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Europe’s tolerant motorists

A replay of last summer’s protests over sky high fuel costs are unlikely. By Gary A. Seidman.
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Across Europe, motorists are shelling out anywhere from (an outrageous, to us Americans) $2.70 a gallon in Ireland to (a ridiculous!) $4.30 in the Netherlands for their fuel. But unlike last summer, when Europeans were honking and screaming and unfurling protest banners in frustration over the high cost of their fuel and the particularly onerous taxes on every liter, this year is likely to be a lot quieter at the petrol pump.

THE REASON is diesel, the experts say. Last September, the demonstrations, which spread across Britain and the continent, and paralyzed major cities, were sparked by well organized truck drivers and farmers outraged by fuel costs that had eroded their profits and threatened their livelihoods. Panic buying by motorists magnified the problem as crude prices approached 10 year highs and OPEC was pointed at as the culprit.

This summer, said Kevin Lindemer, senior director at Cambridge Energy Consultants, “the commercial sparkplug is not as intense because diesel prices are actually lower.” Market conditions across Europe for diesel have eased due to increased inventories and slightly lower crude prices. The appetite for organized protest, Lindemer said, has largely receded.

Though the average Belgian driver may be paying a few pennies less per liter than a year ago — but still twice as much as the average Nebraskan — his or her tolerance for Europe’s high prices seems intact.

And that tolerance is just part of the difference between American drivers and those from most everywhere else in the world.


Taxes on fuel are of course the big difference between Europe and the United States. U.S. gas taxes average about 40 cents a gallon; European taxes are about $2 a gallon. In Britain, the current excise tax per gallon is $3.40, says Ian Parry of Resources for the Future, an environmental think-tank based in Washington. That stunningly high tax is defended by Prime Minister Tony Blair’s government as necessary for reducing pollution, easing traffic congestion and encouraging consumers to purchase more fuel efficient cars.

For the most part, Europeans buy those arguments. Whether they have led to improvements in the environment and traffic alleviation, is another story.

There is no question that Europeans and Americans have very different patterns when it comes to driving.

Americans, for the most part, consume 2 to 2.25 times more fuel per capita, buy less fuel efficient cars and are more inclined to drive their own cars than to take public transportation, said Lee Schipper, senior scientist at the International Energy Agency in Paris.

Pain at the pump may be easing

The Germans average about 29 miles per gallon from their cars, Schipper said, “but the French, Danes, and Italians more like 33-35 miles per gallon.” In the United States, the average car gets about 20 miles per gallon, and there are far more people driving gas guzzling sport utility vehicles.

While the average trip in a car is about 9.5 miles for an American driver, the same holds true for European drivers. The difference is that Americans make twice as many of those 9.5 mile trips each year. But is that because Americans pay half as much for gas?