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Saving Money at the Pump: Political Pandering vs. Driving Habits

By Kenneth Barbalace
[Saturday, May 03, 2008]

Fuel tax breaks are nothing but election year pandering

Politicians are nothing if not creative when it comes to political pandering without bringing real relief. The latest proposals to cut fuel taxes during this summer (e.g. before the election) is just such example. The claim is that this will save Americans eighteen cents per gallon or $3.60 per 20 gallon tank of gas. This makes for great sound bites, but things are not that simple.

The $0.18 per gallon tax on fuel goes toward paving roads and repairing bridges (e.g. the I-35W bridge over the Mississippi that collapsed in Minnesota). Unless the money lost from suspending fuel taxes is replaced from another source there will not be money to carry out necessary road repairs and tens to hundreds of thousands of workers who repair U.S. highways and bridges will be out of work. Any failure to repair roads will lead to increased maintenance expense for cars and trucks due to the damage bad roads do to vehicles (e.g. potholes wrecking the wheel alignment, tires and suspensions).

There is a proposal to replace the fuel tax money with a windfall profits tax on the big oil companies (everyone's favorite public enemy #1). The thing is, however, this isn't going to happen. With an upcoming election, Congress will be more than eager to show it is helping the American consumer by reducing fuel taxes at the pump, however, industry lobbyists and key congressional leaders will make sure the windfall profit tax never happen and there still wouldn't be much needed funds for highway repairs.

The reduced fuel price fallacy

It is a fallacy that lowering fuel taxes will actually lower prices at the pump. Fuel prices are controlled by supply and demand. When supplies are tight, and demand is high like during the summer driving months, fuel prices keep climbing until they reach a point where supply and demand reach a balance point. Removing the fuel tax will temporarily lower fuel prices, but this will in turn increase demand and the price of fuel will quickly increase to absorb the savings from eliminating the taxes. As a result, over the course of the summer the tax "holiday" will do very little to nothing to actually reduce the cost of fuel for consumers and truckers. The fuel tax cut could even end up driving up the cost of fuel that is not taxed to fund highway repairs (e.g. heating fuel, industrial uses, farm tractors and other vehicles that do not go on public roads).

Changing the way you drive is the best way to save money at the pump

The reality is, only your habits can save you money at the pump. If you can't reduce the amount you drive or can't replace your vehicle with a more fuel efficient model, the best way to save money at the pump is to change the way you drive. With good vehicle maintenance and good driving habits a car with a 20 gallon gas tank might be able to go an extra 30-40 miles or more between fill ups. One example of this is the difference in the way my wife and I drive. Consistently I can average 4-5 miles per gallon better fuel economy than she does driving the same car under very similar conditions. We drive a 2006 Hyundai Elantra, which is rated at 34 mpg highway. With highway driving, she typically gets 32-34 mpg, while I can get 36-40 mpg for the same driving conditions.

Drive smoother, not just slower

Getting better fuel economy isn't just driving slower; it also requires driving smoother and predicting driving conditions well in advance. The goal should be to keep an even pressure on the gas peddle and to avoid having to frequently let off the gas to slow down and then press harder on the gas to speed back up. You also want to avoid putting yourself in a position where you need to tap or press on the brakes, especially at highway speeds. Every time you have to tap the brakes, you are turning forward motion, which you burned fuel to achieve into wasted heat energy.

Don't tailgate

One of the best ways to smooth out your driving is increasing the following distance from the vehicle in front of you. While vast majority of drivers drive way too close to each other from a safety standpoint, this close driving also lowers fuel efficiency. The closer you drive to another vehicle, the more often you have to switch between tapping the brakes and pressing the gas peddle, this wastes fuel. When you increase your following distance, you are able to smooth out your driving and simply let off the gas without touching the brakes to accommodate changes in speed from the driver in front of you. If you find you frequently have to touch your brakes because of the vehicles in front of you, you are driving too close and wasting fuel.

