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In Houston, tanks and wallets run on empty

Daily errands take on new costs as pump prices climb, reports NBC's Janet Shamlian in Houston.

In a city where oil is king, $3-a-gallon gas now rules the road.

Still, a crush of SUVs pours through the school drop-off lane, where there's always a wait.

With four boys in the back, Dorothy Cuenod is still a half-gallon away from the front of the line. Her Suburban swallows a tank of gas each week. 

Today's fill-up costs her a whopping $74.

“I used to get my car washed,” Cuenod says. “But now I just drive my own dirty car. Why? Because that's another $5.”

Another gallon down the road, the dollar burger is no value meal when the line is long at the drive-through.

“I've been in line six minutes,” says one driver, “so the cost of the gas while waiting is going to be more than my meal.”

Houstonians love their cars: racking up more miles per capita than any other metro area — with the possible exception of Atlanta.

At 20.9 percent, they also spend the biggest slice of the family’s annual budget on driving, followed by Cleveland and Detroit at 20.5 percent, Tampa at 20.4 percent and Kansas City at 20.2 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Drivers in Houston are like drivers in every city now — one eye on the road and the other on the gas gauge.

Adora Esparza won't give up her gas guzzler but combines her errands and fills her car with others needing a ride.

“I had my mother, my son who's 5, my daughter who's 23, my granddaughter who is 18 months,” Esparza says. “We're all together.”

For many families dependent on the daily drive, it's their wallets — not their fuel tanks — that are in danger of running on empty.