NEW YORK (Reuters) - U.S. retail gasoline demand last week reached its highest level since the beginning of the year, but remained 4 percent below demand levels for the same week last year, MasterCard Advisors said Tuesday.
"Last week was the busiest pumping week of the year so far," said Michael McNamara, vice president of research and analysis at MasterCard Advisors.
"Despite this new high in 2008 demand, we are still well below the pumping levels at this time last year."
American motorists pumped an average of 9.625 million barrels per day in the week that ended July 25, up 0.7 percent from the previous week as the national average price for gasoline fell 8 cents to $4.02.
Despite last week's uptick in consumption, the four-week moving average for gasoline demand, which is often more indicative of long-term trends, slipped 4.1 percent.
Year to date, demand for gasoline is still 2.23 percent weaker compared to the same period last year, MasterCard said.
Skyrocketing gasoline prices have contributed to a decline in the number of U.S. highway miles traveled, which dropped 2.4 percent for the first five months of 2008 from the same period in 2007, the U.S. Transportation Department said on Monday.
During the month of May, when traffic usually increases due to the Memorial day holiday, miles traveled dropped a record 3.7 percent, the Department said. <ID:nN2831661>
Prices for gasoline are up 37.2 percent since last year, when the national average price was $2.93 per gallon, according to MasterCard.
Worries about weakening energy demand in the United States, the world's largest oil consumer, have contributed to a steep sell-off in oil prices, with oil dropping to a 12-week low from its record high of $147.27 a barrel on July 11.
Each $1 drop in the price of oil lowers gasoline costs at the pump by about 2.4 cents per gallon.
A Reuters poll showed energy analysts forecast that the Energy Information Administration on Wednesday would report a small decrease in U.S. gasoline inventories due to a decline in production and imports.
MasterCard Advisors estimates retail gasoline demand based on aggregate sales activity in the MasterCard payments system coupled with estimates for all other payment forms. MasterCard Advisors is a unit of MasterCard Inc (MA.N).
Reporting by Rebekah Kebede; Editing by Christian Wiessner