One trick I find particularly effective to smoothing out my driving on freeways is to drive slightly slower than the rest of the flow of traffic when the rest of traffic is exceeding the speed limits (which it usually does). What this does is always keep vehicles moving away from you so you don't have to slow down as often for vehicles in front of you. Slowing down to something closer to the posted speed not only reduces the risk of a speeding ticket, but also actually saves fuel. For instance our car gets the best fuel economy on highway driving where driving speeds are around 50 mph. The faster I go above this speed, the fewer miles per gallon I get. I used to try to keep my speeds to no more than 70mph on a 65mph posted road, but with the higher fuel prices I'm finding traffic is slowing down and I can more comfortably drive closer to 65 mph without impeding traffic behind me or having as many vehicles whizzing by me.

Hilly terrain, bleed your speed

Highway driving in hilly terrain is another opportunity for saving fuel. Typically people try to keep an even driving speed up and down hills, which requires pressing harder on the gas up hill and riding the brakes down hill to maintain a safe and presumably legal speed. This wastes fuel up hill and opportunity down hill. If you maintain an even pressure on the gas peddle up a hill and allow some speed to bleed off near the crest of the hill you will have used less fuel to crest the hill and will have a wider margin of speed you can increase going down the other side before you have to touch the brakes. This habit has to be moderated by other considerations like how many cars are behind you and how long/steep the hill is, but it can be a useful way to save gas. Also when driving in hilly terrain, don't use your cruise control as they tend to waste a lot of fuel in these conditions because they are designed to keep an even speed and thus push too hard up the hills and (depending on their design) can ride the brakes down hill.

City driving, don't race to the stop

City driving is another place where there is lots of room for saving fuel. All too often, drivers (my wife included) keep their foot on the gas almost all the way to a traffic light and then hit the brakes to slow down at the last moment. Again having to hit the brakes (especially at speed) is an indication of wasted energy. Look two or three blocks of where you are driving and watch what traffic lights are doing. If the light a block away just turned red, let off the gas well in advance of the intersection and let the car slow down on its own. If your timing is right, you might get to the intersection just as traffic starts to move again and thus not only will you avoid wasting energy by pressing the brakes, but you might not have to waste energy by having to start moving from a complete stop.

In many cities, traffic lights are timed and if you figure out the optimal driving speed for a stretch of traffic lights you can time your arrival at each light to when they are green and traffic in front of you has started moving again. This can help you totally avoid having to come to a complete stop at intersections and can save a tremendous amount of fuel. The best things about learning to predict traffic lights and adjusting your speed accordingly is that you spend less time at a standing stop and when done right, it doesn't increase your total driving time.

When you do come to a complete stop, don't try to accelerate quickly as this just wastes fuel. Instead, accelerate at a more modest rate. This won't increase your driving time all that much especially if you are in stop and go traffic anyways, but accelerating slower is easier on the engine and uses less fuel.

Maintain your vehicle

While improving fuel mileage by changing driving habits will take practice, an easy way to improve fuel economy is to just maintain your car better. The easiest and cheapest way to improve fuel economy is to make sure you keep your tires properly inflated. Tire pressure should be checked at least once a month. Not only do properly inflated tires improve fuel economy, but it makes the vehicle safer and reduces tire wear.

Another really important maintenance item is getting regular tune ups using premium spark plugs. The fuel economy of our car was really suffering and the first thing my mechanic suggested was to replace the plugs before doing anything else. He put in some Bosch Platinum 2 spark plugs that have two electrodes instead of the standard one electrode. Apparently having multiple electrodes allows for a more powerful spark, which results in more efficient burning of fuel and greater power. The result was that the fuel economy of my 2006 Hyundai Elantra went from 28mpg to 37mpg on the freeway under similar driving conditions. With more careful driving and not using the air conditioning I could probably get 38-39mpg on the freeway (~65mph driving speeds) and over 40mpg highway (~50mph). Given the cost of fuel, the $37 I spent replacing my spark plugs was money very well spent considering it increased my fuel economy by over 30%.

