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Gas prices expected to peak lower than last year

Gas prices continue to trend upward for the year, but the national average of $3.51 per gallon in March was still 19 cents lower than a year ago and lower than any time since 2010, according to AAA Mid-Atlantic.

Maryland's average price for gas Friday was $3.60 per gallon, four cents higher than a week ago and 13 cents higher than last month, but still 5 cents lower than this time last year.

AAA Mid-Atlantic announced Thursday that people are less likely to change their driving habits due to high gas prices than they were a year ago. A recent AAA survey found that 53 percent of drivers are combining errands, driving less, carpooling or engaging in other cost-cutting activities due to the cost of gasoline. However, the figure is down 15 percent from the same time last year, which correlates with a drop in gas prices.

"Gas prices are rising right now, which is typical at this time of year," AAA Mid-Atlantic spokeswoman Christine Delise said. "But, annual prices have been coming down year after year."

The national average gas price is expected to peak at about $3.65 per gallon this spring - 15 cents less than last year and 30 cents less than in 2012, according to AAA.

Although the AAA survey found an increase in driving due to a decrease in gas prices, another report released by the State Smart Transportation Initiative describes a fundamental change in Americans' lifestyles that adds another dimension to the relationship between gas prices and driving behaviors.

The State Smart report used data from the Federal Highway Administration and Census Bureau to show that people have been driving less, not more, for nine years in a row.

Although the report shows the total vehicle miles traveled increased slightly in the United States over last year - matching AAA's findings that demand for gasoline and total driving has increased - the jump in vehicle miles traveled did not keep up with the increase in population. Per capita vehicle miles traveled have been consistently dropping every year since 2006, according to the report.

The State Smart report also shows that past dips in driving might have been attributed to economic trends or gas prices, but the sustained downward trend is more likely due to "changing demographics, saturated highways and a rising preference for compact, mixed-use neighborhoods, which reduce the need for driving."

Both reports may be correct if more young adults are seeking residences closer to work and amenities, reducing their need to change their day-to-day driving behavior based on gas prices.

Delise said there are a number of other influences on driving that could affect driving rates in unexpected ways. She said the recession put more people out of work for a while and more people are telecommuting, but vehicles are also getting better gas mileage. As baby boomers stop driving, they may also play a role in reducing overall vehicle miles, he said.

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