Cynics might argue that proximity to congressional watchdogs probably has something to do with it. Oil industry officials cite simple supply and demand. And some analysts attribute it to sophisticated consumerism.

One way or another, the Washington area is enjoying some of the lowest gasoline prices in the nation, according to the American Automobile Association.

That's right: Washington. Those seemingly outrageous prices motorists are paying here -- $1.195 for a gallon of self-service unleaded, according to AAA -- could be a whole lot higher. The national average price is up over $1.30 a gallon, and motorists in many large states, particularly in the West, are paying several cents more than that.

No one is quite sure why the Washington area -- not previously known for low gasoline prices -- has emerged as second-best in the nation behind Texas, where the average is $1.16 a gallon.

"This has never happened before," said Rob Krebs, director of public and government affairs for AAA's Potomac region. "We were 15th- highest in the nation during Memorial Day," well before Iraq's invasion of Kuwait set off the price spiral.

While Krebs said it was possible that oil companies are being particularly careful about the wholesale prices they charge gas stations in Congress's backyard, he said it was more likely that price-conscious local motorists are shopping carefully for the best deal, forcing service station owners and gas distributors to keep prices down.

"We think it really has to do with what's happening out there. Motorists are reacting to it and voting with their steering wheel," Krebs said. "People are shopping more competitively now, and this is unprecedented for this affluent area."

Carole Edwards, a spokeswoman for Fairfax-based oil giant Mobil Corp., said many factors go into determining gasoline prices in a given area, and Washington currently appears to be more lucky than anything else.

"It's a million little things, and when you add them up, you come up with subtle reasons for change," she said.

AAA's survey includes close-in Maryland and Virginia suburbs in its average for the District. The state of Maryland as a whole finished third in the survey, at about $1.20 a gallon, while Virginia, where higher gasoline taxes boost the price, is at about $1.25 a gallon.

East Coast prices generally were lower than the national average, while prices in Western states were somewhat higher. The highest prices were in Hawaii and Alaska, where gasoline sells for about $1.50 a gallon.

Although crude oil prices generally have fallen in recent days, AAA's survey, completed Wednesday, shows that gasoline prices are continuing to rise. The local average is up nearly one-third of a cent since last Friday, when it was $1.192, and the national average has risen 3.3 cents, to $1.307, in the same period.

Yesterday, renewed concerns about Mideast tensions sent prices on contracts for oil and gasoline shooting up on the New York Mercantile Exchange after a sharp decline the day before. The benchmark barrel of crude oil rose 85 cents a barrel to $26.77 after trading as high as $27.50, and gasoline rose 4.35 cents to 89.07 cents a gallon on the exchange.

Krebs said the Washington area's relatively low gasoline price might turn out to be a mixed blessing if oil companies take notice of it. While it's a boon to motorists, he said, the AAA was worried that "if we put this news out, they're going to jack up their prices."