U.S. drivers cut back on gasoline amid high prices

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Americans, notorious for their love of the open road, are cutting back on gasoline consumption as prices at the pump continue to break records.

A resident looks at the price of gasoline at a gas station in Miami's South Beach, Florida April 23, 2008. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

During the week leading up to the Memorial Day holiday, the traditional start of vacation season, Americans pumped 5.5 percent less gasoline than a year ago as average prices hit a peak $3.84 a gallon, MasterCard Advisors said in a report.

“It’s in uncharted territory,” said Michael McNamara, vice president of MasterCard Advisors. “As prices have gone up, consumer behavior has changed and it looks like it’s continuing to change,” McNamara said.

Average retail gasoline prices have jumped above $4 per gallon in 10 states and are running about 25 percent higher than last year, according to travel and auto group AAA.

So far this year, Americans have pumped about 1.7 percent less gasoline than in the same period a year ago, MasterCard said in its report.

The findings follow last week’s U.S. Department of Energy data which showed highway miles driven in March fell 4.3 percent from a year earlier, the first March decline since the last major oil shock in 1979.

Other nations are also struggling to cope with the spike in energy prices. Gasoline demand in Britain dropped 7 percent below year-ago levels in April, with diesel use down almost 2 percent, according to government figures released on Wednesday.

Despite the decline versus last year, the MasterCard report revealed a slight bump in consumption of gasoline from week to week as vacationers topped off their tanks.

“That is not unusual for this type of holiday weekend,” McNamara said. “That said, we’re still below where we were last year and a lot of that is because so far this spring, we haven’t seen the seasonal increase.”

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.

Reporting by Rebekah Kebede; editing by Matthew Lewis