Rearview Mirror: Will Higher Gas Prices Really Change Your Life?

I just got back from a week-long driving trip in Europe. Four of us Vortex staffers made the trip to Geneva for the annual auto show, then spent the next five days bombing about the countryside of Germany, Switzerland, Italy, France, and Austria in a trio of premium hatchbacks. And by premium, I mean that they required frequent refillings of premium unleaded gasoline.

You may not have heard, but on the other side of the pond, they pay more for gas. A lot more. We paid roughly 1.10 to 1.15 Euros per liter of 95-octane premium. Given the current weakness of the Dollar, and the fact that there are still 3.8 liters to a U.S. gallon, that worked out to roughly $6 for every precious gallon.

I did the math in my Innsbruck hotel room while watching CNN. The report on the tube said that crude oil prices had just surpassed the $58 a barrel mark, and analysts were predicting over $80 per barrel by the end of summer. Extrapolating on the crude price, they suggested that pump prices would reach $3.00 a gallon by peak driving season. As alarming as that figure sounded at first, I quickly realized it’s half of what we were paying in Europe.

The news report went on to imply that such high gas prices would send our economy into turmoil. But oddly, despite the fact that they already pay more than twice what we do for gas, European society remains a mobile one. The French, Germans, Italians, Austrians, the Swiss (especially the Swiss), they all love their cars. Oh yeah, and not only do they pay more dearly for fuel, they also pay a lot more for their cars (tax alone can be in the 17% range). Still, everywhere we went, the roads were littered with brand new Benzes, Bimmers, Audis, Citroens, and the like.

So how do they do it? How do the Europeans manage to afford to buy nice new cars and keep them fueled in the midst of such outrageous gas prices? Since gas prices here are unlikely to go down any time soon, perhaps it’s worth a look at their survival methods. Without sounding like an anti-American elitist, I’ll simply state that I believe the Europeans take a significantly more responsible approach to using their cars. Maybe we can learn a little something from our continental cousins.

It starts with their choice of cars, which tend to be no bigger than necessary for daily life, and as a result are more fuel-efficient. Where the most common family vehicle in the States is typically a Ford Explorer, the most common car in Europe is the VW Golf. We can attempt to justify our preference for large vehicles (safer, more versatile, etc.) but in reality, most of us could get by with far less car than what we buy.

Beyond choosing more efficient vehicles, Europeans tend to be more prudent in their use as well. How often have you seen someone leave the grocery store, get in their car and drive 500 feet to the video store at the other end of the shopping center? It happens all the time here. How about that person who circles the lot for ten minutes in search of the most ideal space? You know who you are. Honestly, when was the last time you walked or rode your bike to the corner convenience store? Simply put, Europeans aren’t afraid to use their legs a little to get around. (Coincidentally, have you heard all news stories about America’s obesity problem? Hmmmm, I wonder why?)

Time for a little math. Let’s assume you drive about 1250 miles every month (15,000 a year) and you average roughly 25 miles per gallon. Gas prices have been steady at around $2.00 a gallon, which means on average you’re spending $100 a month to fill your tank. If gas goes up to $3.00 a gallon, as some experts are predicting, your new monthly fuel expenditure would be $150, or a difference of $50.

There are a couple ways you can close this gap. One way would be to reduce consumption of the precious commodity. You could always drive fewer miles. To get by on just $100 worth of gas every month (at $3/gallon and 25 mpg) you would nave to drive one-third fewer miles, or about 833 miles per month.

Reduced consumption can also be achieved by changing driving habits to increase your vehicle’s fuel efficiency. Simple things, like shutting the car off when you run into Starbucks for your $4 cappuccino, or rerouting your morning commute to reduce the number of stop lights, or taking the first parking space you see at the mall and walking the extra 50 feet, or not drag racing every soccer mom in a minivan. Small changes in driving habits can affect overall economy. If you were able to stretch the 25 mpg just five per cent to 26.3 mpg, you could save $8 a month alone.

If you were able to reduce the number of miles driven by 10% and increase overall economy by 10%, you could get by on just $123 a month on gas at the new price. That’s only $6 a week more than what you are currently paying. Less dollar a day doesn’t sound so crazy, does it?

Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t expect a whole country to run out and change its bad habits just because of the rising cost of fuel. I know better. We’re Americans, and by golly we’re going to keep doing things the American way. So instead of preaching the virtues of personal responsibility, which no one likes to hear anyway, I figured I would interpret the effect of rising gas prices in a different way.

So how else can we come up with the extra cash every month to pay for our gasoline habit? Let me count the ways:

-Skip a movie. A pair of movie tickets: $20. A bucket of popcorn and two jumbo Cokes: $15. A gallon of gas going to the theater and back: $3. Saving nearly forty bucks on a predictable and mind-numbing movie that will be on cable in three months anyway: Priceless.

-Eat out less often. A decent meal out can easily run $15 a plate, plus tax and tip. For a couple, that takes almost $40 from your wallet right away, and that’s before adding appetizers, desserts, or drinks. And don’t forget the gas to get to the restaurant and back.

-Give up smoking. OK, this really only applies to smokers, but I’m sure even if you only have a one-pack-a-day habit, you can save enough to not only afford gas, but probably a better car. At two packs a day, you can afford to go from a Jetta to a BMW 325. I’m convinced if the Europeans could give up smoking, they would all be rolling in Hummers too.

-Drink at home once a month. I’ve known plenty of guys who can’t step into a bar with dropping fifty bucks. And that’s just on beer and shots. Factor in pool and darts and a pub burger, and you’re out a full hundred. Invite the guys over to your pad, and make it BYOB. You can make it up to them by being the designated driver some other time, since you’ll have a full tank of gas in your car.

-Address your Starbuck’s habit. This is along the lines of the suggestion above. If you treat yourself to a Grande low-fat, no whip, decaf Mocha a couple times a week, skip it. At four bucks apiece you’ll save enough to afford your gas. If you’re a serious addict, a daily user, forego the Venti in favor of a Tall, and put the difference in your gas tank.

OK, OK. By now you probably think I’m nuts. Nobody’s going do any of the things I mentioned above. I know that. My point, of course, is that Americans are big-time consumers. It’s what we do; we spend our money. And the rising price of gas isn’t going to change that. Sure, there might be a sudden run on diesel- or hybrid-powered cars, but that will settle down when the nightly news gets over the gas-price hype and moves on to the next national crisis. In the end, we’ll continue doing things the way we always have, for better or worse.

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