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Careful driving, maintenance can cut gas costs

/ Source: The Associated Press

When David Champion is behind the wheel of a car, he accelerates slowly and brakes gingerly. He tries to drive, he says, as if there were a cup of coffee on the dashboard that would shower him with scalding liquid if he were overzealous with the accelerator or the brake.

The driving habits adopted by Champion, director of automobile testing for Consumer Reports, have as much to do with saving money as they do with safety.

“When you’re driving, your foot is connected to your wallet,” said Champion. “The faster you step down, the more money comes out of your wallet.”

With the price of gasoline hitting record levels, consumers would be well-advised to listen to Champion and other experts on ways to save fuel and hold down costs.

The U.S. government has beefed up its consumer site, www.fueleconomy.gov, with tips to help consumers drive more efficiently and keep their cars in good shape. In mid-May, the nonprofit Alliance to Save Energy will launch a national campaign aimed at helping consumers save hundreds of dollars through fuel-efficient driving and proper maintenance.

Kateri Callahan, president of the alliance, said many families are having trouble coping with rising gasoline prices, which have topped $3.60 a gallon in recent days, according to surveys by AAA and the Oil Price Information Service. Diesel prices have hit new records above $4.24 a gallon.

“When it comes to heating and cooling, people pay their utility bills only once a month or so,” Callahan said. “But with gas, you have to buy it every week, so the high prices are very much in your face. And people are exercised about it.”

The alliance’s campaign will offer dozens of tips for consumers to cut gas consumption.

The centerpiece will be a calculator at the Web site www.DriveSmarterChallenge.org that will allow consumers to plug in the type of car they drive and determine how much money six different changes in driving or maintenance activities will save them, Callahan said.

Here, for example, is what a family that drives 12,500 miles per year in a vehicle with a fuel economy of 20.1 miles per gallon could save in the six specific areas:

  • Keeping tires properly inflated, which can improve gas mileage by about 3 percent, for a savings of 20 gallons of gas a year, or up to $65.
  • Using the manufacturer’s recommended grade of motor oil, for a gain of 1 percent to 2 percent and annual savings of $40.
  • Cutting the number of miles traveled by 5 percent through combining trips, walking or taking mass transit, for $100.
  • Eliminating jackrabbit starts, speeding and rapid braking at highway speeds for as much as 80 gallons a year, or $260.
  • More-sensible driving around town for about 30 gallons, or $100.
  • Clearing 100 pounds of junk from the trunk to save 12 gallons, or $40.

People who take all those steps could potentially cut their gas costs by $605 a year.

Callahan said the savings for each activity “can be eye-opening.” She pointed out that “$65 is a week’s worth of gas for some families, and $100 is more than a week’s worth of groceries.”

Consumer Reports’ Champion said that while learning to drive smoothly can save a lot on gas, there are other steps consumers can take to improve fuel efficiency. Just slowing down from 75 miles per hour to 70 mph can significantly improve gas mileage, he said.

“Basically, the faster you drive, the amount of fuel you use increases exponentially,” Champion said. “So 80 uses much more than 75, and 75 uses much more than 70. You want to aim for 55; that’s the sweet spot.”

Champion also suggests consumers opt for lower-grade gasolines.

“Often there’s a sticker (inside a vehicle) that says ’premium gas recommended.’ But if you read the owner’s manual, it will say that’s recommended but the vehicle will run fine on regular fuel,” he said.

It’s worth a try, he added, since it can cut costs by at least 20 cents a gallon or more. And if the engine starts to ping, you can always go back to premium fuel, he said.

Champion also suggests drivers not leave their cars idling for long periods, burning unnecessary gas.

“If you’re going to be waiting more than 30 seconds, turn the engine off,” he said.

That doesn’t apply to waiting at a traffic light, he added, because “if something happens in front of you, or an ambulance comes up behind you, you may have to move quickly, and turning off the engine could be a danger.”

And while Champion advocates shopping around for the best gas price, he doesn’t advise long jaunts.

“Driving around and using $10 worth of gas to save a penny a gallon doesn’t make much sense,” he concluded.

Consumer Report’s fuel-saving tips can be found at www.consumerreports.org/fuel.