-- When gas prices hit $4 a gallon this summer, drivers across the country started cutting back to save money. They slowed down. They didn't tailgate as much. And there were fewer cars on the road.
Now that gas prices are falling, though, many Americans are drifting back to their gas-guzzling ways.
Resisting that temptation may be the biggest test facing two families that participated in last month's Frugal Family Challenge. When USA TODAY and ABC's Good Morning America Weekend challenged the families to cut their average monthly gasoline usage by 25%, the average price of a gallon of gas was $3.60. Now, the average price is $2.40.
But declining gas prices didn't dampen the families' enthusiasm for the project. With help from Phil Reed, consumer advice editor for automotive website Edmunds.com, both families exceeded their goals, and they're determined to continue their frugal driving habits. Good Morning America will reveal the winning family on Sunday, and we'll publish the results in Monday's issue of USA TODAY.
THE PORTER FAMILY
Before the challenge, Tim and Kelly Porter of Salem, Mass., used their cars for most of their errands.
Tim, 42, usually drove to his second part-time job as a driver's education instructor, even though the school is around the corner from their home. Every weekday, Kelly, 41, drove their son, Alec, 10, about a mile and a half to school and picked him up in the afternoon.
To cut gas, they started walking more.
Tim walked to his part-time job and Kelly picked Alec up in the afternoon on foot. Kelly also walked to the post office and library. On some days, Kelly, a stay-at-home mom, didn't use the car at all.
In the process, the Porters learned that eliminating short trips can save big money. The reason? A cold car uses more gas than a warmed-up vehicle, and generates more pollution, too. Cars are built to "run hot, not cold," Reed says. "If you stand behind a car that's been turned on, right away you can smell the unburned gas and pollutants, particularly in older cars."
Some steps the Porters took to save gas:
At the beginning of the challenge, Kelly admitted that she was an aggressive driver. When she was on the highway, she tended to exceed the speed limit and tailgate other cars.
But during the 30-day challenge, Kelly used cruise control to maintain a steady speed. Instead of zooming up to stoplights and slamming on the brakes, she slowed down when she approached intersections. When merging, she waited until she had a clear right-of-way so she didn't have to race ahead of approaching cars.
Kelly says the changes added only about 10 minutes to her trips, but they significantly increased her miles per gallon. Previously, her Toyota 4-Runner got 16 to 17 miles per gallon, she says. During the challenge, it rose to 20-21 mpg.
"I was very surprised at the difference it made just by using cruise control," she says. "I could go a week without getting gas. Before, I went (to the gas station) maybe two, three times a week."
Tim, who drives a 1993 Toyota Camry, says he got in the habit of using cruise control during his daily 60-mile round-trip commute to his full-time job in Lawrence, Mass. He also tried to time his commute to avoid rush-hour traffic, because stop-and-go traffic burns up a lot of gas.
At Reed's suggestion, the Porters checked the air pressure in their tires and discovered they were underinflated. The tires on Tim's car were underinflated by up to 50%. That's no surprise, Reed says. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that 27% of cars on U.S. roadways have one or more underinflated tires. Underinflated tires reduce fuel efficiency and increase the risk of an accident, Reed says.
Reed recommends that the Porters continue to check the tire pressure in both of their cars once a month, particularly in the winter. Cold weather can cause tires to lose air pressure, he says.
The Porters say they're committed to maintaining the habits they adopted during the challenge, even when the temperature drops.
"In the wintertime, it might be harder to do all of the walking," Kelly says. "But we can always bundle up."
THE RHODES FAMILY
The Rhodes family entered the gas challenge with gusto, but they faced plenty of hurdles.
They live on top of a steep hill in Camas, Wash., in a suburban neighborhood where nothing is within walking distance. If they want to buy a quart of milk or go to work, they need to drive.
In addition, Randy and Mary Rhodes have four children, ages 16 to 20, and three cars, including a Ford Expedition sport-utility vehicle. Randy, 53, an electrical engineer, uses the regional light-rail system to commute to his job in Portland, but the train station is 12 miles from their home. In the past, he drove the Expedition to the station and parked there every day. Their son Ryan, 20, drives 41 miles round trip to his job at UPS. Mary, 56, has a part-time job only 2 miles from home, but runs a lot of errands in her car.
Despite such challenges, the Rhodeses reduced their monthly gas usage significantly, mainly by driving more efficiently, Reed says.
How the Rhodes family saved gas:
Reduced use of the Expedition
During the challenge, Mary used one of the family's more fuel-efficient cars — the 2004 Subaru Forrester or 1991 Toyota Camry — to drive Randy to a nearby bus station. Then he caught a bus to the train. At night, Ryan or Mary picked Randy up.
The Rhodeses "focused on reducing how much they drove their least-efficient cars, which was smart," Reed says.
Randy says he's hoping to eventually sell the Expedition and buy a smaller, more fuel-efficient car, which he could use to drive to the light-rail station. Meanwhile, he says, he'll continue to ride to the bus station with Mary, reducing the use of the SUV.
"Mary and I are trying to enjoy that time together in the morning," he says. "That's a good example of a lifestyle change. That might be something we'll stick with."
Laid off the gas pedal
When he drove the Expedition, Randy increased his average mileage from about 12 to 15 mpg by lightening up on the accelerator. While that may not sound like a big deal, Randy says, for a low-mileage vehicle, "even a 3- or 5-miles-per-gallon change represents a big difference on a percentage basis."
Randy says he never thought he had a lead foot. But during the challenge, he started to notice how many SUV drivers on the interstate "really hit the pedal hard," and realized that he may have done the same thing in the past.
Hilary, 17, a high school senior who usually drives the Camry, learned that it's not a good idea to stomp on the accelerator when climbing a steep hill, like the one she drives up to get home. "I learned it's not good when you feel your car downshifting," she says. "That's really wasting gas."
Now, Hilary goes more slowly when she's driving uphill. Sometimes, she says, "I have a whole line of cars behind me, but I've been saving a lot of gas."
When Mary runs errands, she tries to drive to the farthest destination first, then work her way back home. That warms up the car, which means it runs more efficiently.
At Reed's suggestion, Hilary replaced a dirty air filter in the Camry, and immediately noticed a difference in the car's performance. (The Porters also checked the air filters in both cars and replaced a dirty filter in the 4-Runner.)
Reed recommends replacing air filters once a year.
"If you're not getting good airflow into your engine, it's not going to be efficient," he says.