Tom Smart, Deseret News
In West Jordan, Fred Despain fills up his motorcycle, which he says he will use all summer for the price of just one fill-up in his truck.

Are you eating 20 percent less than a decade ago? How about using 20 percent less water? Are you buying 20 percent fewer clothes? Are you living in a home that is 20 percent smaller?

Well, Utahns did manage to use 20 percent less gasoline per resident last year compared to their consumption a decade earlier, according to a Deseret News analysis of federal and state data.

Of course, they had a big reason to cut so deep: Gasoline prices have almost tripled since 1997.

Back in the halcyon days of 1997, gasoline prices averaged a mere $1.33 a gallon for the year in Utah. And back then, Utahns consumed an average 1.43 gallons of gasoline per resident per day for their vehicles.

Ten years later in 2007, Utahns used 1.14 gallons of gasoline per person a day — a 20 percent reduction. For that year, gasoline averaged $2.75 a gallon in Utah (but AAA reported on Wednesday that the average price for regular-grade gasoline here has now risen to $3.63 a gallon).

The Deseret News computed that drop in consumption per person based on annual statewide retail gasoline sales data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, combined with annual state population estimates.

Transportation industry officials say the reduction likely comes for many reasons, including that newer cars have improved mileage; sales increase for cars that offer the best mileage when gas prices rise; more people are using mass transit; and people simply drive less as gasoline prices climb.

"Cars are far more fuel-efficient than they were. That has to account for much of the reduction," said Rolayne Fairclough, spokeswoman for AAA Utah.

For example, the Environmental Protection Agency reports that for all 1997 model cars and trucks sold in America, their average mileage per gallon was 24.5. For all 2007 models, it had risen to 25.3 miles per gallon — an increase of 3.3 percent. Consumption drops as more efficient cars replace older models.

Also as gasoline prices rise, people start looking to buy those vehicles with the best overall mileage instead of bigger gas-guzzlers.

"Whenever we get a spike in the gas prices, we have a lot of people try to trade out trucks and SUVs for smaller vehicles," said Tim Dahle, who owns three local car dealerships. "The price of gas and uncertainty (about whether prices will fall again) plays part of that psychology."

He said he also tries to stock more fuel-efficient vehicles when prices spike to meet demand. But Dahle said that in the past as gasoline prices have stabilized, "You see people start buying the bigger stuff more readily again."

Fairclough said that as gasoline prices rise, AAA has also seen that people tend to cut back on their driving.

"Last year as we went into summer driving, we were hitting record gas prices — just like we are again now. We saw vacation travel flatten. There was a bit of an increase (in driving during the summer season), but it didn't even compare to previous years," Fairclough said.

"There is a certain level of driving that people must do, because we live in a fairly sprawled out area," Fairclough said. But as gasoline prices rise, "People are far more conscious about how they drive and how much driving they do. They cut down on extra trips. They are more conscious of errands. They may not run to the store just for a bottle of catsup but will wait and combine it with other trips."

Mass transit has also become more popular. Back in 1997, such things as TRAX and commuter rail were still on the drawing board, and government-sponsored vanpools were new.

John Inglish, general manager of the Utah Transit Authority, said ridership on UTA buses and trains has consistently risen through the years, from about 3 million trips in 1970 to nearly 150 million now. "And some of those numbers are deceptive," he said, because many of the trips now are for longer intercity trips for commuters than the old, scheduled route trips that many people took for just a few stops.

"In the past, every time there has been a spike in gasoline prices, (mass-transit) ridership goes up. It usually takes six months or so before we see it. It takes a while to convince people that prices are not going to come back down and that they need to change their habits," he said.

Inglish adds that the price increases during the past year may be different, however. "The last price spike (started) a little over a year ago," but UTA this time has not seen a big increase in ridership yet. "We're a little worried that maybe the public has thrown in the towel and decided, 'Maybe I'll eat hamburger instead of steak and keep driving my car."'

He adds, "We'd like to take credit for all the reduction (in gasoline use), but it is probably more attributable to more economical cars."

The Deseret News looked at gasoline consumption trends in Utah for the past 20 years.

Between 1987 and 1997, gasoline prices were much more flat (with increases being relatively small when they came) than in the decade since. In that era, gasoline consumption tended to rise in most years (it did in seven out of 10), from 1.29 gallons used per Utahn per day in 1987 to 1.43 gallons in 1997.

Since 1997, increases in gasoline prices tended to come in big jumps — and Utahns tended to cut back each year on consumption. In fact, consumption dropped in eight of the past 10 years to a new low for the entire 20-year period of 1.14 gallons per person per day in 2007.

During the past year between February 2007 and February 2008, consumption dropped in Utah for 10 of those 12 months compared to the same month a year earlier.

For example, Utahns used 1.07 gallons per person in February 2008 (the last month for which data are available) compared to the 1.09 gallons per person they used in February 2007.

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