NEW YORK - The average price of regular gas crept up to $4 a gallon for the first time over the weekend, passing the once-unthinkable milestone just in time for the peak summer travel season.
Prices at the pump are expected to keep climbing, especially after last week's furious surge in oil prices, which neared $140 a barrel in a record-shattering rally Friday.
While Americans who have to drive will feel the biggest squeeze, the increased prices also translate into higher costs for consumers and businesses, who will be forced to shoulder increased transportation costs of food and anything else that needs to be transported.
Gas prices rolled past their latest threshold yesterday, increasing to $4.005 overnight from $3.988 a gallon the day before, according to AAA and the Oil Price Information Service.
Of course, drivers in many parts of the country have already been paying well above that price for some time.
California has seen some of the highest prices; a gallon there now averages $4.436 a gallon, the most in the country. Missourians are paying the least at the pump, with a gallon in the Show-Me State selling for a relatively cheap $3.802 a gallon.
Truckers and others with diesel engines under the hood have it even worse off. A gallon of diesel now sells for $4.762, up nearly a penny overnight. Prices hit a record atop $4.79 at the end of May.
Skyrocketing oil prices are largely to blame for the surge. Soaring demand in Asia and elsewhere ensures global supplies remain tight even as Americans cut back; recent figures from the U.S. Energy Department's Energy Information Administration showed U.S. gasoline demand actually fell 1.4 percent over the last four weeks.
Crude prices shot up more than 13 percent late last week in their biggest two-day price gain in history. Benchmark light, sweet crude for July delivery officially finished the week at $138.54 on the New York Mercantile Exchange, but at one point jumped as high as $139.12.
The eye-popping prices are leading many motorists to rein in their gas consumption, either by cutting back on all but the most essential driving or looking anew at alternatives such as public transportation. Sales of gas-guzzling vans and sport-utility vehicles are down, while those of fuel-efficient compacts and hybrids are on the rise.
Some drivers are getting creative.
Take Robert Torrey of Connecticut, the state tied with Alaska as the second most expensive state for gas. After leaving work in the town of Windsor Locks last week, he drove across the border into Massachusetts to fill up his van with $100 worth of gas. He figures he's saving about $10 per fill-up by traveling the 18 miles north.