Washington area motorists scouted gasoline stations, rearranged travel plans and thought more and more about energy conservation yesterday as the vast majority of service stations shut down for the day.

The situation is expected to improve today as most gasoline stations reopen for business, but most service station dealers said they hope they won't see many more of the "panicky" motorists they encountered this weekend.

"People get really upset," said Islena Jones, as she sat inside her cashier's glass booth at a Southeast Exxon station. "People have tried to bribe me to get gas, and they tell me all kinds of stories to try to get me to give them more than the $2 limit."

The station where Jones works was one of the few open yesterday throughout the area, and it attracted lines of motorists who said they genuinely had near-empty gas tanks and were just trying to get a little gasoline to tide them over until today.

Fears of a gasless Sunday began to build late last week after numerous service station operators announced they would shut down for the weekend in order to stretch their gasoline reserves between deliveries.

Long gas lines reminiscent of those during the 1973 Arab oil embargo began to from Friday afternoon as drivers filled up or "topped off" for the weekend. By Saturday, as more and more stations closed, unpleaded gasoline was unavailable at many stations and dealers were limiting their sales of regular gasoline.

Despite the rush on gasoline in the area, however, a spokesman for the American Automobile Association cautioned motorists not to overreact.

"I really must emphasize that we don't have the fuel shortage like we did during the embargo," said Glenn Lashley, of the AAA's District of Columbia office. "The stations are closed today as a result of the panic buying on Friday and Saturday."

Lashley said he expected most of the stations to be open today, but with long lines. He called the current crisis "a marketing shortage," and he said the stations "have to determine how many gallons to sell each day to spread out the sales to stay in business the entire month."

But for Alberta Soloman, the gasoline shortage seemed real enough - she ran out of it.

"I was trying to make it here, and I was coming from church," said the Northeast Washington resident as her car was pushed from the street near the Merit gasoline station at Sixth Street and Florida Avenue NE.

She had been waiting in line at the station for 20 minutes when she ran out of gas and had to be pushed up to the pumps by other motorists.

"I had decided to pick up some relatives on the way here, thinking that I would have enough gas," she said. "But as soon as I got here, the fuel light came on and before I knew it the car just shut off."

Although incidents like Soloman's were not isolated, there was no clear pattern yesterday of either the gasoline shortages or the reactions of motorists.

Virginia state police reported that traffic on Interstate 95 was heavier than normal yesterday afternoon, but traffic in the District and on the Beltway appeared to be lighter than usual for a Sunday. Rain swept the metropolitan area much of the day, and it was unclear how much the weather deterred prospective travelers rather than gasoline problems.

At the Barley Mow Restaurant on the waterfront in Southwest Washington, there were few of the customary brunch crowd. And on a Mother's Day, when the restaurant has a traditionally large clientele, some 60 persons canceled their reservations.

In addition, several rent-a-car firms reported using their own gasoline supplies to fill the tanks of cars driven here by customers who had rented them in other cities. And, the Call Carl automobile repair service stopped answering calls from stranded motorists on Saturday night because their tow trucks ran low on gas. A recorded telephone message said service would resume today.

"This has been bad all week, and I lose my patience with these guys," compalined John Wesley, a service station attendant, as he surveyed the long line at the Northeast service station where he works. "These people do all the dumb things - like wait to the last minute to get gas."

One of those who waited until the last minute was William Elliot. Then, when he needed it most, he could not find a service station open.

"I figured that I would be cool about it," he said Elliot, a sheeet metal worker who said his leisure van jerked twice, then came to a halt about two miles from Capital Centre. "I don't like to wait in lines anyway. I guess I figured wrong."

Prices for the gasoline varied widely, with a downtown Gulf station charging 85.9 cents for regular, 78.9 cents for unleaded.

Lashley, of the AAA, said he thought drivers were too panicky to be concerned about price.

"They are going to pull in and say 'fill it up,' no matter what the price," he said.

Many drivers, however, said they were only making very essential outings yesterday in hopes of conserving their fuel use. Additionally, a cab driver said he had curtailed his trips to Dulles Airport.

Some drivers have become almost predatory in their search for gasoline, according to James Heizer, executive secretary of the Virginia Gasoline Retailers Association.

"I had one dealer tell me last night that a small train of cars followed a transport truck to his station in Northern Virginia," Heizer said.

One anxious motorist at a Shell station in Prince George's County said his attitude was to get all the gas he could, while he could. "I'm not taking any chances," he said, filling up a 10-gallon gas can. "The minute you run out of gas, that's when you usually need your car the most."

Also contributing to this story were Washington Post Staff Writers Kenneth Bredemeier, Sharon Conway, Courtland Milloy and Martin weil . CAPTION: Picture 1, Cars wait in line for gasoline outside Merit station at Sixth Street and Florida Avenue NE. The few stations that were open in the area yesterday attracted long lines of motorists. Photos by Margaret Thomas - The Washington Post; Picture 2, Bernice Tuppince and daughter Jameise fill tank; Picture 3, An out-of-gas car is pushed to the pumps of Merit station at Sixth Street and Florida Avenue NE. By Margaret Thomas - The Washington Post