If you’ve fueled up in the last few months, you know that gas prices are rising. According to AAA, national averages for a gallon of gas reached $3.60 at the end of March, and that price is expected to increase, with analysts predicting that gas might rise to five dollars per gallon by the end of 2012. Some say that it’s unlikely that prices will go that high that quickly, but we have to face the facts: Gas prices are completely out of our control.  

Why are Gas Prices Rising?

Gas prices jump when the world’s crude-oil supply is limited, and currently, a substantial chunk of that black gold is threatened by the crises in the Middle East. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, over one-third of the world’s liquid fuels came from North Africa and the Middle East in 2010. Of those fuels, the Middle East produced 25.1-million barrels of oil on a daily basis, while the big players in North Africa – Algeria and Libya – account for roughly 2.1-million and 1.8-million barrels of oil each day, respectively.

If you think that 33 percent is more than the world can afford to lose – you’re right. Think of it this way: If you miss 33 percent of the questions on a test, you’re dangerously close to a failing grade. Fear of losing access to one-third of those natural resources increases global fuel demands, and prices skyrocket. That’s why you’re paying more per gallon.

The U.S. imports half of its oil, which is why we depend on the Middle East. We guzzle more oil than most countries. Last year, the U.S. used roughly 19 million barrels of oil per day, and we don’t produce as much as we use. The U.S. only produced 9.65 million barrels of oil per day in 2010. That means we rely on others for half of the gas we pump.

Our dependence on foreign oil and turmoil in the Middle East affects what we pay. In March 2010, regular unleaded cost about $2.77 per gallon on average, and you could fill your Honda Civic’s 13.2-gallon tank for about $36.56. At the end of March 2011, regular fuel averaged $3.60. So now it costs about $46 to fill up.

Analysts aren’t sure if the crisis in Japan has contributed to rising gas prices here. Since the earthquake and tsunami, Japan’s oil consumption has only increased by 200,000 barrels per day, an increase that makes up just 0.2% of the 88 million barrels that are used worldwide on a daily basis.

The price of gas had a minor increase after Japan’s earthquake on March 11, 2010. EIA data shows that regular fuel prices increased by just 4.4 cents per gallon three days after the quake.

Although gas prices are out of our control, there are some things you can do to save cash. Start by maximizing fuel economy.

Take the Fuel Efficient Route

Careful planning is an easy way to conserve fuel. If you own more than one vehicle, always use the fuel-efficient option – there’s no reason to take your gas-guzzling truck to the doctor’s office when your Honda will do. You can also save fuel by consolidating your trips and errands. For example, go before or after work to cut down on trips, and look for shopping centers where you can take care of business in one stop. As you plan outings, bypass congested areas and maintain a steady speed – this will help you drive more efficiently.

Change How You Drive

One of the best ways to conserve is to change your driving habits. Here are a few ways that you can get the most out of your drive.

1. Slow down

If you’ve got a lead foot, it’s time to lighten up. When you speed, your engine works harder to overcome wind resistance. We’re not suggesting that you idle to-and-from work, but the speed limit is designed to maximize fuel efficiency. Drive accordingly, and you may notice you’re filling up less. 

2. Don’t Jack Rabbit

Rocketing off the line when the light turns green uses more fuel than controlled, steady acceleration. Pay attention to the flow of traffic and drivers around you. Accelerate deliberately, and coast to a stop – your engine will use less fuel. If roads aren’t congested, use cruise control to boost your mileage and maintain a constant speed.

3. Lighten Up

You probably bought a Honda Odyssey or Volkswagen Jetta SportWagen because of their awesome cargo space, but don’t keep your car loaded down with gear. Extra weight decreases fuel economy. Keep it light, and you’ll see more miles between fill-ups.

4. Stay Cool

Turning on all the electronic components in your car make the engine work harder, and one of the most taxing ones is the air conditioner. Keep your car cool in hot weather by parking in shaded areas, and use your air conditioner’s recirculating function to minimize the amount of juice the car uses to keep you cool.

Maintain Your Vehicle

Much like your heart, your car will run more efficiently when it’s properly maintained. That means you should stay on top of your vehicle’s routine maintenance, just like you go in for checkups and hit the gym a few times a week. Make sure the air and fuel filters are clean. Clogged filters reduce efficiency, making it harder for your engine to breathe. If your engine has to work harder, it will use more gas. If your car needs a tune-up, fresh spark plugs and wires can also boost mileage. Low tire pressure can also hurt fuel economy. If your tires are under-inflated your engine will have to work harder to get it going.

Going Forward

We’re fuel dependent in the U.S., and there’s no getting around it. No one can predict the future, and the price of gas is largely tied to world events. Still, as consumers, we’re not powerless. These tips provide a sure-fire way to save money, and conserve fuel.