That pang you felt Thursday morning was the average price of gasoline passing the dreaded $3-a-gallon mark at California's service stations.
Or maybe it was gas-price records being broken in five Southern and Central California regions, according to AAA. And the pump pain will only get worse by the official start of the summer driving season, fuel experts said.
Throughout Southern California, the sudden price hike was met with a mixture of anger and disbelief as some motorists drove past station after station, hoping that the last prices they saw were just an anomaly. They weren't.
Lomita resident Jason Holmes, 50, was one of those gasoline nomads Thursday as the gauge on his 2005 Ford Expedition crept closer to "E."
"I saw $3.15, $3.14, $3.09. My eyes went huge. You could say I'm kind of perturbed," said Holmes, who bought his sport utility vehicle in December.
California's average cost for self-serve regular-grade gasoline rose to $3.015 a gallon Thursday. The state average was up 3 cents from Wednesday and 34.2 cents from a month ago but fell short of the record $3.054 a gallon set Sept. 9 in the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, AAA said in its daily price report. The U.S. average was $2.825 a gallon Thursday, a 2.4-cent increase from Wednesday.
In Los Angeles County, the average gas price hit $3.029 on Thursday, eclipsing the record of $3.004 set a day earlier. The Wednesday price was the highest since the $2.999 a gallon recorded over the Labor Day weekend.
New highs also were reached Thursday in Orange County ($2.999 a gallon), the Santa Barbara area ($3.116), Ventura County ($3.019) and Riverside-San Bernardino ($3.053).
Odalys Robles said she steered clear of a Santa Monica station selling regular for $2.999 a gallon, only to be shocked by a $3.099 price at a Chevron station next to the Santa Monica Freeway. The next price she saw was even worse: $3.129 at a Shell station around the corner. Unable to find the $2.999 station again, she settled for the Chevron.
"I'm not happy," the 23-year-old dental office assistant said as she filled her red 2003 Dodge Neon.
Measuring the price of gasoline is a popular exercise these days. The Energy Department, private newsletters and websites provide different averages released at different intervals using different methodologies.
AAA's gasoline numbers are derived from a national database gathered by the Oil Price Information Service, an energy research operation in Lakewood, N.J. In California, the company comes up with a daily average price using credit card transactions and dealer surveys from about 2,500 gas stations, supermarkets and convenience stores.
All the surveys agree that gasoline prices are rising fast. Experts blame such factors as record oil prices, refinery maintenance and a sudden industry shift to the gasoline additive ethanol from MTBE, or methyl tertiary butyl ether.
But consumer advocates contend that the industry is profiteering. In a report issued Tuesday, the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights said that gasoline in Washington state, which isn't made with ethanol, has been rising at the same pace as in California. Refiners have denied they are profiteering.
Although it may provide little comfort at the pump now, experts said that the prices eventually would fall.
Paul Gonzales, a spokesman for the Automobile Club of Southern California, said fuel costs should peak between Mother's Day and the Memorial Day weekend, when the transition away from MTBE is completed and more refineries are back in full operation.
"We will be awash in gasoline," Gonzales said.
But Holmes, a benefits coordinator for the United Auto Workers who decided to buy his Expedition even at the risk of another round of high gas prices, said changes might be in order.
Lately he has been driving an aging Ford Aerostar that the Expedition was supposed to replace. The Aerostar gets better mileage despite the 258,000 miles on its odometer.
One of his three daughters has another idea.
"She thinks it's time for me to fix my bicycle," Holmes said.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Average gasoline prices nationwide and in California are pushing closer to new highs and have broken records in several parts of the state. The average price per gallon for self-serve regular Thursday:
* Los Angeles County: $3.029*
* Oakland: $2.978
* Orange County: $2.999*
* Riverside-San Bernardino: $3.053*
* Sacramento: $2.897
* San Diego: $3.044
* San Francisco: $3.025
* Santa Barbara area: $3.116*
* Ventura County: $3.019*
*Indicates a record price