn’t causing problems.

“The big experience now is with my job,” said Denson, who works in the shipping business. “A lot of people are being laid off because business is going down.”

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