By Rachel Elbaum Reporter
msnbc.com
updated 8/18/2005 1:49:07 PM ET 2005-08-18T17:49:07

LONDON — Even as American drivers complain about "gas pains," they can count their blessings that they don't live in Europe, where motorists pay more than twice as much at the petrolpumps.

Yet, the panic that has gripped the United States is almost absent here and gas prices are not the number one issue on drivers’ minds.

“There’s not a lot you can do, so you just pay it,” said Chris Parsons, a security systems installer from Hampshire, who spends much of his day on the road driving from job to job. “I’m paying 5 to 10 pounds more a week now than I was several months ago. It would have to get to £1.10 a liter ($7.52 a gallon) for it to really make a difference to me.”

One big difference in Britain is that gas prices don’t appear to have changed as drastically over the past year. The national average for July was now 88 pence a liter, or $6.02 a gallon, and prices have only gone up 10 pence a liter in the past 12 months. Although the actual price increase is the same, the rise is not as apparent in Britain where gas is sold by the liter.

This week, drivers were paying around 90-91 pence at London gas stations.

The sticker shock has been greater in the United States, where prices appear to have increased more as the numbers on the price boards are larger. Since last year the cost of a gallon has gone up 67 cents.

“It’s bad enough to have a bit of a moan about, but if you drive a car like this you have to accept that you will pay a lot,” said Helen Evans, 38, as she filled up her Jeep 4X4 with unleaded gas at 90 pence a liter, or $6.15 a gallon.

Taxes, taxes, taxes
What accounts for the high cost of British gas, or petrol as it is known in the U.K.? Taxes, taxes, taxes.

Between approximately 65 and 75 percent of the price of gasoline in the U.K. is taken as taxes. U.S. drivers are paying a seemingly paltry 27 percent of their gas bill to the government.

And gas prices in the U.K. aren’t even the highest in Europe. The Netherlands, the most expensive country on this side of the Atlantic, boasts marquee rates of more than 99 pence a liter, equal to $6.77 a gallon, while Norway’s average is about $6.56.

“Our prices have gone up gradually,” said Keith Lewis of the Society of Motor Manufacturers. “We haven’t seen a sudden shift from let’s say, 60 pence to 80 pence. People tend to take it as just one of those things.”

Making changes
Still, drivers here are making changes to the way they get around. Sales of hybrid cars have gone up 330 percent since 2002, according to the Society of Motor Manufacturers, and more and more scooters seem to appear on London streets.

Armando, a north London resident, bought a Vespa scooter one month ago and says he is now getting double the life out of the gas he buys.

“The problem is that you can’t go everywhere on a scooter,” he said while filling up his Volkswagen Golf at a Texaco station. “Now that the weather’s nice, it’s great. But in the winter I will have to drive more.”

When David Sinnott bought his car two months ago, the price of gas was a major factor in choosing his new wheels.

“I was looking to get something nicer, but when you get something nice you have to pay more for petrol,” said Sinnott, who now drives a Peugeot 106 to his computer shop in a nearby London suburb. “At the end of the day you just want to get from point A to point B.”

For many Londoners, driving to work wasn’t an option even before the recent rise in gas prices. The crippling traffic, together with the addition of the congestion charge to the downtown area two years ago, made public transport the only way to go. For those diehards who refused to give up the use of their cars, the rise of the congestion charge to £8 ($14.48) this summer, and the additions to their gas bill finally pushed them over the edge and forced them to change their ways.

That means not only taking the bus or subway to work, but also using it more on weekends.

London resident Robert Marshall, 40, has always relied on public transportation, but now uses it more than ever. “If petrol were cheaper, I would drive more,” he said. “Driving is a luxury, like cigarettes — the prices can go higher, but we are addicted.”

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