And now the good news from the nation's energy front: some satety experts believe the current gas drought may be slowing down the rate at which Americans are killing themselves on the highways.
For example, the traditional Independence Day highway carnage was somewhat smaller this year compared with past one-day July 4th traffic accident rates. This year there were 164 traffic deaths, compared with 194 on July 4, 1973, the last one-day celebration of the holiday.
Moreover, federal spot checks for May, when the effects of the current gas shortages began to be felt, indicate that the nation's roadway fatality rate bagan dropping for the first time in 14 months.
According to experts, the same pattern occurred during the 1973-74 gas crisis. "Right now, there are about 30,000 people out there who we figure owe their lives to the last gas shortage," said Carl Nash, an official of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
"With the constriction on the supplies of gas that are available now and the cutback in long-range recreational travel that seems to be taking place, heading downward again."
Traffic Trends, a weekly publication put out by the Federal Highway Administration, states that travel on several major routes such as the Ohio Turnpike, the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and the New York City tunnels has slumped measurably since the latest gas shortage began.
"We're beginning to see the same kind of traffic condition that you get during the winter months when the number of cars on the road drops and there aren't as many fatalities," said federal highway safety analyst Nancy Stubbs.
The latest set of tumbling traffic fatality statistics has led some safety analysts to a kind of on-the-other-hand approach to what is taking place. Illinois, which is just beginning to feel the fuel pinch, had a 6.8 percent increase in traffic fatalities last month compared with June 1978, according to Karsten Vieg, head of the state's division of traffic safety.
"I think that figure is a fluke, but we were mighty disappointed when we saw it," said Vieg. One reason for the increase, he speculated, was the sharp jump in pedestrian fatalites -- up from -- since the gas stortage hit.
Both New York and Massachusetts police officials said they were beginning to see a dropoff in what had been rapidly increasing auto fatality rates up to the time of the current gas shortage.
But New York State Police Lt. Jerry Darby said his office was watching another unpleasant side effect. "We think we're beginning to see a big jump in the number of motorcycle accidents," he said. Studies indicate that novice motorcycle riders are the most accident-prone, and sales of twowheeled vehicles have been booming recently, Darby noted.
Officials in Illinois said they are also watching to see if growing gas lines increase the accident rate by frustrating drivers, causing them to drive recklessly.
"It's a tricky science," said Jack Recht, an analyst for the Highway Safety Council in Chicago.
If more drivers switch to small cars, for instance, the fatality rate could go up, he said. On the other hand, small car owners are more likely to use seat belts, which would lower the death rate, he said.
"We don't know yet whether people will speed up because there are fewer cars on the road or slow down to save their gas supplies," said Recht. And if they forgo long trips, he predicted they could end up traveling more on state and local roads, where accident rates are higher than on isterstate highways.
"If the perception that there really is a gas crisis takes hold, the death rate should drop," Racht said. "Right now it's like an algerba equation. We're still fitting together all the numbers and looking for an accurateanswer." "