NEW YORK (Reuters) - Some 40 percent of Americans would curb their driving habits if retail gasoline prices shot up to $3.50 a gallon, according to a Reuters/Zogby poll released on Wednesday.
Surging energy costs have already forced many Americans to consider cutting back on travel, retail, and entertainment spending to ease sticker shock at the pump, according to the poll of 524 people across the country.
Gasoline prices in the United States, the world’s largest energy consumer, hit a record average in late May of $3.23 a gallon but have since slipped back to just above $3 a gallon, according to auto and travel association AAA.
“It’s so hard to read what consumer behavior is going to be at higher price points — be that $3.50 per gallon or $4 per gallon — because we’re all in uncharted territory,” said Geoff Sundstrom, a spokesperson for AAA.
Price thresholds for cutting time on the road varied, with about 19 percent of participants responding they would cut back at $4 per gallon. Another 9 percent said it would take $4.50, while 7 percent said prices would have to reach $5 a gallon before they would scale back.
Some 19 percent indicated that they could not cut their road travel no matter how high prices climb.
The only time AAA has observed flagging consumer demand for gasoline was after prices soared to $3.07 a gallon after Hurricane Katrina in August 2005, Sundstrom said.
Prices hit a fresh record this year due to a spate of refinery problems that cut fuel production during the spring and as geopolitical tensions raised the cost of crude — the main feedstock for gasoline.
“With each passing year, we’re experiencing new highs,” said Sundstrom. But he added, “We’ve not had a climate where large numbers of Americans are fearing for their economic future.”
As energy costs rise, 39 percent of the people in the poll said they would compensate by limiting their energy use, while 22 percent said they would cut entertainment spending and 12 percent said they would cut retail spending.
Economists have been concerned that high energy costs could have a knock-on effect on the U.S. retail sector.
In some parts of the United States, gasoline prices are already near or above $3.50 per gallon. Motorists in Juneau, Alaska, are paying $3.47 while in Wailuku, Hawaii, they are paying $3.59 a gallon, AAA said.
The Reuters/Zogby poll also reflected the increasing popularity of gasoline-electric hybrids, with 45 percent of people polled saying they expected to own a hybrid in 10 years, compared with 20 percent who said they expected to own a gasoline-only car.
Hybrid car sales have grown by more than 50 percent during the last year, according to HybridCars.com, while the overall car market shrank by 3 percent. Sales of the Toyota Prius, the most popular hybrid in the United States, rose 83 percent.
The findings are the result of questions asked between July 12 and 14 of 524 U.S. voters who identified themselves as members of an “investor class.” The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.4 percentage points.
The respondents were a subset of a broader survey of 1,012 likely voters who were asked about topics ranging from President George W. Bush’s performance to whether they shopped at Wal-Mart Stores Inc.