Record low sales of petrol this spring were a reaction to surging domestic energy bills, according to a poll of more than 18,000 AA members. The slump at the pump occurred while petrol prices were at their lowest for three years.
Fifty five per cent of those polled said the big increase in gas and electricity prices last winter forced them to choose carefully how they used their cars. Among semi and unskilled workers, 66% had to restrict their car use to balance spending.
In March, average petrol prices were at their lowest for three years – below 129.5ppl, compared with 139.9ppl a year earlier and a record of 142.48p in April 2012.
Despite the low prices HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) figures show that petrol sales in March, after the winter flooding, fell to a record low of 1.367 billion litres. In April and May, when families switched off their heaters and boilers, petrol consumption rose to a more normal 1.5 billion litres.
New Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) statistics show that UK petrol consumption from January to March was also at a record low, down to 3.126 million tonnes – compared to 3.259 million tonnes in the first quarter of 2013, which included the second coldest March on record.
The DECC figures also show the slump at the pump was felt by all sectors of the fuel retail market. The 4.1% fall in petrol sales in the first quarter was suffered equally by supermarkets (-4.0%) and non-supermarket retailers (-4.1%).
Diesel sales held up better than petrol with a 3.0% between January and March this year. However, commercial use accounted for most of the increase – up 6.3% on the same period last year, while supermarkets sold 2.5% more and non-supermarkets just 0.4% more.
The poll also found little prospect of a sustained revival of car use and fuel demand. Only 7% said they were “more relaxed about pump prices and started to use my car more compared to this time last year”. Another 35% said they were ambivalent, while 57% said they were still in a car travel rut.
The poll also found:
• 57% have adopted fuel-saving driving techniques and intend to stick with them despite lower prices,
• 50% automatically consider restricting their car use if their family and personal budgets are squeezed,
• 18% have replaced their car in the last 12 months with a more fuel efficient one.
Edmund King, AA president, commented: “Throughout 2012, UK petrol consumption rose and fell in line with pump prices – down during the price spikes in the spring (142.48ppl) and the autumn (140.23ppl) before recovering each time. In June last year, UK petrol sales recovered to above 1.6 billion litres for the first time in more than a year after the average pump price fell from 140ppl to 134ppl.
“Sales started to slump again in September as the average cost went back above 138ppl. But, when petrol collapsed to almost 130ppl in mid November, we were staggered to see consumption failing to recover going into December and beyond.
“The fragility of driver and family budgets is clear to see. In December, 35% of the panel said they would cut back on car use if their domestic energy bills rose 10%. The reality is that 55% now say they have been affected.
“Years of sky-high petrol and diesel prices have taught drivers how to balance their spending by regulating their car use – even when the financial pressure isn’t coming from the pump. Since 2005, the AA has warned of the damage to family budgets from runaway pump prices, but not even we could predict the scale of the backlash.”