Skyrocketing Gas Prices Change Buying Attitudes, Travel Habits

Most Americans say the skyrocketing cost of gasoline will make them re-think their future car and truck purchases, according to a Scripps Howard News Service survey.

Fifty-six percent said gas pump sticker shock would make them “consider buying smaller, more fuel efficient automobiles in the future,” while 37 percent said gas prices will not alter their future vehicle choices and 7 percent were undecided.

Since 2001, a majority of new-vehicle sales in the United States has been in the “light truck” category that includes pickups, SUVs and minivans. The market share of these fuel-intensive machines has been steadily increasing.

The poll of 1,016 adults conducted by the Scripps Survey Research Center at Ohio University also found that 34 percent said the higher price of gas would cause them to change their travel plans this year. Forty-one percent said the price spike is affecting them “a great deal.”

Proponents of more fuel-efficient cars hailed the poll results.

“We’ve heard anecdotal evidence that certain SUV sales are starting to decline. People are starting to realize that gas prices aren’t going to go down,” said Luke Warren, spokesman for the Union of Concerned Scientists. “We hope people will look at this as a rationale to buy more fuel efficient cars.”

But the auto industry leaders are skeptical.

“How people answer a poll is one thing. But how they behave once they get on the (automobile) dealership’s floor is quite another,” said Eron Shosteck of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.

“The cost of gas hasn’t had any discernable effect on buying preferences that we can see. People understand that they need to make tradeoffs to get the attributes they want in a vehicle,” Shosteck said.

The automobile industry manufactures more than 100 models that get at least 30 miles to the gallon on the highway. But the light truck category accounts for 58 percent of all new vehicle sales, a figure that has risen steadily over the last four years.

“Right now, people are putting higher value on things like cargo space, passenger space and towing ability. People don’t always place fuel efficiency as their number one priority,” Shosteck said.

But the poll found that younger Americans are especially likely to say they will consider smaller cars in the future, while older adults are more likely to say their buying preferences are fixed.

Seventy-six percent of adults 18 to 24 years old said they would consider purchasing more fuel-efficient cars in the future, compared to 61 percent of 24- to 44-years-olds, and 55 percent of 45- to 64-year-olds. But only 41 percent of people 65 or older said the same.

The survey also found that politics may play a role in future buying intentions. Only 49 percent of people who describe themselves as “very conservative” said they will consider buying more fuel efficient cars in the future compared to 66 percent of self described “very liberal” people.

Income and education, however, seemed to have little impact on this issue.

The survey was conducted by telephone from July 5-19 among 1,016 households nationwide. It has a margin of error of about 4 percentage points. It was funded through a grant from the Scripps Foundation.

(Thomas Hargrove is a reporter for Scripps Howard News Service. Guido H. Stempel III is director of the Scripps Survey Research Center at Ohio University.)