The folks at the NPR daily "Here and Now" invited me to join them on the air this week to talk about ways to cut fast-rising gasoline bills. I thought I'd share a few of the most effective ideas we discussed - and to debunk some others. The fact is, there are ways even the most cautious drivers in the most fuel-efficient cars can save just a little bit more. But be aware that some tricks don't work, and others can be downright dangerous.
One of the first - and most effective - ways to reduce fuel consumption starts by checking your tires. I've heard it said that as many as half of the vehicles on the road have underinflated tires, and that's a problem for a variety of reasons. For one thing, they'll wear out more quickly. With underinflated tires, you'll also have less control of your vehicle. And depending on just how low they are, you could be losing a significant amount of mileage, by some estimates 10 percent or more. So fill them up to the recommended pressure, which you'll find in the owner's manual and often on a sticker in the frame of the driver's door. While you may be tempted to overinflate them, don't. That could lead to tire failure.
Keeping your engine properly tuned is essential to maximizing fuel economy. A bad spark plug or dirty air filter can have a significant impact on mileage. Changing oil can also help, though, again, follow the manufacturer's recommendation. It doesn't do any good to change oil too often.
It's simple physics: The faster you go, the more energy you need to get there. The optimum speed for your vehicle will vary, often depending on how the manufacturer gears the transmission, though typically 60 to 65 mph is best. A recent report by AAA suggests that you'll wait the equivalent of about 20 cents per gallon for every 5 mph faster that you drive.
Try to maintain a steady feed. Every time you stomp on the accelerator, you're wasting fuel. Jackrabbit starts are bad, but don't race up to a light and then slam on the brake, either.
You may be tempted to use cruise control to maintain a steady speed, and in many conditions, that works. But if you're driving on hilly roads, cruise can actually make your engine work harder by downshifting and accelerating when you go uphill.
Plot out trips and chores ahead of time. I know from my own experience how easy it is to waste time - and fuel - by retracing my steps while running chores when I haven't planned things out. If you have an onboard or portable navigation system, see if it allows you to plug in multiple destinations and then sort them out for the most efficient route.
As I mentioned in a blog story earlier in the week, don't idle when you don't have to. In most circumstances, you'll likely save fuel if you shut your engine down when idling more than 30 to 60 seconds.
But don't do what some "hyper-milers" are doing. They'll shut their cars off at a stoplight - risking tying up traffic, even causing an accident - if they can't quickly start back up. Indeed, I was asked about some of the questionable tricks hyper-milers have been promoting. Some will even shut off their cars when coasting downhill. They risk locking up the steering wheel - or not having power if they suddenly need to accelerate out of harm's way.
One of the most bizarre tricks I've seen involves drafting your car barely a bumper's width behind a big truck. Yes, I know that works in NASCAR. But it's a deadly idea in real life. You'll find that out fast - and possibly fatally - if the truck slams hard on the brakes.
You, too, can be a more efficient driver, but there comes a point when you're trading fuel economy for safety. It's not a smart trade-off.