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Recalling the gas rationing of the 70s

As I’m writing this, gas prices have hit another record high. This morning the price was an average in Pennsylvania of $4.90 a gallon.

For truck drivers, the prices are even more outlandish.

Not only motorists are suffering. Heating oil prices are through the roof with the cost being as much as $1,500 or more for the filling of tanks.

For anyone over 50, it’s starting to feel like de ja vu from the 1970s.

I don’t recall all the parameters that created the great gas shortage of the ‘70s but the impact is certainly unforgettable. One of the things that happened was that the Arab countries got mad at us and punished us with an oil embargo, which led to a shortage of crisis proportion.

The result was gas rationing, long lines at gas stations, short tempers and rules governing what days gas could be purchased. Pennsylvania had an odd-even gas purchase rule. People whose license plate ended in an odd number could but gasoline on odd-number calendar days.

Then there were the gasoline purchase limits of a maximum of either $5 or $10 at a time.

People would arise early in the morning - actually the middle of the night sometimes - to form lines at gas stations to purchase fuel before the tanks ran dry, which sometimes happened by noon. Those lines would extend for several blocks. Sometimes the gas ran out before everyone in line was served.

I’d usually get my gas at a small, privately-owned station called Tippy Swartz. I recall him complaining about how the bigger, fuel company owned gas stations were hogging the gas. There were days he didn’t even get a delivery, leaving those waiting in line to try to find another location. His wasn’t the only gas station that sometimes went for day without gas.

Some truck drivers delivering gas carried guns for protection. There had been incidents of hijackings.

Locking gas tanks weren’t existent on most vehicles, but gas thefts were so common auto parts stores began selling them.

The government adopted a color system to let people know of gas availability. Gas station owners had green flags to show they were stocked, yellow to let motorists know they were running low and red flags to show they were out of gas.

I don’t recall what the heating oil situation was like at that time because we had a coal stove. Most electric plants burned coal, too, so there didn’t appear to be electricity woes. Coal was a good ole American product.

A neighbor recalls that her husband commuted a long distance to work. He would get up early to wait in line, then on the way to work keep watch for any gas station that might have fuel and a respite from the long lines and get as much gas as he was allowed.

The federal government took some steps to alleviate the situation.

In 1974, President Richard Nixon signed the first national speed limit, restricting travel on interstate highways to 55 mph. It was deemed this was an energy efficient speed for highway traveling.

Also adopted was a policy allowing right turns at red lights as a way of saving gas.

In 1975, the federal government created the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and set its first fuel economy standards for the auto industry.

There were actually two major crises in the 1970s, one in 1973 and one in 1979. In the 1979 crisis, people sometimes had bumper stickers that read “Carter, kiss my a..”, in reference to President Jimmy Carter. He wasn’t re-elected.

For someone who has lived through those long gas lines, odd-even rationing, purchase limits and routine frustration at the gas pumps, I’m hoping our current fuel situation will get resolved before that happens.

It’s difficult to comprehend how people with low paying jobs and who have to commute are surviving with the high gas prices, coupled with the high heating oil prices.

There is a ripple effect, too. While gas prices are in the vicinity of $5 per gallon, truckers are paying about $6.50 a gallon for diesel fuel. Having worked in the trucking industry at one time, I know those semis usually get between 5 and 8 miles per gallon, and a loaded vehicle might get as little as 3 miles per gallon going uphill. Those truckers must pass the higher prices to their customers, meaning prices in stores rise for food, clothing or even toys.

Farmers must raise their prices because of the fuel costs incurred in planting and harvesting their crops.

Trash collectors, school bus companies, delivery firms etc. are all being hit.

With trash collectors and school buses, the budgets of municipalities and school districts are bound to be impacted. That can mean only one thing. Higher taxes.

Newspaper companies have to figure a way to budget for deliveries.

Hopefully, though, things won’t get as critical as they were in the 1970s. People don’t seem to be as patient today as they were back in the 70s, as evidenced in the increased amount of reported road rage.

So, going through what we did in the 70s is a scary thought.

While the climate crisis certainly can’t be ignored, neither can our need for gasoline.