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Harnessing the Gas Hog

May 17, 1996|JULIE TAMAKI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Rising gas prices may end up invalidating the old saw that nobody walks in Los Angeles.

Finding ways to save a little money at the pump these days has probably triggered all sorts of desperation measures among car-obsessed Southern Californians.

But let's face it--trying to get around on foot in a county more than three times the size of Rhode Island is not always a realistic option.

So just how exactly are we going to cope with rising gas prices without hitting the pavement?

Rest assured, you can probably reduce the amount of fuel your car consumes, but for those of you who have a tendency to put the pedal to the metal, they won't be easy.

It's called common sense driving, and although it may sound reasonable enough, it will probably force a good many of you to break nasty habits and acquire a new level of patience.

You scoff at the notion?

The choice is yours: Change the way you drive and save money on gas and wear and tear on your car. Or continue to drive like a maniac--or just, let us say, with brio--and wind up a lot poorer.

For those of you who choose the former, you can embark on your new life as a sensible driver by checking your tire pressure.

Under-inflated tires cause a drag on your car and reduce fuel economy up to 2% for each pound of tire pressure below the recommended level, according to Jeffrey Spring, a spokesman for the Automobile Club of Southern California. Even driving with just slightly under-inflated tires can burn up $2 to $4 worth of gas per tank.

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Another money-saving tip is to use the right type of fuel for your car.

"One of the things that surprises me the most is when I pull into a gas station and watch people pump a higher grade of gasoline than is necessary," Spring said.

Motorists end up paying an average of 17 cents per gallon more by using premium instead of regular unleaded in cars that can make no use of the more expensive higher octane.

Although luxury and sports cars are often built to run well only on premium gas, most cars do just as well on the less-expensive regular unleaded, identified at the pump by the 87 octane sticker.

If you're uncertain, simply consult your owner's manual to find the recommended gasoline for your car's engine.

Once out on the road, give yourself plenty of time to get to where you want to go. Not being in a hurry will help you avoid a laundry list of bad driving habits.

For starters, cool it with the "jack-rabbit" starts. Blasting away from the red light or up the freeway on-ramp may be soul-stirring, but it sucks up gas. Back in the 1940s, there were actually cross-country mileage competitions for drivers. The philosophy the winners followed is as valid now as when Harry Truman was president--accelerate slowly and brake softly, depressing the gas pedal the minimum needed to reach cruising speed.

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You should also avoid changing lanes and speeding, both of which require you to accelerate and use gas. Instead, follow the speed limit and stay in the same lane until it's time for you to get off the freeway, said Dwight McDonald, a spokesman for the California Highway Patrol office in Woodland Hills.

Next, defy the all too natural urge to tailgate.

"Allow a little more distance so that you're not always braking and accelerating," McDonald said. "People are going to cut in front and that will make you want to hit the roof, but keeping your distance is the big key."

Combining several errands in one trip and packing lightly when you travel also conserves fuel as does using your car's air conditioning only when absolutely necessary. Heating the car is free. You're just diverting engine heat into the car that would otherwise go into the atmosphere. But air conditioners require power to operate, and they get it by increasing the load on your engine.

An added tip: If you're shopping for a new car, think about buying a light-colored vehicle. They don't soak up the sun's heat like darker-colored models, which require more air conditioning and thus burn more fuel.

One last suggestion: Avoid idling for more than a minute. Idling can consume up to a gallon of gas per hour and wastes more fuel than restarting the engine, Spring said.

Following these tips will conserve gasoline throughout the year, not just during times of skyrocketing prices. Although they may take willpower, they can also help avoid unnecessary wear on your car and even reduce the risk of accidents.

"Don't exceed the speed limit, stop at all signals and you probably won't see the Highway Patrol and you'll save gas," McDonald said.

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