Gas prices filling us up with panic

The Baltimore Sun

Spring is almost here and what better way to celebrate the new season than with a nervous breakdown each time you pull up to the gas pumps?

Freaking out over gas prices used to be a ritual reserved for the summer driving season, when we could blame the usual suspects: the meanies from OPEC, selfish Third Worlders now insisting on driving around in gas-guzzlers of their own, the war in Iraq, whatever hurricane was brewing in the Caribbean and the do-gooder eco-nuts who don't want us drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge because it might upset a few caribou.

But now, we can pretty much freak out over gas prices all year round.

In upstate New York a few days ago, I pulled into a Valero gas station where regular unleaded was selling for $3.34 a gallon and almost kissed the Sikh guy behind the cash register, it felt like such a bargain.

I had never heard of Valero. It sounded like a gas station chain named after a flamenco dancer. But that didn't matter, because the gas was cheaper than any other station around, so they got my business.

Don't talk to me about name-brand gasoline, or the service a gas station provides, or anything else.

If Eliot Spitzer avoids the slammer and opens a string of gas stations, and his gas is cheaper than Valero's, then I would ditch the flamenco dancer in a heartbeat for Spitzer unleaded.

This is what happens in a country where motorists are no longer shocked at these ridiculous gas prices, just increasingly ticked off.

Maybe you saw this story: In the town of Gorda on the northern California coast, gas was selling for more than $5.20 a gallon the other day.

I traveled through Gorda a couple of years ago, and they were sticking it to motorists even then. It's a tiny place on Highway 1 with the only gas for miles around, and they might as well be waiting for you at the pumps with a ski mask and a revolver.

My wife took a picture of me filling up our rental car in Gorda and the pump registering $4 a gallon, and we thought that was pretty funny.

Except now we see what's coming and think: Boy, that fill-up at Gorda, those were the good old days.

On Maui, a gallon of regular unleaded now goes for almost $4. Sure, sure, it's an island paradise, with the sun, surf, ocean breezes and all that. But you can't afford to drive anywhere.

About all you can do on Maui is sit on the beach all day and drink mai-tais and stew about how much gas costs.

Then at the end of the day, you walk home or ride your bike, if you aren't too blotto.

On the same day I arrived back in Maryland from New York -- gallons of $3.34 Valero still sloshing around in the gas tank, the engine mercifully free of knocks and pings -- I noticed a Smart car on York Road.

Smart cars are those tiny two-person cars that look like they shrunk in the wash. But they're cheap (less than 12 grand) and get great gas mileage, so naturally the driver looked very smug.

Prius drivers all look very smug, too, as do the drivers of all the other hybrids that get 200 miles to the gallon, or whatever it is, and can drive from here to Tierra del Fuego on a single tank of gas.

But drivers of Smart cars look even more smug than your average hybrid owner, and this guy looked so pleased with himself I thought he would burst.

Still, you look at the Smart car and it's so damn small you think: sure, save money on gas. Wonderful. But how will it do in an accident?

The thing is the size of a broom closet. They talk about how it's designed with a high-strength steel outer shell and has a four-star crash rating and blah, blah, blah.

But if one of these big Dodge Ram trucks with the extended cab or a Ford Expedition or something like that hits it, it could send the Smart car into orbit.

The smug guy behind the wheel, he could land somewhere in Pennsylvania.

Or Gorda.

If it's Gorda, he won't want to see the gas prices, I can tell you that.

kevin.cowherd@baltsun.com

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