Gasoline prices have begun to decline from their highs of a few weeks ago, but if you're waiting for them to drop as sharply as crude oil prices have lately, don't hold your breath.

Industry officials and analysts say the national average gas price of around $1.37 a gallon is about in line with the costs of crude oil -- even with the $5-a-barrel drop in crude oil prices since the end of November.

That doesn't make much sense to many frustrated motorists and oil-industry critics on Capitol Hill and elsewhere. They say that while oil companies were quick to raise gasoline prices when crude oil prices jumped following Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, it appears that the industry has been slow in bringing them back down.

"The day of the invasion, the day afterwards, we saw prices shoot right up... . Now that prices are back down again, it's taking its time coming down," said Rob Krebs, a spokesman for the American Automobile Association's Potomac branch, which tracks local gasoline prices. "Motorists are anxious for the price to come down. The {crude oil} price has been down a long time -- it's down $12 a barrel {from its peak levels in October} -- why aren't there concomitant declines in prices at the pump?"

But oil industry officials and analysts say the apparent tardiness in the gasoline price drop is something of an optical illusion because gasoline prices actually did not rise nearly as much as crude oil prices over the past 4 1/2 months. Pricing data from industry sources and independent calculations support that contention.

"The main reason {gasoline prices} are not dropping faster is that they didn't rise as fast," said Tom Burns, an economist for Chevron Corp., the San Francisco-based oil giant. "People haven't seen the decline, but they also haven't seen the corresponding rise when crude prices were on the upside."

The oil industry held down gasoline prices below crude-cost increases over the past 4 1/2 months because of market resistance to higher prices and fear of a political backlash, industry analysts say. As a result, while crude oil was up more than 50 cents a gallon from pre-invasion levels at its peak in October, gasoline prices never rose by more than about 30 cents a gallon, according to industry and independent statistics.

As crude prices have fallen, oil companies generally have held the line on gasoline prices, although most have cut their wholesale gasoline prices by a few cents since the beginning of December.

The price of high-quality crude oil for January delivery, the industry's benchmark price, closed at $27.86 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange yesterday -- almost $11 a barrel, or 27 cents a gallon, higher than the price when OPEC met to raise prices on July 3.

In the same period, according to AAA, the national average price of a gallon of self-service gasoline -- the most popular grade -- has risen to $1.371 from $1.084.

That's a 28-cent increase, but it includes the effects of the 5-cent rise in the federal gasoline tax and another penny or so average increase in state gasoline taxes over the past few months -- California and Virginia, for example, raised their state gas taxes a nickel a gallon on Aug. 1, exaggerating the first round of increases that resulted from the Iraqi crisis.

As a result, gasoline price increases continue to slightly trail the rise in the price of crude oil.

Oil industry critics, however, are not mollified by such explanations of why the price isn't dropping faster.

"As the price of world oil has dropped, they {the oil companies} have kept their prices up," Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) said last week. "Ironically, in a market where the world price is dropping, the extreme profiteering may be occurring."

The rise in gasoline prices in the Washington area has been somewhat greater than that nationally, according to AAA-Potomac, although local gas price increases trailed the national increase for several weeks in August and September.

The average price of a gallon of self-serve unleaded in the Washington area was $1.415 last week, according to AAA, about the same level it has been at for the past two months, but more than 33 cents above the price in early July.

Krebs, the local AAA spokesman, said the local price appears to be buoyed by heavy demand caused by unseasonably nice weather, switching by many motorists from high-priced premium grades to regular unleaded and the area's heavy holiday vacation and tourist traffic.

Regional variations in gasoline prices are not unusual.

Some industry officials and analysts suggest that in some cases, the decline in prices is not being entirely passed along to consumers by gasoline station owners and operators, who have cut their profit margins to the bone in recent months.

They may be taking advantage of the price decline to recover some of those margins. "To a degree, it may be that they are not coming down as fast at retail," said Neil Geary, a spokesman for Amoco Corp. in Chicago.

Wilson Beach, who operates a Chevron station on Marlboro Pike in District Heights, said he believes some local stations have delayed by a day or two passing some declines in wholesale costs along to their customers.

"I think some of the dealers are trying to hold back on cutting price," Beach said. "Some of them are trying to make back some of the lost profit that they've been losing since August, I feel."

Beach said he has kept margins steady, passing wholesale price declines directly along to customers.

Beach's station on Monday was selling unleaded regular for $1.319 a gallon, about 2 1/2 cents above his wholesale price.

In good times, retail margins usually are between 12 and 15 cents a gallon.