GRAPEVINE, Texas (Reuters) - Denise Blackerby is hitting the road again. When retail gas prices scaled historic peaks above $4 a gallon last year, she found she could no longer make monthly trips from the Dallas area to Houston in her Ford Explorer SUV to visit her family.
"When gas was $4 a gallon, I didn't go anywhere. Now it's all good," Blackerby, who is 44 and works in the information technology industry, told Reuters as she bought soft drinks at a Shell gas station in Grapevine, a town near Fort Worth.
With U.S. pump prices now averaging below $2 a gallon, she's making those regular Houston trips again.
As gasoline prices surged to record highs last year, drivers in the world's top energy consumer cut fuel use at the greatest pace since 1983.
For U.S. consumers pinched by the economic crisis, falling gasoline prices have created what some analysts call a sort of "stimulus package" that has pumped billions of dollars in disposable income back into their wallets.
The modest increase in demand comes as average U.S. gasoline prices run at about $1.93 a gallon, down $1.23 from a year ago and about half the price of last July, according to government data issued this week.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration said Wednesday that demand for motor fuel over the four weeks to February 27 hit 9.03 million barrels per day, up 2.2 percent from a year ago, as the price drop rekindled Americans' famous love affair with their cars and the road.
Struggling U.S. car makers may see a glimmer of hope in evidence that Americans are taking to the highways again.
In Grapevine, Shell service station owner David Oatman said he reckoned his business was up about four percent this year on what it normally would be.
Retirees Bob and Debbie Smith, who live on the road year round in a recreational vehicle and are currently in Georgia, will certainly be putting more rubber to the pavement this year.
When fuel prices peaked around $4 a gallon, they limited their journeys, although now they see no obstacles.
"Last year we, in the spring time, we thought of driving back home to West Virginia from Kentucky. It's about a thousand miles, but we didn't because fuel was so expensive ... It would probably have been $800 in fuel," Debbie Smith said of the cost of filling with diesel the 75-gallon tank of their 2006 Monaco Dynasty RV with diesel.
"This year, with the fuel prices, we're hoping to get up there in June to visit family," she said in a telephone interview. "We don't have to watch where we travel, we can just go ahead."
In Little Rock, Arkansas, Kristy Evans, 41, who was recently laid off as a pharmaceutical sales representative, said she was relieved at the lower price as she filled up her Dodge SUV at $1.899 per gallon.
"It's better now because it used to cost me $60 to fill up. Now it's $38," she said. But costs remained a concern to her.
"I have two school-aged kids and there's a lot of mom-driving, school events and after-school sports and things like that. I'm on the road all the time, even though I'm not working. It adds up."
Other Americans said they remained cautious after forking out to fill up last year. U.S. gas prices remain low compared to most developed countries but the American lifestyle has long run on cheap gasoline.
Residents of Atlanta and other cities in the Southeast are particularly sensitive to fluctuations in gas prices, which hit $4.75 a gallon last September after hurricanes disrupted oil operations along the Gulf Coast.
"The high price (last year) has had the major impact and it still has some effects because people know prices could go up again," said Ben Hoffman, an Atlanta resident. "Now there is an incentive to conserve."
Hoffman said planning for a long road trip later in the year would still go ahead but he was conscious of the amount of trips he did around Atlanta, a city crisscrossed with highways in which owning a car is considered essential.
Additional reporting by Tim Gaynor in Phoenix, Matthew Bigg in Atlanta and Steve Barnes in Little Rock; Editing by John Picinich