Gasoline demand in Ohio declined year-over-year in March for the first time since early 2021, according to state tax data, and some experts believe this suggests that people started changing their driving behaviors due to record-high prices at the pump.
“When we saw the modest increases, we didn’t see a change in purchasing habits,” said Kara Hitchens, spokesperson for AAA Cincinnati, Miami Valley & Northwest Ohio. “Now that we are breaking records, people are — and we suggested — taking measures to conserve fuel such as combining trips and getting your car serviced to (run) efficiently.”
Gas sales across the state dropped sharply early in the pandemic, after state leaders issued a stay-at-home order in late March 2020 and a large number of people cut back on business and leisure activities, many places shut down or limited operations and droves of Ohioans began to work from home.
In April 2020, consumers purchased about 264.2 million gallons of gas from sellers across the state, which was a decrease of nearly 158 million gallons from April of 2019 (-37%), according to motor fuel tax liability data from the Ohio Department of Taxation.
Between March 2020 and February 2021, gasoline sales decreased year-over-year for 12 consecutive months, state tax data show.
But sales finally began to rebound in March 2021, and demand then grew from year-ago levels for 12 consecutive months.
This growth ended in March, when suppliers sold 1.1 million fewer gallons of gas than they did a year earlier (-0.3%).
Gas sales in the state still remain significantly lower than pre-pandemic levels.
Gas prices started to creep up when the Russia-Ukraine conflict began in February, and prices started breaking records not long after, said Hitchens, with AAA.
“Our analysts say we have seen an average 65% increase since last year,” Kitchens said. “It is not unique to Ohio or Dayton. All 50 states saw percentage increases that range from a low of 61.3% in Massachusetts to a national high of 72.1% in Hawaii.”
On Friday, regular unleaded gas was being sold at some stores in the area for $4.79 per gallon.
“It’s outrageous,” said Alfonzo Walker, a Trotwood resident who filled up his vehicle at a gas station in Dayton on Friday. “I never thought I’d see it like this.”
Walker said he hits the road pretty much every day, but he may try to stay home a little more often because of fuel costs, especially if prices continue their upward climb.
He said he doesn’t think prices will cause him to cancel his regular weekend travel plans, to places like Cincinnati, Newport and Covington, Kentucky.
“It does mess with my budget, because I’m on a fixed income,” he said.
After two tough years of COVID, many Americans want to get out and travel and enjoy leisure activities this summer, and high prices may not deter them, said Patrick De Haan, head of petroleum analysis at GasBuddy, which tracks gas prices.
Gas demand is relatively inelastic — which means price changes have little impact on demand — because much of the U.S. is very car-centric and people have to get behind the wheel to get to work, shop, attend appointments and make lots of other kinds of trips, he said.
But people have a breaking point, and the big question is how high do prices have to rise to get there, De Haan said.
High fuel prices may be causing some people to take fewer trips or they may try to drive more efficiently, such as by slowing down, he said, but more dramatic changes in driving behaviors could come if gas hits the $5 or $6 mark, which experts think is likely and possible, respectively.
People may get “sticker shock” if gas hits and exceeds $5 per gallon, because they have never seen that before, De Haan said.
A February survey by AAA found that nearly 60% of Americans said they would change their driving behaviors if the cost of gas rose to $4 per gallon and three-quarters said they would adjust their lifestyles if gas reached $5 per gallon.
Gas on average tends to be a fairly small household expense, accounting for less than 3.5% of Ohioans’ household costs, according to 2018 data from a study by the U.S. Department of Energy.
But fuel can consume a significantly larger share of lower-income households’ earnings, and experts say it is one expense that is out of many people’s control, since often they don’t have a reliable alternative way to get around.
Dustin Shepherd, 36, of Miamisburg, said he is taking fewer trips and doesn’t go out as much, like during lunch hours at work, because of high prices at the pump.
Shepherd said he used to deliver food as a DoorDash driver, but rising fuel costs have made the work less profitable and attractive.
Shepherd said he is filling up his car two to three times per week, and his visit to a Dayton gas station on Friday cost $55.
“But at some point, what else can you change?” he asked. “You can look at your daily habits, and decide if a trip is necessary, but my job isn’t going to pay me more just because gas prices went up.”
“I just got to make sure I’m cutting down on the unnecessary trips,” he said.