America may finally be learning the lessons of the 1970s oil shock

The World
Kings of the American Road, then and now. 40 years after the Arab Oil Embargo, American driving habits are slowly changing.

Kings of the American Road, then and now. 40 years after the Arab Oil Embargo, American driving habits are slowly changing.

Chrysler Corp/Toyota Motor Sales

On March 17, millions of Americans will commemorate the life of a man who died more than 1500 years ago — St. Patrick. 

Probably a lot fewer of us will remember the date for a much more recent event — the end 40 years ago of the five-month Arab oil embargo of 1973-74.

The embargo was retaliation for US support of Israel in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and it was a kick in the teeth to a country that had grown to depend on cheap oil.

In particular it was a challenge to America's Car Culture, built on the idea that we could go anywhere, anytime, at almost no cost.

As a child of the ‘60s and ‘70s, I grew up in that culture. Every summer my family would hitch a tent trailer to our station wagon, turn on the radio and just take off.

Sometimes we’d drive 10,000 miles around the country.

“I loved it and I felt darn good that I had a family that loved doing these things” my dad, Mike Miller, recalls. Like so many in his generation, he’d grown up in the city, then moved to the suburbs after the war. In the ‘70s he was a school teacher, and the big perk was the long summer vacation.

The open road, my dad says, “was freedom.”

My father was a Plymouth man. The one I remember best was a 1968 avocado green Fury Suburban. It was “a big, boxy thing,” my dad remembers, “that looked to us very modern.”

It was a boat. It got terrible mileage, but that didn’t matter, because gas was so cheap.

Until suddenly it wasn’t. In the fall of 1973, the embargo hit.  Supplies siezed up, and prices spiked for gasoline, heating oil, and oil-generated electricity.

President Richard Nixon, besieged at the time by the Watergate scandal, found a cause to rally the country around. He urged Americans to take immediate measures to rein in our energy use.

He asked us to turn down our thermostats, to drive more slowly, to turn off unnecessary lighting. And he congratulated us for responding to the challenge “with that spirit of sacrifice which has made this such a great nation.”

I’d just turned 13 and only barely remember all this. My dad’s memory is much better than mine, but he barely remembers it either.

“I don’t recall us limiting our activities or the distances we traveled,” he says.

In fact, folks did reduce their driving, says Tony Dutzik, who studies driving trends for a think-tank called the Frontier Group.

But, he says, “it was a relatively small interruption in what had been before and continued to be a fairly steady run-up in the number of miles that people had driven.”

Once the embargo was lifted, prices dropped and we took to the road again. We may have had an inkling that oil was finite, or that it was dominating our foreign policy or fouling our air, but we just kept driving.

That should have come as no surprise, says Jeffrey Ball of Stanford’s Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance. History, Ball says, shows that “people respond most significantly in terms of changing the way they consume energy when, for whatever reason, prices rise.”

Ball says that in Europe, which was also hit by the embargo, governments decided to jack up fuel taxes to keep consumption down. And it worked. Today the French and Germans use about half as much oil per person as we Americans do.

But in the United States, gas taxes are a much tougher sell.

“There’s a saying in energy circles that what Americans really want are hot showers and cold beer,” Ball says. “When you start to ask them to live in a way in which their showers are cooler and their beer is warmer, that becomes a problem.”

But a funny thing happened on the way to the future. People’s behavior did start to change.

“The period that we’re in now is the longest sustained decline in driving since World War II,” Tony Dutzik says. Americans have been driving fewer miles, on average, every year since 2005, right around when gas prices last shot up.

Whether it’s just about the money, or environmental concerns, or a broader cultural shift, more of us are turning to mass transit, carsharing, biking and walking.

And Dutzik is glad to see it.

“There’s really no shortage of reasons for wanting to use less oil. And there’s also no shortage of opportunities to do it,” he says.  

That message resonates most with people born long after the crisis of 1973 and ‘74 had disappeared in the rear view mirror.

And for those of us who can’t quite break the habit, at least our cars are changing. The most enduring legacy of the oil embargo may be the fuel efficiency standards imposed on automakers in the wake of the crisis. Today, the average passenger vehicle in the U.S. gets almost twice the miles per gallon of the cars from when I was a kid.

A few years ago, my father bought a hybrid. He says it’s his favorite of all the cars he’s owned. He especially likes to track his gas mileage when he hits the open road.

Here's President Richard Nixon speaking about gas rationing and Watergate during a November, 1973 news conference.

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