$5 Gas Isn’t Changing How Often Americans Drive

4 minute read

Coming off the July 4th holiday weekend, the average national price for a gallon of regular gasoline stands at $4.80, according to AAA. But that’s unlikely to keep Americans from hitting the open road this summer.

In theory, drivers are willing to adjust their daily driving routines and road trip plans to dampen the sticker shock. For instance, in February, when gas prices were around $3.50, a survey by AAA found that 59% of Americans would make changes to their driving habits or lifestyle if the cost of gas rose to $4 per gallon—and 80% of those people said they would drive less.

But when the rubber meets the road, there doesn’t appear to be a dramatic behavioral shift when gas prices jump. As one analysis from the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas put it in June, fuel demand is inelastic, meaning that it doesn’t rise or fall to the same extent as prices. “U.S. consumers historically only slowly reduce fuel consumption as prices increase. This is primarily because most consumers must drive to work, school, grocery stores, and other destinations every day,” the Fed report notes. “Additionally, there are no scalable alternatives that can be immediately substituted.”

To see how truly inconsequential fuel prices are on Americans’ driving habits, TIME ran an analysis of historical fuel prices and fuel demand using data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The results found that Americans consumed around 8.93 million barrels per day in June (through the 24th, the last date for which data are available), down only 1% from the 9 million barrels of gasoline a day they have consumed on average since 2000. Gas prices, on the other hand, were 90% higher than the price average for that period

This isn’t unlike what has happened in the past. As the chart below shows, fuel consumption has fallen during past periods of higher fuel prices—just not in a very significant way. The only time that fuel consumption really took a hit in the last 23 years was during the pandemic. That, of course, had nothing to do with gas prices, which had collapsed.

Despite sticker shock at the pump this summer, experts don’t expect that Americans will cancel their vacations en masse. “[Fuel] demand is lower, but not drastically lower, because the car is still the primary mode to travel this summer,” says Devin Gladden, a spokesperson for AAA. He believes that road travelers will be more cost conscious in other ways in order to satisfy their “urge to reclaim the summer travel plans” after two pandemic years. “They will find ways to stay closer to home so the distance is shorter,” he says. “Or use public transit during their trip.”

Those kinds of cost-cutting measures are already playing out at gas stations that have adjoining stores, according to the National Association of Convenience Stores (NACS). Retail sales have been down, indicating that consumers are forgoing in-store purchases to compensate for the gas.

Read More: High Gas Prices Are Discouraging Americans From Buying Cars Right Now

NACS has also noticed that drivers are buying fewer gallons per stop—but stopping more often. This is partly because cash customers, who account for about 20% of all transactions, will buy whatever $20 or $40 will get them. The reason could also be more psychological, says Jeff Lenard, an NACS spokesperson. “Customers may be hedging, playing the market each time they fill up, and trying to see if they get a better deal in a few days.”

In the mid 2010s, NACS issued regular surveys asking drivers what price point would trigger them to change their driving behaviors. Lenard equates those survey responses to a scene in the 1982 horror film Poltergeist where a mother is running down a hallway to reach her children but the hallway keeps getting longer. When gas keeps increasing, so, too, do drivers’ tolerance for them, he says of those surveys’ findings, and the threshold price for staying off the road becomes perpetually higher.

For Americans, paying for expensive gas is very much a mental game because drivers both have to pay for gas for practical purposes and want to hit the road for enjoyment. So they find ways to either compensate for the prices or rationalize them. “There’s that Clark Griswold theme. You remember all the good things about road trips and you forget the bad things,” says Lenard. “After two years of being cooped up, people are ready.”

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