Beth Berry dashes into the house from work with just enough time to change into shorts and sneakers before loading her 1999 Chevrolet Venture minivan with her two kids, two neighborhood children and their sports gear.
Pulling out of her driveway at exactly 5 p.m., she stops to pick up another child before making the nearly 30-minute trek south from her Silver Run community near the Pennsylvania line to a soccer practice in Westminster.
"We have an average of four practices a week, then games on Saturdays and Sundays," said Berry, who teaches health and physical education at Spring Garden Elementary in Hampstead. "Lately, we are carpooling more ... and driving the [2002 Chevrolet] Silverado less and less."
With the price of gasoline hovering around $3 and no alternative transportation in the suburban county, families such as the Berrys are finding ways to balance commitments to their children's recreational activities with the need to be practical. To fend off higher prices at the gas pump, some have stopped driving their SUVs and trucks.
Linda Rogness of Eldersburg, who has three children who play sports, said her family avoids using its 1994 Chevrolet Suburban. Instead, the Rognesses are relying on the family's smaller cars, a 1996 Acura 3.2, for driving the kids to games and practices and a used Toyota Corolla they recently bought for $5,000 to get her husband to his office in Elkridge.
"We take [the Suburban] out once a week to keep it going," said Rogness, who misses being able to load up the truck with her children's friends and sports equipment. "But we can't afford to fill it up now. It's a gas hog, so it's just sitting on the driveway."
Carpools for thrift
For many families, oversized trucks, vans and SUVs had become a staple for shuttling their kids to practices and games as well as carting sports equipment. But some of them, like the Berrys, are spending less time behind the wheels of the larger vehicles and more time in carpools.
Between Berry's two children, they play six sports during the school year. For Mickaela, 12, the lineup includes soccer, volleyball and then softball. For Joey, 9, it's fall baseball, basketball and then lacrosse.
"We're all wondering when it's going to get to the point where we feel the pinch," Berry said as she watched her daughter's soccer team practice for the Westminster Soccer Association earlier this week at Friendship Valley Elementary. "If anything, we'd probably get a smaller car before we'd cut back on practices."
But a smaller car isn't an option for the team's coach, Dave Maka -- who has a 45-mile commute to practice from Glen Burnie -- because he said he couldn't fit his two sons and all the equipment he carries into a compact car. Instead, he drives a 2003 Honda CRV, which has been averaging 25 miles to the gallon.
"It's one of the better SUVs as far as gas mileage goes," said Maka, who drives to Westminster, where his sons live with their mother, about five times a week for practices, games and coaches' meetings. His son, Nick, 16, a junior at Westminster High, plays lacrosse for the high school. Joe, 12, a seventh-grader at West Middle, plays on his dad's soccer team.
"Gas prices haven't stopped me," said Maka, a physical education teacher at West Meade Elementary on the grounds of Fort Meade. "But I'm driving slower, driving without air conditioning and trying to conserve in other ways."
He said he might reduce the soccer team's practice schedule if gas prices stay around $3 much longer. The average price for unleaded regular in the Baltimore region earlier this week stood at $3.20 a gallon, according to the American Automobile Association.
SUV sales fall off
Carmakers have seen sales of SUVs softening because of gas prices. A recent survey by Kelley Blue Book, which tracks car prices and market trends, showed that consumers are more interested in fuel-efficient vehicles than at any time in the past two decades.
For the Berrys, carpooling -- something Berry acknowledges hadn't been much of a priority in years past -- has been a valuable alternative.
Berry, whose 25-mile commute to work takes about 45 minutes each morning, has found carpooling helps keep down the fuel costs. Her husband, Tom, a technology education teacher at West Middle School in Westminster, would like to see her driving even less.
"I like to go to the health club [in Westminster] while the kids are practicing, but he would like for me to stay closer to home on days when I'm not responsible for the carpool," said Berry, who drives the carpool for Mickaela's soccer team on Mondays. "We haven't had to rebudget yet, but my husband was ready to buy me a Honda Civic. ... He's a lot more conservation-minded than I am."
She said her Chevy Venture gets about 20 miles per gallon, something she wasn't even paying attention to until gas prices shot up.