Gas Prices May Curb Extreme Commuter

The national average of gas zoomed past the four dollar mark this week, and that's hurting the pockets of just about every commuter on the roads. But in California — which has the highest gas prices in the country — one man may feel the pinch at the pump more than other commuters. NPR's Andrea Seabrook talks to Dave Givens who commutes 186 miles, one way, just to get to work each day.

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ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Andrea Seabrook.

Gas prices - the national average topped $4 a gallon this week. If you commute like I do, you know that hurts.

But here's a story that might make you say, hmm, at least I don't have it that bad. Dave Givens does. He's an engineer in Northern California.

And Dave Givens, how long is your commute?

Mr. DAVE GIVENS (Engineer): It's about a hundred and eighty-six miles one-way.

SEABROOK: A hundred and eighty-six miles one-way. How many hours a day do you spend in your car?

Mr. GIVENS: About seven.

SEABROOK: And I understand you're in car right now?

Mr. GIVENS: Yes, I am.

SEABROOK: And you're a record holder?

Mr. GIVENS: Well, Midas muffler company here a while back ran a nationwide search for America's longest commuter, and I guess I won by 10 miles.

SEABROOK: So basically, Dave Givens, you drive the widths of California just to get to work each day?

Mr. GIVENS: Pretty close.

SEABROOK: Describe your commute for us.

Mr. GIVENS: Well, I start out about 3:30 in the morning. I arrive at work around, between 7:30 and 8:00 depending on traffic patterns. I try to leave work between 4:30 and 5:00. And I generally arrive home around 8:00.

SEABROOK: Why do you do that?

Mr. GIVENS: Basically, I like my lifestyle. I like where I live. I like my job. And the two just aren't close enough to be compatible with each other.

SEABROOK: So you're at home for two hours every night.

Mr. GIVENS: Yeah. But that's two hours of quality time. I was in the Navy and I spent 11 years at sea out of 13 years. And most of that 11 years was actually gone from home. So it ends up, you know, I'm tired of being separated. Though it's worth it to me to come home and, you know, see my wife and pet the dogs, see the horses and enjoy where I live at even if it's just for a few hours before I go to bed.

SEABROOK: Now, it's sort of a perfect storm for you. California has the highest gas prices in the country. AAA says the state's average hit $4.56 a gallon this week. So how much did it cost you to get to work every day?

Mr. GIVENS: It generally averages around $50. Used to be around only, oh, 25, 30 a day. So it's gone up significantly, but it's not the make or break situation yet. It's getting close, it's getting close.

SEABROOK: What kind of car do you drive, Dave Givens?

Mr. GIVENS: A Honda Accord. When you spend this much time in a car, you got to go for comfort.

SEABROOK: So you're not giving this up anytime soon?

Mr. GIVENS: It just all depends on the gas prices. If it continues going up and it gets, you know, 4.80, $5 a gallon, then it's definitely going to be a reconsideration. But it's not unreasonable yet. I mean, well, it's unreasonable, but it's not out of the realm of doability yet.

SEABROOK: Well, Dave Givens, good luck on your commute.

Mr. GIVENS: Okay.

SEABROOK: Dave Givens is an engineer in California. And for now, at least, he holds the crown of America's longest distance commuter.

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'Hypermilers': Squeezing Out Every Mile Per Gallon

'Hypermiling' Tips

Fuel gauge
iStockphoto

• Don't use quick accelerations or brake heavily.

 

• Don't idle excessively.

 

• Don't drive at higher speeds. This increases wind resistance and mechanical friction, which reduces fuel economy.

 

• Frequent short trips reduce fuel economy, since your engine doesn't operate efficiently until it is warmed up.

 

• Remove cargo or cargo racks, which increase aerodynamic drag and lower fuel economy.

 

• Don't tow unless absolutely necessary.

 

• Minimize running mechanical and electrical accessories, like your air conditioner.

 

• Avoid driving on hilly or mountainous terrain if possible.

 

• Don't use four-wheel drive if it is not needed. Engaging all four wheels makes the engine work harder.

 

• Park your car face out, if allowable, so you don't have to back out of the space and turn needlessly.

 

• Minimize having to stop at red lights by scanning the road far ahead and preparing to slow down well in advance.

 

Source: CleanMPG.com

With gas prices relentlessly soaring, Americans are being forced to rethink their driving habits. Many are combining trips, driving less or shifting to mass transit.

Then there are the "hypermilers," drivers who strive to boost their gas mileage by changing their behavior behind the wheel.

They include Kent Johnson, who was found recently at a parking lot outside Laurel, Md., leaning against his red Chevy Aveo hatchback, holding his right shoe.

He had driven there with one shoe off, the one for the accelerator foot, "so you can feel the pedal pressure a little bit easier," he explains. "You know, when you're trying to eke that extra little bit, then, just small things can add up."

Most of Johnson's techniques are simple: Slow down, ease up on the accelerator, coast in neutral down hills.

"I drive with my shoe off — that's extreme," he says.

But extreme is what Johnson and the hypermilers are about.

A Shift in Thinking

Curtis Adams, a clinical psychologist, started hypermiling about six months ago.

"Switching from driving so-called normally to hypermiling, it's a huge shift in thinking," he says.

"Some people do it for environmental reasons," Adams says. "That's not at the top of my list, honestly. The environment I'm concerned with is my wallet."

Adams says even the choice of parking space can save gas. Pick a parking spot that offers a quick exit by driving forward out of the space, he says.

"When you come out, put the car in gear and head straight out," Adams says. "You don't have to back up and waste gas."

Adams' hypermilers group installed a miles-per-gallon meter in a reporter's car for a 10-mile test drive. Rather than the 8 miles per gallon the reporter had predicted, he averaged 21.1 mpg. Not only that, but there were periods of coasting with 111 mpg.

Every Little Bit Counts

The group members break down the performance, highlighting every misstep: stop-and-go driving, too much braking and liberal use of the air conditioner.

They decide to bring in their heavy hitter, Mark Shmitz, to demonstrate hypermiling first hand. Shmitz averages 50 miles per gallon for a tank of gas, but he has an advantage — he drives a 2006 Honda Civic hybrid.

Shmitz's eyes stay glued to the monitors on his dashboard as he drives.

"I'm getting 75-80 miles per gallon just coasting down this hill..." he says at one point.

At every turn or hill, the car provides instant feedback.

So when he accelerates up a hill, the performance drops below 40 mpg. "I'm hating life," he says.

Don't Try This

Some of his more extreme maneuvers can get you in trouble — like coasting at 7 miles per hour through a stop sign. That's not recommended, unless you want to get a traffic ticket, he says.

Hypermilers say the easiest way to save gas is obeying the speed limit. But Adams says the sluggish pace — the slow, rolling stops and the shoeless pedal foot — can be hard on his family. He says his wife usually takes her own car.

Patrick Madden is a reporter for member station WAMU.

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