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A few simple driving tricks can save you money at the gas pump
A driver can get zero mpg when a car is idling. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

With gas prices edging toward $4 a gallon, many drivers wish they could trade in their gas guzzler for a more fuel-efficient vehicle. But often, that’s not a realistic option.

"Most people are holding onto the vehicles they have right now, because if they have one that’s not very fuel-efficient, they’re not going to be able to sell it," said Mike Healy, Atlanta metro manager for AAA Auto Club South.

But even if you own a Hummer, you can squeeze a little more fuel economy out of it by changing your driving behavior.

"Two people can drive the same car and get very different mileage out of it, depending on their technique," said Bryan Strickland, co-owner of North Georgia Driving Academy.

He and co-owner Stuart Millar are both driving instructors who teach classes at the Gainesville Civic Center. Their students are mostly teenagers who are learning to drive, and the emphasis has always been on safety.

But now they’re incorporating more messages about fuel economy into the curriculum.

"We’ve always told parents to buy (for their teen) the safest, most reliable vehicle they can afford," said Millar. "Now, we’ve sort of amended that by adding that they also need to consider fuel efficiency."

The instructors use basic Toyota Corollas as training cars, and through proper driving techniques they’re able to get about 38 miles per gallon — better than some hybrid vehicles.

Strickland said the core principle is "smooth and stable."

"Keep a steady, controlled speed, without sudden stops or starts," he said.

Millar said many students drive a car as if it were a go-cart. "They stomp on the accelerator, and they stomp on the brake," he said.

But having a heavy foot can be costly. "Every time you go down on the pedal, the fuel injector is shooting more fuel into the engine, like squirting liquid out of a syringe," Strickland said.

The best way to avoid having to accelerate is to avoid having to stop. Strickland said drivers should anticipate upcoming stops and take their foot off the accelerator well in advance, so the car slows down naturally. This also saves wear and tear on the brakes.

But worsening traffic congestion, in Hall County and throughout metro Atlanta, is making it more difficult for drivers to achieve good fuel efficiency. A car that sits idling gets zero miles per gallon.

In many cases, however, drivers can identify where the worst congestion tends to be and plan alternate routes.

"You may travel a longer distance, but you’re still using less fuel than you would if the car was just idling," Strickland said.

In situations where you know the car will have to idle for more than a minute, such as while you’re waiting for a train to pass or you’re stuck in gridlock due to a major accident up ahead, Strickland recommends turning the car off.

He said contrary to popular belief, it does not take more fuel to restart the engine than it would to keep idling.

Unfortunately, Atlanta drivers often face the worst combination of circumstances. Coming up through Gwinnett County on Interstate 85 at rush hour, for example, traffic usually slows to a crawl. There’s no way to avoid idling because the pace is stop-and-start, so turning off the engine is not an option.

Plus, when the car is sitting still, there’s no way for drivers to keep cool without running the air conditioning. And nothing is a bigger "fuel vampire."

"Running the air conditioner causes significant fuel loss, equivalent to about a quarter of a tank of gas," Millar said.

When the car is moving, drivers can try to cool off by partially rolling the windows down. This does create drag, which also cuts fuel efficiency, but Millar said it’s not as bad as using the air conditioner.

If people knew how much gas they were actually burning, they might be more willing to alter their driving habits. All hybrid cars, as well as some regular vehicles, now have an indicator on the dashboard that shows real-time fuel consumption. Once drivers see how their actions affect their mileage, improving the number becomes almost like a game to some.

In fact, the fuel crisis has spawned a new hobby call "hypermiling," in which obsessive drivers try to boost their miles per gallon by any means possible. Some have managed to achieve astonishingly high mileage, but not all of their tricks are safe or legal.

Take "drafting," a technique often used by race-car drivers. By following in the wake of an 18-wheeler truck, for instance, you could reduce wind resistance on your car, letting the truck "pull" you along.

But Millar said you should never attempt this. "Drafting behind a big truck can be deadly, because you have no visibility," he said. "You’re in the driver’s blind spot."

There are plenty of less dangerous ways to save fuel. Keep your tires inflated to reduce rolling resistance. Remove attachments such as bike racks to make the car more aerodynamic, and lighten the vehicle’s weight by taking unnecessary items out of the trunk.

Don’t idle unless you absolutely have to. When you go to the bank, pharmacy or burger joint, skip the drive-through; park the car and go inside.

And even on the coldest mornings, don’t go out and start the car 10 minutes early so it can "warm up." Strickland said no matter what the weather is like, a car needs only 30 seconds of idling in order to run properly.

When you’re driving on the freeway, he said, your most fuel-efficient speed is 55 mph. "If you’re going 85 mph, you’re probably using 20 to 30 percent more gas," Strickland said.

Adhering to the 55 mph standard can be tough, however, since most cars cruise the interstate at about 75 mph.

Healy said if other vehicles are riding up on your bumper, "get over in the far right lane and just let them pass you."

And forget about trying to pass every car in front of you. "Passing other cars burns a lot of fuel," Strickland said. "And it’s often unsafe, unnecessary and/or illegal."

But being fuel-efficient doesn’t mean you have to drive like a "little old lady." Instead of feeling embarrassed about driving at a moderate pace, Healy said people should concentrate on how much money they’re saving.

"Write down your mileage each time you fill up, so you can monitor your (miles per gallon)," he said.

Healy said most drivers just "guesstimate" how much gas their car is using, so they have no idea what their fuel efficiency actually is.

If you don’t know how to track your fuel usage, the federal Web site can show you how to calculate your mileage.

And remember, your driving habits are only part of the equation. A car that’s not running properly will still not get good gas mileage, so it’s important to replace parts, such as dirty air filters, that force the engine to work harder.

"A lot of people are trying to stretch pennies these days, so they’re skipping regular maintenance," Healy said. "But they’re missing out on things that could improve their fuel efficiency."