A troubling sight is back in southern California: gas lines. They are smaller this time, but obvious. Some develop where the price is low. Others stretch down the block when nearby gas stations are hanging a red flag -- the California symbol for "no gas" -- over the pumps.
Southern California motorists are altering driving habits in response to the steadily rising prices, which are up almost 10 cents a gallon since the first of the year. Some stations started charging $1.30 a gallon for self-serve premium last week. The result is some 5 percent less driving (mostly achieved by cutting down on weekend recreation trips) and increased skittishness by many who think that topping off today may save money tomorrow or avoid a hunt for an open station.
The fuel pinch here last spring, which preceded a national crunch, was attributed in part to such panic buying. But this year there has been no corresponding move by wholesalers and industrial users to stockpile supplies, which exacerbated the problem last year.
Also, in 1979 motorists were on a driving binge. There was no typical January slowdown after the heavy holiday traffic. This year, although there is more driving now than during the critical weeks last year, motorists appear cautious.
The price of fuel, however, has doubled. Even drivers of small cars with small gas tanks are facing, for the first time, the thought of a $15 fill-up.
"Consumption has been well-contained," says US Department of Energy spokesman Greg Cooke, "but again now we are seeing a demand push. We don't have panic yet , but people are a little more watchful."
They are particularly watchful of prices. One Exxon company-owned station in Orange County, where a gallon of unleaded sold this week for $1.10 and where pumping stops after 1 p.m. each day, is a frequent source of lines. Most unleaded gasoline in the area sells for a dime more per gallon.
Consumption also is being held down by availability. More and more stations throughout metropolitan Los Aneles are closing on weekends and reducing weekday hours. More than 80 percent were open in early January on Saturdays, for instance, but just 65 percent are open now, according to the Auto Club of Southern California.
"But we are still not in a critical situation by any means," says Mike Masinter, who assembles the club's weekly fuel gauge report.
Those watching the fuel situation here are uncertain about the future of the lines. They are, however, concerned about motorists being interviewed by TV reporters who admit openly that they are waiting in line to top off their tanks. A spokesman for one oil company, while explaining that most stocks are adequate and that deliveries are almost normal, simply said, "We don't know what is going on."