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Gas prices may fuel changes

McClatchy-Tribune News Service –

Motorists stung by rising gas prices may be on their own in the short term, but it’s vital that they learn how to cope — for the sake of their household budgets as well as the nation’s fragile economic recovery.

The early arrival of springtime price increases at the gas pump is being fueled by factors beyond the control of most consumers.

There are fears stemming from tensions in the Mideast over Iran’s nuclear aspirations, as well as speculation involving crude oil prices. Even without an escalation of the Iranian situation, the 10 percent increase in gasoline witnessed so far this year looks to be in place for some time, analysts say.

For this region and others that have seen refineries close, the hope for relief appears even more distant. In addition to two area refineries being recently taken down, the threat to shutter the large Sunoco Inc. facility in Philadelphia looms as a further strain on gasoline supplies — with a likely unpleasant impact on gasoline retail prices.

But if those developments help jolt Americans back to reality about the way they continue to use a finite resource that’s only available in a volatile market, then the price spikes at least will have had some positive impact.

Drivers know the drill, since they’ve seen gasoline prices head for $4 before: It means being less cavalier about extra road trips, exploring carpooling, switching to mass transit, or even inflating the tires on that old bicycle.

Using less gas is consumers’ best weapon against higher prices. And if they can travel smarter, going fewer miles doesn’t have to mean that the rest of the economy suffers — particularly the critical retail sector.

Of course, driving the most fuel-efficient vehicle is the best long-term strategy for keeping more dollars in consumers’ hands to spend on things besides gasoline. According to Temple University small-business expert William C. Dunkelberg, a $1 increase at the pump means that consumers have $20 million less in their shopping budgets each day.

Any motorist who can’t see over the roof of the SUV he’s fueling at the self-service pump ought to be thinking about a more fuel-efficient ride. The nation’s switch to smaller and hybrid vehicles has come in fits and starts, but it makes more sense than ever as both the price and supply of gasoline are strained.

The pain at the pump is a further sign, certainly, that the proposed 54.5-mile-per-gallon vehicle standard that President Obama expects to finalize this summer is needed more than ever. It should mean there will be more smart choices in the showroom that drivers will actually want to buy.

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