WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - The average price of regular gasoline has reached $4.01 a gallon in Palm Beach County, and the pain at the pump is forecast to increase over the next couple of months.
On Thursday, Palm Beach County was the state's only county at or above $4 a gallon. The average shot up six cents in the past week. Statewide, the average stood at $3.92.
The peak is expected in late May or early June, and many motorists already have changed their driving habits. Prices could begin a retreat after that, experts say.
The national average could hit $4 by the first week of April for the first time in history, AAA said this week.
"The general belief is that barring extraordinary circumstances, such as hurricanes, we would expect prices to peak in early summer," said Gregg Laskoski, a Tampa-based senior petroleum analyst at GasBuddy.com.
GasBuddy projects that prices in the Miami area will peak somewhere between $4.05 and $4.40 a gallon. Palm Beach County's average gas price typically runs about two cents higher than Miami's.
If the run-up plays out as predicted, that means those local stations that tend to be on the high side will be selling regular at around $4.50 a gallon. That would exceed the all-time high of $4.18 reached on July 17, 2008.
AAA spokeswoman Jessica Brady said that prices this year are moving almost identically to how they performed in the first quarter of 2011, when the peak occurred in May.
"If the trend continues to reflect last year, we could see prices peak again in May," Brady said. "On the national level, we could see a peak anywhere from $4.15 to $4.30. We do still expect to see prices increase throughout the month of April."
The reasons for the high prices haven't changed. The price of crude oil is affected by tensions in Iran, the weak U.S. dollar and market speculators. At the same time, refineries are making the transition to summer blend gasoline.
Crude oil futures for May delivery dropped $2.63 to close Thursday at $102.78 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange.
Demand isn't to blame, as motorists have cut back.
A recent AAA survey found that 84 percent of those who responded already had changed their driving habits or lifestyle. At the top of the list was combining trips and errands, with 60 percent saying they already have done this. If prices remain high, people say they will continue to drive fewer miles, and perhaps dine out less and delay major purchases.
"Iran right now is the No. 1 wild card that is keeping prices elevated. If Iran were taken out of the picture, we would likely see prices fall," Brady said.
Meanwhile, consumers are coping with the impact of high gasoline prices on just about everything they buy.
"When the price of gas and oil increase, the cost of postage goes up; the cost of groceries goes up. It is a snowball effect. The cost of other goods and services people use increases," Brady said.
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