Fuel costs pinch roadside rescue man

Thomas Weller, who has volunteered to rescue stranded motorists since 1966, recently cut back on the number of runs he makes due to high gas prices.

Brent Foster/L.A. Times
'The highwayman': Thomas Weller of San Diego helped a stranded motorist in July during one of his freeway rounds. He's volunteered to rescue people since 1966.

Christin Ernst was in a fix. An errant screwdriver punctured her tire on a San Diego freeway, leaving her stranded.

That's when Thomas Weller – also known as the San Diego Highwayman – arrived in his monstrous white search-and-rescue vehicle, complete with emergency lights flashing. A surprised Ms. Ernst watched as Mr. Weller slapped on her spare and inflated it.

She was fortunate. Because of wallet-busting fuel prices, Weller has had to cut back his good Samaritan runs to once every three days. Weighing more than 5,600 pounds, Weller's aging rescue rig is a world-class gas-guzzler.

"I sit home on the front porch a lot," he said. "It's killing me."

Weller isn't alone. High gas prices are forcing potential do-gooders of all kinds to stay home.

Meals on Wheels and other services that depend on volunteer drivers have had to scale back. In a June survey of US groups that serve the elderly, more than 70 percent said fuel costs had made it harder to recruit and retain volunteers.

For a while, Weller had a benefactor. An Auto Trader executive saw a television report about his good deeds and paid his fuel bills from April 2002 until budget cutbacks ended the deal.

"The best time of my career of doing this was the 17 months that I didn't have to worry about the expense," Weller said.

He started his volunteer highway rounds in 1966. Now 60, Weller figures he has helped more than 6,000 motorists.

"It's what I do for excitement," said Weller, who was vague about what his avocation costs.

Weller's usual companion is Shela, a black-and-white mix of Labrador retriever and smooth collie. Weller describes her as "a person in a fur suit."

Riding in the back of Weller's vehicle is a no-go. Instead of seats, there's an assortment of things one might need to help a motorist in a jam: an electronic ignition, mechanic's tool kit, hacksaw, crowbar, fire-resistant overalls, and a yellow hard hat emblazoned with "San Diego Highwayman."

Mostly, he helps people whose vehicles are out of gas, or have a flat tire or overheated engine. For those, he carries gas, water, compressed air, and jacks capable of lifting an ambulance or a low-rider.

To make a living, he has been a roofer, car repair manager, tire repairman, and security guard. These days, he fixes cars for a select group of regular customers. He says it provides enough money for his modest lifestyle and, until gas prices went up, also covered his Samaritan drives.

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