By M. Alex Johnson Reporter
msnbc.com
updated 7/1/2008 8:11:47 PM ET 2008-07-02T00:11:47

Record high gas prices are drawing new attention, this time to the competitive tribe of drivers dedicated to squeezing every last mile out of a tank of fuel — and that hasn’t necessarily been a good thing.

With a lot of attention to detail and nearly infinite patience, these enterprising drivers aim to  boost their fuel mileage. On Web forums devoted to “hypermiling,” enthusiasts commonly claim mileage readings three and four times the Environmental Protection Agency ratings for their cars. Claims approaching 100 miles per gallon are not uncommon.

That kind of fuel efficiency is bound to capture the attention of everyday Americans shell-shocked by $4-a-gallon gas.

It’s a good idea, of course, to try to save on fuel. The problem comes when people who don’t know what they’re doing seize on what they think are the principles of hypermiling, leading them to adopt dangerous tactics, such as driving too slowly in traffic, tailgating larger vehicles or “drafting” (driving in another vehicle’s slipstream to reduce wind resistance) too closely, rolling through stop signs or making turns without using the brakes.

“The goals of hypermiling are positive, such as eliminating aggressive driving and saving energy,” said Marshall L. Doney, who coordinates driver safety programs as a vice president of AAA. “Unfortunately, some motorists have taken their desire to improve fuel economy to extremes with techniques that put themselves, as well as their fellow motorists, in danger.”

Not to mention creating a headache for serious, detail-obsessed hypermilers, who complain that they get unfairly blamed for encouraging rude and dangerous driving. In busy forums on sites like cleanmpg.com, hypermiling.com and hypermilers.com, dedicated hypermilers gripe about media characterizations of them as goofballs or unsafe extremists.

“Now that the general public keeps hearing this falsehood that hypermiling is all about drafting, a lot of idiots are going to start trying it — and we’re going to get the blame,” one enthusiast posted in a forum at cleanmpg.com. “If that keeps happening we’re in danger of becoming pariahs and setting our cause back years.”

The driver is in control
“Hypermiling” is a relatively new term, attributed to Wayne Gerdes, a nuclear engineer who is the guru of the movement. But in practice, it goes back to World War II, when conserving fuel was a matter of national survival.

Today, it’s a matter of economic survival. Gas prices keep rising, but revolutionary technologies to boost gas mileage always seem to be just a few more years away, and some drivers aren’t willing to wait that long.

“You can always affect your gas mileage by the way you drive,” said Kevin Roybal, director of coaching at MasterDrive, a national driver training company based in Englewood, Colo.

You can see a big difference, for example, by turning off your air conditioning, while making sure to keep your windows closed to reduce drag.

By rolling your windows down, “you’re creating an open hole on the side of the car, and the air flow will just accumulate in the vehicle,” said Steve Gehrlein, owner of Cambridge Automotive and host of a popular car-repair radio show in San Antonio, Texas.

Realistically, though, that idea won’t fly in the summer. It’s a lot easier to just slow down.

“If you’re driving about 55 to 60, 65 miles per hour at the max, that’s really the sweet spot for fuel economy,” said Jon Linkov, managing editor of automotive coverage for Consumer Reports.

How slow is too slow?
The good news is that most drivers already understand that speeding wastes gas. The bad news is that as urban legends about hypermiling proliferate, some motorists are going too far in the other direction.

Last month, Glenn Conrad was driving along Interstate 95 in the Maryland suburbs of Washington on his way to Baltimore/Washington International Airport. He was surprised when a Maryland State Police trooper pulled him over.

“Why were you driving 50 miles an hour back there on I-95?” the trooper asked, according to Conrad.

“I said: ‘I’m saving gas ... I’m getting 69 miles to the gallon right now,’” he said.

Conrad, a self-described hypermiler, said his Honda hybrid usually gets about 70 miles per gallon. Sometimes, he hits 80 or more.

The trooper, however, was more concerned with safety and issued Conrad a warning for driving 15 miles per hour under the posted speed limit. In Maryland, impeding traffic by driving slowly is prohibited.

“Speed limits aren’t just put there because the state decides what they want,” state police Sgt. Chris Davala said. “It’s because of fuel conservation and the safety of the other motorists and the motorists around you on the highways.”

AAA agrees: Driving too slowly is dangerous.

“The optimum speed for saving gas is probably 55 or a little above that right now, so the thought that you’re saving more gas by driving 50 or 45 on high-speed roads isn’t accurate,” said Lon Anderson, a spokesman for the Mid-Atlantic chapter of AAA. “And it’s very, very dangerous.”

Just as bad are drivers who tailgate big rigs, fueled by some obsessives’ intricate calculations of how much more efficiently their cars run when they putter along in the draft and don’t have to fight wind resistance.

Those calculations do show impressive gains in mileage. But safety experts, police and legitimate hypermilers agree that the boost isn’t worth the danger.

“Following a tractor-trailer too closely, you don’t have the ability to see beyond it as you would when following a passenger vehicle,” said Trooper William Tate, a spokesman for the Connecticut State Police. “You’re risking your life and the lives of motorists behind you.”

Cleanmpg.com — where Gerdes, the godfather of the hypermiling movement, is the administrator — warns that drafting is “both a dangerous and rare practice among hypermilers. It’s received a disproportionate amount of publicity in the media. Cleanmpg does not endorse drafting!”

Other techniques — exhaustively studied by enthusiasts in driving forums and on hypermiling Web sites, but dangerous when they leave the realm of theory for the open road — include:

  • Overinflating your tires. The idea here is that “if you overinflate your tire, you have even less tire surface on the road,” said Rolayne Fairclough, a spokeswoman for AAA of Utah. That reduces rolling resistance on the pavement and thus improves mileage. But it also “makes it more difficult to handle your vehicle, and it wears your tires out faster,” she said.
  • Turning off your engine at stops or coasting in neutral. “Any time that your engine is off or you’re out of gear, you have the loss of an ability to use the engine or the power to pull yourself out of a collision should something come up,” said Roybal, the Colorado driving instructor.
  • Rolling through stops. Speeding up and braking use power; the less you use the accelerator or the brake, the less fuel you burn. But Tate, the Connecticut trooper, said that besides being illegal everywhere, the practice is “extremely dangerous” — most accidents on secondary roads are caused by drivers who don’t obey stop signs or traffic lights.

The better idea, safety experts and police say, is to leave the quest for 100 miles per gallon to the experts. Stick to the tried and true mileage boosters: keep up with routine maintenance, ensure that your tires are properly inflated, keep unnecessary weight out of the car and drive at the posted speed limit.

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