California motorists are paying less than $4 a gallon on average for gasoline for the first time since mid-May, the Energy Department said Monday, while the U.S. average fell for the seventh straight week.
Average pump prices of $3.955 a gallon in California and $3.685 nationwide remain well ahead of last year's levels despite declines of 8.2 cents and 5.5 cents, respectively, the Energy Department's weekly survey of filling stations found. And fuel costs could surge at any time because of lower-than-normal stockpiles, said Fred Rozell, director of retail pricing for the Oil Price Information Service in New Jersey.
Two wild cards are in the mix. A new tropical storm is headed for the Gulf of Mexico and there's the possibility of a burst in demand from Chinese factories and consumers now that the Summer Olympics in Beijing have ended.
Crude oil futures for October delivery rose 52 cents to $115.11 a barrel Monday on the New York Mercantile Exchange.
But the energy cloud has a silver lining: Americans are on pace to record the fewest number of traffic fatalities since John F. Kennedy was president, according to a recent study by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute.
Research data through June showed that Americans appeared to be driving more slowly and driving less at the riskiest times, which the study said were leisurely trips at night and on weekends and driving along rural roads. And the oldest and youngest drivers, who tend to get into more accidents, probably were traveling less.
"I've been in this business for 30 years, and I have never seen anything of this magnitude before," the study's author, University of Michigan professor Michael Sivak, said of the trend that would drop annual U.S. traffic fatalities to the lowest level since 1961.
That year, 36,285 people were killed in U.S. traffic accidents. In 2007, 41,059 Americans died in traffic accidents, a decline of 3.3% from 2006, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Sivak said one other benefit if the trend continued would be lower auto insurance premiums. "There is more to this picture than fewer miles driven. We have changed the way we drive, and hopefully on a permanent basis," he said.
Seeing a dramatic drop in fatalities in March and April this year, researchers reviewed federal and state transportation statistics back to April 2007, seeking explanations that went beyond a simple reduction in miles driven.
Driving deaths were down 22.1% and 17.9%, respectively, in those two months, while gasoline sales were down just 4.3% and 1.8%.
Sivak believed that a behavioral tipping point was reached when the average price for a gallon of gasoline in the U.S. rose to about $3.20 in early March.
Although fuel prices are declining, some motorists contend they won't easily revert to their old driving habits.
"I'm really mindful of the speed limit signs now because I know that is a lot slower than the way I normally drive," said Jenna Ward, 50, a Los Angeles bodywork therapist and meditation teacher who drives a late-model Mercedes sedan.
"I find I'm more relaxed," Ward said. "My breathing is easier, but you really have to work at allowing yourself to just slow down."