Traffic Stops Over Gas Prices

By Kevin Sullivan and Molly Moore
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, May 28, 2008

LONDON, May 27 -- Hundreds of truckers shut down a central London highway Tuesday, French fishermen blockaded ports and French President Nicolas Sarkozy proposed cutting European fuel taxes as already high gasoline prices soared even higher.

"It's hard to find words to describe the severity of the problem. It's not even a problem really; it's a meltdown," said Peter Carroll, a trucking industry spokesman who, like hundreds of other drivers, parked his rig on London's A40 highway Tuesday morning, shutting that key commuter artery for most of the day.

The truckers, who eventually delivered a petition to Prime Minister Gordon Brown's office at 10 Downing Street, were protesting as Britain's national average pump price for diesel hit the equivalent of $9.56 a gallon and regular unleaded hit $8.61 a gallon, according to the Automobile Association.

The protests spreading across Europe signal a growing agitation at skyrocketing fuel prices in nations already accustomed to paying dearly at the pump.

Most European countries long ago chose to heavily tax gasoline, partly to encourage use of public transportation. The British government, for example, charges a $3.77-a-gallon fuel duty and a 17.5 percent consumption tax on top of that -- the highest levels in Europe.

By contrast, U.S. drivers pay an average combined federal and state tax of about 47 cents on a gallon of unleaded and 53.6 cents on a gallon of diesel, according to API, a U.S. trade association.

The current pricing crisis, which has pushed crude oil above $135 a barrel, is pushing even more Europeans out of their cars. The Automobile Association said a recent survey found that 37 percent of its members were using their cars less because of fuel prices.

But for fishermen, taxi drivers, truckers and other people in businesses where using less fuel is not an option, frustration is turning into anger.

"We are being murdered, and you would not walk past a drowning man," said Carroll, speaking after the highway blockade at a protest rally near London's Marble Arch. The drivers are demanding cuts in fuel taxes.

Scores more truckers in Wales formed a two-mile-long line to stage a "go-slow" strike that clogged a main highway. Protest leader Mike Greene told the BBC that if truckers didn't get sharp cuts in the taxes within a week, they would begin blockading refineries and ports.

In 2000, when gas hit about $5 a gallon, truckers, taxi drivers and other protesters nearly paralyzed the country with a week-long blockade of oil refineries and storage depots to stop delivery to gas stations.

In Paris, as furious fishermen continued blockading several French ports, Sarkozy urged the European Union to suspend some of the oil taxes that make European pump prices on average more than double those in the United States.

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