When budgets are tight, one thing that frequently gets sacrificed is routine maintenance. In the long run, however, routine maintenance like oil changes, tuneups, tire rotations wheel alignments, etc. will save money in reduced repair expenses and better fuel economy.

Don't be fooled by political pandering

Don't fall for empty quick fix election year promises to save you money at the pumps. Driving smarter, maintaining your vehicle and when the time comes replacing your vehicle with a more fuel efficient model are the only short term ways to really save money at the pump.

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NOTICE: Comments are user generated feedback and do not represent the views and/or opinions of EnvironmentalChemistry.com.

Ken (EnvironmentalChemistry.com) said...

This past weekend on "This Week With George Stephanopoulos", George Stephanopoulos observed that the top leaders in the U.S. House of Representatives, nearly every editorial board and economists in the U.S. have come out against cutting the highway fuel tax this summer. Hillary Clinton was then asked to name one credible economist who supported the suspension of the highway fuel tax, which Hillary Clinton could not do. Instead she labeled economists as being elitist.

You can read the transcript of the Interview and watch the video of it at: http://www.abcnews.go.com/ThisWeek/story?id=4783456&page=1

Ken (EnvironmentalChemistry.com) said...

I added an update to my article above. Shortly after I wrote the article I discovered the fuel economy of my car was not what it should have been. Normally I expect around 34mpg on the highway, but it was getting 28mpg. So I took it over to my mechanic to look things over and he suggested to replace the spark plugs (even though this wasn't due). He put in some Bosch Platinum 2 spark plugs that have two electrodes instead of the standard one electrode, which just happened to be what the parts supplier sent him. The result was my fuel economy jumped to 37mpg without making any other changes.

Replacing the spark plugs set me back $37 but this was paid off in fuel savings after just two tanks of gas. By far, replacing the my car's spark plugs with premium plugs was the best bang for the buck I could ask for fuel savings wise.

Marshall D. said...

I advocate all the suggestions on "Saving Money at the Pump: Political Pandering vs. Driving Habits". I get on average 36-MPG on my 2005 Hyundai Accent. I will next try the 2-electrode sparkplugs.
How is it that people don't know this stuff?
Corona, CA

Ken (EnvironmentalChemistry.com) said...

We also own a 2000 Hyundai Accent and when it was in prime condition we could routinely get 40mpg with proper driving habits. I think you could do the same with some tweaks and careful driving.

Another thing we did was have the regular air in our tires with pure nitrogen (our tire place does this). Changing to pure nitrogen helps in several ways. First, it is totally inert and without any water vapor so it prevents the inside of the tires from getting dry rot or oxidizing which will increase tire life. Second, because there is no water vapor in the nitrogen the air in the tires don't expand and contract so much so they stay at the optimal inflation pressure even with temperature fluctuations. Third, the nitrogen doesn't seem to bleed out of the tires as quickly as normal air so the tires retain the proper tire pressure longer (I'm not sure why this is).

In our case I put new tires on our Elantra in October of last year and had them filled with nitrogen. This past May I still only needed a couple of pounds of nitrogen added to each of the tires.

Another thing I came across the other day that might really help improve fuel economy by improving driving habits is a "fuel economy computer" called Scan Gauge, which plugs into your car's OBDII port, which is under the dashboard. This can help you learn how to drive smoother and learn which routes for frequent trips use the least amount of gas. Sometimes a slightly longer route can actually use less gas because it has fewer stops, more optimal driving speeds, etc. I have not tried the device yet so I don't know how well this one works. With that said, I used to work at a trucking company and we used similar things to download data and generate reports on our drivers' driving habits. We found those reports to be very useful at improving their driving habits, which reduced fuel costs and maintenance expense.

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