The cost of filling up the family car jumped to a record high Tuesday, adding to the challenges consumers already face with falling home values and rising food prices.
Gas prices at the pump rose overnight to a record national average of $3.2272 a gallon, according to AAA and the Oil Price Information Service. That's a tad higher than the previous record of $3.2265, set last May.
A year ago, rising demand and a string of refinery outages had raised concerns about supplies. Now, the soaring price of crude oil is the culprit, propelling gas higher even though supplies are at 15-year highs.
On Tuesday, light sweet crude for April delivery surged to a new record of $109.72 on the New York Mercantile Exchange before retreating after the Energy Department and International Energy Agency cut crude consumption forecasts for this year. In afternoon trading, crude fluctuated, falling 13 cents to $107.77 a barrel, but alternating between gains and losses.
Where gas and oil go from here is anybody's guess. Many analysts expect prices to moderate, while others predict oil could keep rising to $120 a barrel, or higher. And with demand for gas expected to rise as warm weather arrives, analysts say pump prices could spike as high as $3.75 a gallon, regardless of what happens with oil prices. The Energy Department on Tuesday raised its forecast of how high prices will rise this spring by a dime to $3.50 a gallon.
The high prices are affecting transportation habits. New numbers out Monday show Americans took more than 10 billion trips on public transportation last year - the most in 50 years, reports CBS News correspondent Ben Tracy. Even in car-centric Los Angeles, subway ridership is up.
Economists say the economic slowdown and the rude awakening that high gas prices are here to stay are finally changing behavior.
"We're seeing an increase in public transportation nationwide, SUV sales are down, hybrid sales are up. This is a national trend," says Christopher Knittel, an economist at the University of California at Davis.
Still, because gas is so expensive, analysts expect demand for fuel will rise more slowly this spring and summer than in previous years. Nationwide demand for gasoline is off by about 1 percent over the last 6 weeks, a trend analysts expect to accelerate if prices keep rising.
"We don't go visit family as much," said Steve Bagosy, of Pocono, Pa., while gassing up a company car in Manhattan Tuesday. "Just try to stay local."
The effect can be seen in states such as California, where prices are consistently 30 cents higher than the national average. Last November, the latest month for which data is available, demand for gasoline fell by 3.7 percent from the previous year in California as prices soared past $3.40 a gallon.
"It evokes a real reaction in demand destruction above $3.25 a gallon," said Tom Kloza, publisher and chief oil analyst at the Oil Price Information Service in Wall, N.J.
Prices have already passed the $4 mark at many stations nationwide. But Kloza thinks slower demand growth will prevent the national average from rising that high.
High gas prices may actually help some companies that rely on tourism. Carl Wilgus, executive director of the Pocono Mountains Visitors Bureau, said the number of skiers visiting the Pennsylvania ski region this winter was up, despite gas prices holding steady above $3 for most of that time. In part, that's because many people plan vacations closer to home when fuel is so expensive, he said, giving up a trip to Florida in favor of a ski vacation an hour away, he said.
"We'll definitely lose some visitation, but hopefully we'll gain some from the folks who hope to stay closer to home," Wilgus said.
The sheer price of gassing a recreational vehicle may induce some to look for campgrounds closer to home this summer. At $3.50 a gallon, a 100-gallon Winnebago Destination RV will cost $350 to fill, $27 more than right now, and $96 more than a year ago.
Analysts believe oil's underlying supply and demand fundamentals do not support such high prices, and argue that crude's rise in recent months is mostly due to the falling dollar. Crude futures offer a hedge against a falling dollar, and oil futures bought and sold in dollars are more attractive to foreign investors when the dollar is weak.
The Energy Department and IEA, an energy consultant to western, industrialized nations, raised more concerns about the economic slowdown's impact on oil consumption Tuesday when both forecasters cut U.S. demand growth forecasts, but said strong demand overseas will keep prices elevated this year.
Other energy futures were mixed Tuesday. April heating oil futures fell 0.82 cent to $2.9652 a gallon while April gasoline futures fell 1.09 cents to $2.704 a gallon.
April natural gas futures fell 9.1 cents to $9.933 per 1,000 cubic feet after.