Gas pains. Pain at the pump. Driving distress. Motorists’ malaise.
Call it whatever you want, but rising gas prices -- and speculation they could hit record levels within a matter of weeks -- have a lot of people fuming, frustrated and wondering what to do.
First things first: The reasons behind the movement in gas prices are complex, sometimes interrelated, and sometimes unrelated. Blaming someone -- the president, Congress, the oil companies, the oil-producing nations -- may feel good for a moment, but it’s not putting money back in your pocket.
This is a case where you want to focus on what you can control. The obvious answer is either, a) drive less or, b) buy a more fuel-efficient car. One or both of those may be an option for you. But what if neither one is? All things being equal, how do you use less gas?
It turns out, the key is you, and how you drive.
Hey, Leadfoot -- lighten up!
Driving habits -- from the first thing you do when you get into the car to the last thing before you get out -- are so ingrained for most people that they may overlook this simple concept: The harder and more often you hit that gas pedal, the worse mileage you’re going to get.
I never really thought about it until we got a Toyota Prius, which has a dashboard display that shows how much of the gas and electric engines you’re using at any given time. The first time I drove it was like playing a video game, where I had to maintain highway speed with the lightest possible pressure on the gas pedal in order to achieve maximum miles per gallon. It was an eye opener.
Fortunately, there’s been much more scientific testing done in this area. A few years back, the experts at Edmunds.com tested a Land Rover and a Mustang and found accelerating more gently from green lights (and stopping more gradually for red lights -- taking your foot off the gas and coasting) reduced fuel consumption by 35 percent in the Land Rover and 27 percent in the Mustang.
Sticking to the speed limit can help you go farther on a tank. The government’s fuel economy website says gas mileage usually drops quickly once you exceed 60 mph. Assuming a per-gallon price of $3.48, speed-limit savings could be up to 23%, and up to 80 cents a gallon.
Cruise control isn’t just for long trips. Maintaining a constant speed whenever you’re on the highway can help you use less gas by cutting back on unnecessary speeding up and slowing down.
In Edmunds.com tests using a 60-mile driving route, setting the cruise control to 65 mph -- as opposed to the driver controlling the speed between 75 mph and 80 mph and making lane changes, with the accompanying acceleration and braking -- made a big difference, yielding average mileage improvements of 35 percent.
Remember, though, the one thing cruise control can’t do: hit the brakes! There’s no substitute for true awareness on the road, even if you take your foot off the gas pedal. So, the rule for cruise control is: set it, but don’t forget it.
How about tire pressure? Air conditioning? Extra pounds?
President Obama came in for some ridicule during the 2008 campaign for suggesting Americans keep their tires properly inflated as a way to save money on gas. Proper tire inflation is important for safety, and along with regular rotation it can extend the life of your tires by causing them to wear more evenly. But can it lead to big savings on gas? Edmunds.com testing found such claims to be ... well, a little inflated. Edmunds says proper tire inflation has only a small effect on mileage. But in combination with other regular maintenance like tune-ups, oil and filter changes, you could see a difference.
How about using the air conditioner versus rolling down the windows? Again, speed is a big factor here. Consumer Reports found a car’s air conditioner can reduce fuel efficiency by up to 10 percent. It recommends avoiding air conditioning at speeds below 40 mph for maximum fuel efficiency. But experts say once you pass 45 mph with the windows down, wind drag starts to become an issue and will harm fuel economy.
Extra weight can make a difference in fuel economy, and where that weight sits plays a big role. Edmunds found that putting a suitcase and cooler on the roof rack of a Buick Enclave -- adding not only weight but aerodynamic drag -- caused a 21 percent drop in gas mileage at 65 mph. (The roof rack by itself had a negligible effect, reducing mileage by two-tenths of a mile per gallon.) So, stowing those suitcases in the trunk or on the seats could save you some money.
Going to extremes
Excessive idling can burn fuel and cause wear on your engine. But is it worth turning your car off at every red light? Edmunds put it to the test, and found that shutting the car off if you’ll be idling for more than a minute can improve fuel economy up to 19 percent. You have to weigh the potential savings against wear on your car’s starter.
What about products or add-ons to your car that claim to save gas? You may see and hear more of these as gas prices rise. The Federal Trade Commission says be very careful here. While some have been found to work, the savings are small. And you may not be able to get your money back if you’re unhappy.
How about drafting? The idea is that by following closely behind a truck or other large vehicle, you reduce air drag on your car and increase fuel economy. Let’s call this what it is: tailgating. And doing so behind a large vehicle that might brake suddenly is dangerous, and likely not worth the small savings in fuel you might achieve.
In the end, it comes down to you and your driving habits. They can be hard to break, but if you’re willing to make a few small changes behind the wheel, you might find yourself making fewer trips to the gas station and keeping more money in your pocket.