Prices for gasoline have risen to the highest levels since 1981, although Washington-area prices are for the moment below the national average for the first time in decades, according to surveys of the American Automobile Association.

Area motorists last week were paying an average of just under $1.25 a gallon for self-serve, unleaded regular gasoline, compared to the national average of $1.29 a gallon, said Rob Krebs, director of public affairs for AAA's Potomac Region. However, gas prices here vary enormously, with the credit card price for full-serve premium gas selling for as much as $1.91 a gallon at one station here last week.

Until this summer, Washington-area gasoline prices were among the highest in the nation, sometimes running 14 cents a gallon above the national average. But prices here this past month have risen more slowly than in the rest of the nation, AAA officials said, making Washington prices suddenly the second lowest in the United States, except for the oil-rich state of Texas.

AMERICAN AUTOMOBILE ASSOCIATION SURVEY OF GAS PRICES ON LABOR DAY SINCE 1974

YEAR NATIONAL AVERAGE AREA AVERAGE NATIONAL AVERAGE

(LABOR DAY) PRICE SELF SERVE PRICE ALL GAS PRICE ALL GAS

UNLEADED REGULAR

1990....................$1.31..............*..................*

1989.....................1.06...........1.30...............1.21

1988.......................99...........1.20...............1.12

1987.....................1.00...........1.22...............1.12

1986.......................85...........1.06............... .92

1985.....................1.23...........1.35...............1.27

1984.....................1.18...........1.31...............1.23

1983.....................1.26...........1.40...............1.29

1982.....................1.30...........1.38...............1.32

1981.....................1.36...........1.42...............1.37

1980.....................1.26...........1.31...............1.25

1979.......................99.............99.................97

1978.......................**.............68.................68

1977.......................**.............69.................65

1976.......................**.............66.................63

1975.......................**............N/A.................62

1974.......................**............N/A.................56

*NOTE: Gas price surveys for 1990 have been only of self-serve, unleaded regular gasoline, the most widely bought gas. The average Washington area price for self-serve, unleaded regular over Labor Day weekend was just under $1.20 a gallon, compared to just over $1.30 a gallon nationally. The average price for all grades of gas would be significantly higher for both the Washington area and nationally.

**NOTE: Unleaded regular gasoline was not widely avaiable before 1979.

SOURCE: American Automobile Association.