UPDATE 2-US Feb highway travel up despite costlier gasoline

Wed Apr 20, 2011 7:24pm BST

* 28-cent jump in gasoline doesn't scare away U.S. drivers

* Travel up most in South Atlantic, drops most in West

* Monthly U.S. gasoline price set Feb record of $3.21 (Adds graphics on regional highway travel, urban and rural travel)

By Tom Doggett

WASHINGTON, April 20 (Reuters) - U.S. highway travel rose 0.9 percent in February from a year earlier, indicating that Americans drivers did not to curb their travel habits despite rising pump prices.

Data released by the U.S. Transportation Department on Wednesday showed that U.S. vehicle miles rose for the 12th month in a row, even though gasoline prices jumped 28 cents a gallon during February and 57 cents from a year earlier and severe winter storms kept drivers off the roads in some states.

The data is an early indication that American consumers were absorbing rising gasoline prices without yet curbing their driving habits, as they did the last time pump prices soared in 2008, according to Phil Flynn, energy analyst at PFGBest Research in Chicago.

However, Flynn said he expected gasoline demand to eventually decline due to rising fuel costs. "These prices are going to curtail demand over the summer," he said.

"What will kill the consumer is if we see sharp spikes in gasoline prices due to another supply disruption in the Middle East. I think that's the biggest threat," Flynn said.

The national monthly price for gasoline set a February record of $3.21 a gallon. That was a far cry from the all-time high of $4.11 for the U.S. average gasoline price hit in July 2008. This week's average U.S. pump price is $3.84 a gallon.

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Graphic-regional travel: r.reuters.com/vad29r

Graphic-urban, rural travel: r.reuters.com/med29r

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The number of miles driven during the first two months of this year was up 0.6 percent, about 2.8 billion miles higher, from the same period in 2010, the department said.

February's 0.9 percent rise in highway travel was a reversal from last February's 2.9 percent decline. January 2011 travel was also much higher from a year earlier, up 0.4 percent compared with a drop of 1.7 percent last January.

Highway travel was up the most in February in the South Atlantic region stretching from Maryland to Florida, rising 4.5 percent.

The steepest decline was in the West, where the number of miles driven fell 1.6 percent.

The Transportation Department tracks motorists through more than 4,100 automatic traffic recorders operated by state highway agencies. (Reporting by Tom Doggett; Graphics by Emily Stephenson; Editing by John Picinich and Marguerita Choy)

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