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Gas prices crimping cruisers

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Teenagers J.C. Matthews, left, Slim Grisson and Josh Gould enjoy a Saturday night hangout in a parking lot in downtown Buford, Ga.

Teenagers J.C. Matthews, left, Slim Grisson and Josh Gould enjoy a Saturday night hangout in a parking lot in downtown Buford, Ga.

WA Harewood, Associated Press

BUFORD, Ga. — The American teen tradition of cruising is taking a back seat to today's record-high price for a gallon of gas.

With gas reaching a nationwide average of $2.06, young drivers are finding other ways to check out their wheels — and each other — rather than cruising "the strip" or "the loop."

Some are stopping in parking lots so they can turn off their engines to save fuel. Some car pool to meet up with friends. A few even admit they're staying home.

"I save the gas for work. I'll stay at home or ride with somebody else," said 17-year-old J.C. Matthews as he checked out a friend's parked Jeep Cherokee with monster wheels late on a Saturday night.

A popular stop for conserving cruisers in Buford, about 25 miles northeast of Atlanta, is the lot just off Interstate 985 about a mile from one of Georgia's busiest shopping centers, the Mall of Georgia. The park-and-ride lot, filled during weekdays with cars left by commuters who use the county's bus system, stays busy from 9 p.m. until the early morning hours.

Anslee Payne, 17, hitched a ride to the gathering point with 20-year-old friend Nakita Johnson.

"I couldn't afford to put gas in my truck," Payne said.

Gas could eventually become too expensive for even Johnson to drive her 2001 red Mercury Cougar the five miles from her home to the lot each night. Her limit: $3 a gallon.

"It's ridiculous," she said.

With his arm around Johnson, 22-year-old Sheffron Pollard said the cost of filling up hits the hardest when it cuts into his social life.

"It makes people not want to do what they want to do," he said.

For David Thompson, who operates a program in several states teaching young drivers how to avoid accidents, there's an up side to rising gas prices: The teens are not driving recklessly up and down streets.

"That is a good thing," said Thompson, a former automotive journalist and race car driver.

For some teens, though, the price of gas isn't a problem, said Cpl. Brody Staud of the Cobb County Police Department.

That's because their parents foot the bill.

"Most of these kids — Mom and Dad are paying for their fuel, so I don't know if it'll affect them or not," Staud said., referring to teen cruisers in his jurisdiction just northwest of Atlanta.

Talk of gas prices turned conversations at the parking lot from fuel and fast cars to more serious topics. Some blamed President Bush and the war in Iraq. Others said car companies need to make more affordable hybrids.

Driving up in his 2003 Dodge Neon, Justin Puckett said the high gas prices have forced him to change his weekend habits. Having a company vehicle for his job with a communications company helps, but he still has had to cut down on how much he puts into his personal car.

"I don't drive around like I used to," said Puckett, 23. Instead he and his friends "park and sit."

As gas prices rise, they see fewer and fewer friends even making the drive to the parking lot. On a normal weekend night, 200 cars would be here, some said; on a recent Saturday night, there were about 40 cars.