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Americans saving $19B this year at pump, experts say

| Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2016, 10:45 p.m.
Motorists fuel up their vehicles at the GetGo gas station in the South Side Works Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2016.
Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review
Motorists fuel up their vehicles at the GetGo gas station in the South Side Works Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2016.
Aaron Huey, of Tarentum, pumps gas at the BP along Route 908 in Harrison on Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2016. Gas prices for Labor Day travel are significantly lower than last year.
Jason Bridge | Tribune-Review
Aaron Huey, of Tarentum, pumps gas at the BP along Route 908 in Harrison on Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2016. Gas prices for Labor Day travel are significantly lower than last year.
Aaron Huey, of Tarentum, pumps gas at the BP along Route 908 in Harrison on Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2016.
Jason Bridge | Tribune-Review
Aaron Huey, of Tarentum, pumps gas at the BP along Route 908 in Harrison on Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2016.
Gas prices are displayed on a digital sign as motorists fuel up their vehicles at the GetGo gas station in the South Side Works Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2016.
Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review
Gas prices are displayed on a digital sign as motorists fuel up their vehicles at the GetGo gas station in the South Side Works Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2016.
Gas prices are displayed on a digital sign at the GetGo gas station in the South Side Works Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2016.
Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review
Gas prices are displayed on a digital sign at the GetGo gas station in the South Side Works Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2016.

As the summer's road trip season draws to a close, American drivers are realizing roughly $19 billion in fuel savings compared to what they paid at the pump in 2015, fuel and travel industry experts said.

The lowest average gasoline prices since 2004 contributed to the windfall and led to what many officials predict will be a record-setting summer travel season.

“I have to assume some of that can be attributed to people having more money in their pocket,” Mike Butler, executive director of Consumer Energy Alliance Mid-Atlantic.

Lower fuel costs certainly helped Esther Mathews, 33, during two trips this summer. She first took a solo road trip to Toronto, and Saturday she returned from a trip to see family in California, where she, her mother and her sister drove from Los Angeles to the Bay Area.

“I have a budget each trip, and once it's gone I ask, ‘Does anybody want to cook for me?' ” Mathews of White Oak said.

Included in this summer's record-setting travel predictions were more travelers hitting the road during holiday weekends.

Thirty-four million people flooded the nation's highways during Memorial Day weekend, followed by 36 million more for the July 4 holiday, AAA said.

AAA didn't release expected travel figures for Labor Day, but Jim Lehman, president of AAA East Central, which covers parts of Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York, West Virginia and Kentucky, said the holiday gives families one more chance to get away before summer draws to a close.

Americans who do hit the road will pay an average of about $2.19 per gallon this weekend, according to a GasBuddy.com fuel forecast. That's 21 cents lower than average prices last year, and nearly $1.64 cheaper than 2012 average prices.

Pennsylvania drivers continue to pay higher-than-average fuel costs. AAA put the state's per-gallon cost at $2.34 on average for the holiday weekend, higher than national averages but still 16 cents lower than Pennsylvania's prices in 2015.

Despite overall low prices, the cost of gas rose in the latter weeks of August. AAA reported last week a national average increase of about four cents compared to prices the week before.

Experts attributed the recent increases to a few factors, including storms brewing off the Gulf Coast; rumors of production cuts from OPEC and rising crude oil prices.

Still, prices remain low — despite high gasoline demand — because abundant oil production has led to supply gluts.

“While today's trend may lead to some frustration, gas prices are likely to soon revert, leaving behind what has been the cheapest summer at the pump in over a decade,” GasBuddy senior petroleum analyst Patrick DeHaan said in a written statement.

Butler said the United States' development of a “broad-based, robust energy sector” helps to that end.

“The more competition there is in the overall energy mix, it's better for consumers in the long run,” he said. “I think this is a good example of the U.S. being more energy independent.”

AAA last week reported per-gallon prices could even dip below $2 once summer ends and parts of the country transition to cheaper winter-gasoline blends.

But some drawbacks could be related to cheaper fuel prices.

Early estimates from the National Safety Council suggest motor vehicle deaths were 9 percent higher through the first six months of 2016 compared to the same period in 2015, and 18 percent higher than two years ago at the six-month mark, according to the council's website.

The council attributed the uptick in deaths to many likely factors, including a stronger economy, lower unemployment rates and gas prices.

“Average gas prices for the first six months of this year were 16 percent lower than 2015 levels, helping to fuel a 3.3 percent increase in the number of miles driven,” the council said.

Michael Walton is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-380-5627 or mwalton@tribweb.com.

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