Soaring fuel prices have drivers running on empty.
The Automobile Club of Southern California said nearly 16,000 members a month are making one of those mildly embarrassing "stranded, need gasoline" emergency calls. That's up 13% from the year-earlier pace and represents the biggest jump since California motorists were paying a record average of $4.61 for a gallon of regular gasoline in July 2008.
"It's happening again to a lot of people," Automobile Club spokesman Jeff Spring said. "Our presumption is that these current high gasoline prices have a lot to do with it."
California's average Friday was $4.191 a gallon, according to AAA's daily nationwide survey of fuel retailers. Only Hawaii, with an average of $4.464 a gallon, has more expensive gasoline than California; the U.S. average was $3.815 a gallon Friday.
"When prices go up, people like to push it," said Jason Toews, co-founder of GasBuddy.com, a system of price-tracking websites. "If it is costing $50 or $75 or $100 to fill up, that is real money they don't want to part with."
Jonathan Spoer of Calabasas, who drives his 2001 GMC Yukon about 35,000 miles a year between work and religious outreach, said he has run out of gas twice in the last week. Spoer blamed a busy schedule, the Yukon's faulty fuel gauge and his propensity for driving past service stations he feels are gouging drivers.
"I try to stretch my dollar so much that sometimes it catches up with me," he said.
Experts advise against waiting too long to fill up because of engine and mechanical problems that can arise when there is too little fuel in the tank.
"As painful as trips to the gas station may be getting, letting your car regularly run on an almost-empty tank can cause even more wallet damage with expensive repairs," said Steve Mazor, manager of the Auto Club's research center.
Very low fuel could cause the electric fuel pump inside the tank to overheat, and "the cost to replace this one component alone can be $500 or more in parts and labor," he said. In addition, running a vehicle down to "E" on a regular basis may cause sediment in the bottom of the tank to clog the fuel pump pickup, the fuel filter or the fuel injectors.
Said Spring: "It's better to just buy some gas."