SPECIAL OFFER: - Limited Time Only!
(The ad below will not display on your printed page)
I grew up in Watkins Glen, New York, back in the day when it hosted the U.S. Formula One Grand Prix every year on the first weekend of October. There I watched drivers like Graham Hill and "Wee" Jackie Stewart as they throttled race cars up and down straightaways at speeds approaching 180 mph and banked them around turns and through chicanes that sometimes -- depending on the weather and road conditions or a momentary lapse in a driver's judgment -- would whip the cars off the road or jettison them through midair to the fright of driver and spectator alike. So you might forgive me if I let on that I have a thing for driving fast, right?
What I really learned from those drivers was not how to drive fast but how to use terrain -- road pitch and curve -- and gravity (one thing you can all always count on) to maintain traction by using a car's momentum to drive safely and efficiently. They taught me that cars are precision driving instruments that obey Newton's laws of physics without fail: force equals mass times acceleration. By knowing your car's weight and center of gravity you can make intelligent driving decisions by using the car's momentum to safely carry you through a curve or over snow just as you can use a downhill slope to save gas -- if you maintain traction. Thinking about how I drove became important.
With time I also learned that cars get greater gas mileage on the open road than in city driving because there is less stop-and-go driving -- there are fewer traffic lights and stop signs, and on and off ramps have been designed to merge traffic flows and to keep traffic circulating with few interruptions. With less stop-and-go driving it is easier to maintain a car's momentum, which boosts gas mileage since you don't have to pay to get your car moving from a standing position as often. Getting your car moving from a standstill eats up the most gas.
In addition to regular maintenance (keeping your engine tuned and tire pressure set right) and cleaning out the trunk to avoid toting around dead weight, there are plenty other of smart-driving techniques you can learn to boost gas mileage.
First, use common sense. Do not drive to a service station simply to tank up -- doing so will cost you the gas you use to get to the station and back home afterward; instead, tank up as you pass a service station en route to somewhere else. Also, avoid crowded drive-throughs; if you see that the drive-through has a long line of cars, park instead and walk inside -- this will save you the cost of idling your engine for a long time. And learn your roads and local conditions: Knowing local routes' rush hours and where construction projects are under way will let you change your driving schedule to avoid them or plan alternate routes.
Second, practice smart in-town driving techniques; here, a baker's dozen.
1. Avoid "peeling out"; aggressive starts from a stopped position waste gas.
2. Once in motion maintain an even pace; erratic driving wastes gas.
3. Do not speed up when approaching a stale green light; if it changes to red you will be out the extra gas your speedup cost plus the cost of starting from a full stop when the light turns green; if the light doesn't change you will be able to drive through safely at a steady pace.
4. Slow down before you reach a red light; there's no need to waste gas by accelerating toward it since you will have to stop anyway; if the light changes to green before you reach it you will be able to maintain momentum and drive through without having had to come to a complete stop.
5. Likewise, use discretion when approaching a light at which there is already a queue of cars: They will need time to get moving, so if you can maintain your momentum without stopping while falling in behind them you will save gas.
6. Get some speed up before you start to climb a hill; let momentum carry you up and slow down as you climb.
7. Likewise, ease off the gas when descending hills; let gravity work for you.
8. Take turns easy; do not speed up when entering them and avoid braking when in them if possible to avoid losing momentum.
9. Do not tailgate in a nonpassing situation; tailgating forces you to brake and accelerate with the pace of the driver in front of you; instead, drop back and drive at an even pace to avoid the gas-wasting speed-up/braking cycle.
10. When passing do not start from a position immediately behind the driver you intend to pass; drop back before you reach the passing zone and build acceleration as you signal your intent to pass -- this way you will not have to waste gas by "flooring it" while passing.
11. If driving on a multilane road without left-turn lanes at traffic lights, avoid having to stop for a car ahead of you that signals a left turn by leaving ample space for yourself to move into the right land and continue through the light without stopping.
12. and 13. Drive decisively and politely: If an approaching driver signals a right turn onto the street you want to turn left on and that driver is sufficiently far away and you are at the intersection, make your turn -- he or she has to slow before turning anyway, by which time you will have completed your turn. Conversely, if you have the right-of-way, flash your lights to or hand-signal another driver that he or she can turn in front of you if you know you will have to slow down before turning yourself. Your forethought and politeness will be appreciated and perhaps passed along to another driver.
Practice these smart driving techniques until they become good habits and share them with other drivers. Just like smiling to friends and to strangers, politeness in driving is contagious. Plus you might eke an extra two or three miles per gallon out of every fill-up.
Originally published on LHJ.com, September 2008.