VIENNA, Austria – While U.S. motorists complain at having to pay $2.60 a gallon, the relentless surge of oil prices is leading to even more colossal gas pains for Europeans who were paying much more than Americans even before crude began climbing.

So far there has been no repeat on the old continent of the tragic death of an Alabama service station owner who was run over last week while trying to stop a driver from speeding off without paying.

Still, the painful price increases have led to some changes in European driving habits.

Germans are tanking up on home-heating fuel. Poles are crossing the border to Ukraine to buy cheaper fuel. And Swedish motorists are flocking to a southwestern town where price wars have made gas about 30 percent cheaper than the national average of $5.66 a gallon.

While that price is enough to leave the average American gasping for air, Swedish gas is still cheap in comparison with the Netherlands. There, a gallon of premium costs $6.56.

Oil prices are about 50 percent higher than a year ago, and reached a new intraday high of $68 a barrel Thursday on the New York Mercantile Exchange. As the cost of oil has risen prices at the pump have gone up too, with service station operators posting new figures each time the price per barrel has changed.

Still, some Europeans grimace and bear it.

“We accept a lot,” said Egil Otter of the Norwegian Automobile Association about the high cost of driving, including premium gas prices at $6.46 a gallon. “When costs go up for car use people don’t drive less. They just cut costs in other areas.”

Even before the oil shock, pricey gas in Europe was a reality because of high taxes used to fund government projects and encourage people to use public transportation.

While Americans consider driving wherever and whenever they want a basic right, Europeans traditionally have considered cars as only one way of getting around. Subways, trams and buses are well maintained and dependable in most major European cities, and some – like London – have introduced inner-city driving fees to reduce congestion.

The Paris-based International Energy Agency says Europeans drive half the miles each year that Americans do on average. And they make half the amount of car trips that Americans do.

What’s more, Europeans tend to drive more fuel-efficient cars. German government studies show average fuel consumption of cars on German roads is now about 27 miles a gallon compared to 25.8 miles in the early 1990s. No such trend has been documented for U.S. cars, which instead have become bigger, stronger and more gas-hungry over the past few years.

In Europe, added taxes and charges on new cars, road use and toll booths compound the burden of driving. In Norway, for instance, a 100-percent tax on new cars doubles what might otherwise be the sticker price.

Dutch gas, at $6.56 a gallon, is more than twice what Americans have to pay. Nearly two-thirds of that, however, are taxes and duties. Strip away the surcharges and it would cost about $2.47 a gallon.

German, French, Italian, Belgian, Portuguese Swedish and British drivers pay nearly as much as the Dutch, again with taxes making up the bulk of the burden.

At close to $4 a gallon – Latvians, who pay the least within the 25-nation European Union, still end up forking more than a third more at the pump than the average American.

Compounding the pain are wages that are in most cases lower than those of Americans. The prosperous Swedes, for instance, earn the equivalent of about $36,000 a year, which is still several thousand dollars short of what Americans take home on average.

On the lower end of the scale is Hungary, where gas at $5.28 a gallon takes a painful chunk out of the average yearly paycheck of $11,440.

So Europe’s drivers improvise.

While tough customs enforcement has cut down on gas smuggling from Ukraine and Romania to Hungary, Hungarians near those countries regularly drive over the borders to fill up with cheaper petrol there – as do Germans in Poland and Poles in Ukraine.

“I go about three times a month,” said Berlin taxi driver Roman Grasse, of his regular 60-mile cross-border trips to Polish pumps.

Some Ukrainian drivers now are carrying canisters of gasoline in car trunks – alongside the traditional carton of cigarettes and bottle of vodka – for resale in Poland.

German police have started pulling over diesel-burning cars to ensure they are not powered by home-heating fuel – essentially the same substance but taxed at a much lower rate and colored so the two can be told apart.

In southwestern Sweden, the town of Trollhattan, where Saabs are made, has become even more of a draw to car owners because a price war among service stations has driven gas prices more than 30 percent below the average.

“The only bad (thing) is that there can be a line of 30-40 cars,” motorist Stig Andreasson told the daily Expressen. “And once you get to the pump, they may be out of gas.”

But things get even tougher elsewhere in the world.

In Haiti, the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, most people survive on less than $1 a day – about the price of a quarter of a gallon of gas in the Caribbean nation, with taxes accounting for about a third of the cost.

“If gas stays so high, I’ll never have the money to get married and have kids,” said Jean-Louis Pierre, 25. He crams as many passengers as possible into his colorful “tap-tap” – a pickup truck serving as a taxi – each day to eke out a living.

In Turkey, gasoline costs $7.50 a gallon, but the average wage is only about $4,500 a year, and many drivers appear to be skirting the law to top up. A parliamentary investigating commission last month estimated that $8 billion has been lost in tax revenues because of oil smuggling over the past two years.

Much of that smuggling is from neighboring Iraq.


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