MELISSA BLOCK, host:
Americans are buying a little less gas. Analysts say it may be a sign that high prices and the slowing economy are beginning to change people's driving habits at least for now.
NPR's Frank Langfitt has the details.
FRANK LANGFITT: Gas consumption goes up in America year after year, regardless of how much prices rise at the pump, until now. Since the beginning of this year, consumption has fallen about half a percent. That's according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Doug McIntyre has studied gas consumption there since the 1980s.
When you first noticed it, did you get excited a little bit?
Mr. DOUG McINTYRE (Senior Oil Market Analyst, U.S. Department of Energy): No. Actually, as a government analyst, we're barred from ever being excited about anything. No, that's a joke. But…
LANGFITT: Actually, McIntyre was intrigued. The last time gas use fell, other than after Hurricane Katrina, was more than a decade ago. The fact that it's falling again now suggest that high prices are finally influencing behavior. Since November, prices have averaged three bucks a gallon or more. That's the longest they've ever stayed that high. McIntyre thinks people may be may be responding by cutting down on trips or using public transit more.
Mr. McINTYRE: It's probably a combination of factors. Anecdotally, we hear about people carpooling more often.
LANGFITT: That's what Dan Barnett and Rakesh Patel are doing. I'm in the car with them on the way to work today. They work as prosecutors for the State of Maryland and live near each other. Last year, they got new jobs in Baltimore, at a one hundred-mile, round-trip commute. At first, they drove on their own, Barnett in his Toyota mini-van, Patel in his Volvo SUV. Then Patel saw what he was spending.
Mr. RAKESH PATEL (Prosecutor): I think I'd worked out at one point that each trip to and from Baltimore would cost me about $20 in gas.
LANGFITT: At that rate, they figured they would spend up to $6,000 a year on fuel each. They started carpooling. Prices, though, kept going up. Patel's Volvo got just 21 miles to the gallon. So when it started breaking down, he sold it and bought a Toyota Camry. Now?
Mr. PATEL: I get about 29 miles a gallon.
LANGFITT: Barnett can't afford to get rid of his minivan. As we head towards the Capitol Beltway, I asked him what he's doing with the money he's no longer spending on gas.
Mr. DAN BARNETT (Prosecutor): I'll save it for a car, for a more fuel-efficient car.
LANGFITT: More and more people seem to be thinking the same way. Last month, sales for Ford's biggest SUVs fell 22 percent. Sales of Honda's subcompact Fit rose more than 60 percent. Danny Campbell wants a new car, but he doesn't know who will buy his old one, it's a hulking Chrysler 300C. He's filling it up this morning outside Washington. The car's fuel efficiency is so low; it pains him to talk about it.
What's the mileage on this thing? What does it get?
Mr. DANNY CAMPBELL (Realtor): I'm thinking it gets about — I don't want to check it, probably about 12.
LANGFITT: Then you said you don't want to check it. Why?
Mr. CAMPBELL: Because I don't want to know how bad it is, really.
LANGFITT: Campbell works as a realtor, so he drives all over. Recently, he started rearranging his appointments to cut down on the miles.
Mr. CAMPBELL: I'm trying to consolidate more showings in one trip, rather than spread them out. I'm spending probably $100 a week in gas.
LANGFITT: I'm back on the Beltway, carpooling with Dan Barnett and Rakesh Patel. Traffic is pretty bad. Barnett does the play-by-play.
Mr. BARNETT: And at your window to the right, you'll see 400 cars all headed the same direction as we, and at your window to the left, you'll see another 600 cars all heading at the same direction as us.
LANGFITT: Barnett says that for all the pain high gas prices cause, maybe some good will come from it.
Mr. BARNETT: If in the long haul, people are paying a lot more for gas they're going to find ways to commute in larger numbers. Maybe a car filled with more people, maybe cars will become more gas-efficient. Maybe this is all a good thing in the long haul.
LANGFITT: But not everyone is willing or able to change. At one gas station, I spoke with a stay-at-home mom. She was filling up her Chevy Suburban. She admitted the mileage was quote, "horrible." But she spends her days chauffeuring her four young children around. And regardless of gas prices, she said she had no intention of trading in her SUV.
Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Washington.