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Squeezing the most out of a gallon

As gas prices rise, clever drivers adopt new rules of the road.

By Staff Writer for The Christian Science Monitor / June 11, 2008

Easy driving: Al ‘Hobbit’ Walker employs special techniques to increase fuel economy in his Toyota Prius. The hybrid usually gets 40 m.p.g.; Mr. Walker can push 60.

Mark Clayton

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Franklin, Mass.

With gas prices soaring above $4 a gallon, grousing at the fill-up station is rising fast, too. But instead of complaining, America’s leading “hypermiler” advises simply “teaching your right foot” to behave.

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A former nuclear engineer, Wayne Gerdes is the nation’s foremost proponent of a radical shift in driving behavior away from the gun-it-and-go style to an approach he calls “hypermiling” aimed at saving fuel.

Once a voice in the wilderness, this hypermiling evangelist has recently found a receptive and apparently growing flock. To demonstrate his techniques, Mr. Gerdes recently drove 800 miles from Chicago to New York in a borrowed Toyota Prius hybrid burning just 8.9 gallons – or 71 miles per gallon, far better than the car’s fuel-rating.

Still, it’s not a system just for long trips, nor is owning a hybrid required, he says. Even in his eight-year-old Honda Accord, Mr. Gerdes can squeeze out 59 miles to the gallon, double its fuel-economy rating.

Doing so, however, involves deploying many subtle, as well as common-sense, changes to driving habits. They range from timing traffic lights and gliding on through rather than stopping to filling tires to the maximum level listed on the tire instead of what’s inside the vehicle’s door. On subtler points, Gerdes is equally adamant: park on the highest points of mall parking lots to use gravity more – nose out to avoid backing up.

“We’re finally starting to see a lot more people moderating their driving and going a little slower – and that’s nice,” he says. “But moderate isn’t enough when all this stuff is so easy. We can’t afford to ‘just drive’ anymore. We have to use the tools we know.”

Zen and the art of ‘no brakes’
Jack-rabbit starts are obviously out, he says. So is heavy braking. His new mantra is “DWB,” or “Drive Without Brakes,” which means driving almost as if you didn’t have them – gliding to stops instead of accelerating to them. Using momentum to sling-shot a vehicle through turns instead of braking first, then accelerating. Changing to synthetic oil, taking heavy junk out of the car’s trunk, and minimizing the use of air conditioning – which can cut mileage by 5 to 25 percent.

This last step may be hard for many. But it makes perfect sense to Gerdes, who began hypermiling as a patriotic gesture after 9/11 to help make the nation more energy secure. Even so, few were interested until gas prices climbed after hurricane Katrina.

Now with gas prices higher still, dollar-saving driving is the new incentive. To deal with that, 66 percent of Americans said they would change driving habits and 71 percent said they were thinking about buying a fuel-sipping vehicle, according to a recent CNN/Opinion Research poll.

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