The Washington Times - November 10, 2008, 07:06AM

In October of 1973 the Arab oil-exporting countries jointly engaged to embargo shipments to the West. They didn’t cut out oil exports entirely. Instead, they dropped the shipments by about 10%, causing major disruptions in Europe and the US. The disruptions were enormous here in the US, causing long gas lines, rationing and higher pump prices.

So why did a relatively small reduction in oil imports cause such disruptions? Well, later analysis of the situation revealed that people filled their tanks. Huh? That’s right, people filled their tanks, and the effect of that change in habit took nearly four months to correct. You see, prior to the embargo the average amount of gas in a person’s tank was only 3/8ths. People didn’t keep their tanks full and hadn’t done so since World War II. Gas was plentiful and filling stations were everywhere.


When the embargo created initial shortages those who finally got to the pumps bought as much as their cars could hold, and that collective demand for fuel created its own, longer-term shortage.  Granted, prices rose as well but not enough to cause people to buy less. Complicating everything was the lack of consistency on the part of the states. Instead of coordinating rationing procedures, each state came up with its own system. It was a mess.

I remember a trip from Washington DC to Vermont during the Christmas holidays in 1973. We went skiing, or so we thought, and the drive up I 95 was an adventure in itself. In Maryland we couldn’t get gas at all because their rationing utilized odd-even license plates and we had the wrong number for that day. In New Jersey the rationing process limited purchases to $3.00, which in those days meant about 6 gallons (it seemed like a lot of money at the time).

It took about 12 hours to get to Vermont during that trip, thanks to frequent stops for limited amounts of gas and slow going on the snowy roads, not to mention the 14 mpg that our Ford Torino wagon yielded. The skiing was not to be after all, because it started raining right after we arrived and never stopped. Oh well, at least we had our girlfriends with us…

Those of us who lived through the embargoes of ‘73 and ‘79 never forgot them, not because they were so traumatic but because they were so uncomfortable. Before that time we had lived in a land of plenty and were too young to have experienced the shortages of the War. Since then things have been pretty consistent here in the US and there are a few new generations that have never experienced any stresses whatsoever. That too has ended, thanks to the current economic breakdown.

We’ve all become accustomed to having anything we want when we want it, but that’s over for the time being. We will have to adjust to the new limitations but adjust we will. Those new, rather spoiled generations will have plenty to remember when they look back on these days, but they too will realize that it wasn’t as bad as it seemed at the time.