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Posted May 08, 2011, at 6:05 p.m.
Last modified May 09, 2011, at 4:24 p.m.

this ran in bdn on monday may 9

Running on Empty in Search of Cheap Gas

Holding your breath on the last mile probably doesn’t help. But I still do it.

Driving faster is the worst thing you can do. But how can you resist? You’ve got to get there!

You keep checking that awful, hungry, orange light over and over again, running on fumes, whispering, “Come on, car, just one more block,” to get to the cheapo gas station.

Because when you’re looking at $4 and $5 for a gallon of gas, it’s easy to turn into a gas-tank gambler.

“Oh, I was switching to neutral, coasting and hoping,” said Chayla Summers-Daniels, mother of an infant, as we chatted between the Costco gas pumps one day last week.

“No way am I going to buy gas anywhere else,” she said.

I’m so with her.

A thunderstorm was rolling in, I had two tired kids in the car, it was a school night, and running out of gas would’ve been a working-mom calamity of the highest order.

And yet I was willing to put it all on red in the name of $3.84 a gallon. By Thursday, of course, that same gallon of unleaded regular had risen to $3.93, with no relief in sight.

In a nation of commuters and gas-guzzling cars, these are the dreaded days of the $70 (!) and $80 (!!) and even $90 (!!!) fill-up. And recession-battered Americans are doing some crazy things to cope.

I’m not the only gas-tank gambler out there, said John Townsend, AAA Mid-Atlantic’s manager of public and government affairs.

Desperate calls from people running out of gas shot up 39 percent in the District of Columbia and 37 percent in Maryland and Virginia last month compared with the same period a year ago.

And why not gamble? When you play it safe and gas up just anywhere, it can break the bank.

“Yeah, this is painful,” admitted Carlo Cabrales as he pumped $10 worth of gas, which is less than two gallons, at one of the priciest gas stations around.

Normally, he buys gas near his home. But he was caught between a long stretch of a station-less Rock Creek Parkway ahead of him and the E on his dashboard.

That’s how the Exxon by the Kennedy Center can get away with $5.09 a gallon, picking off guys like him.

“That’s outrageous,” said Joy Yan when she pulled up on empty. She was tempted to go elsewhere but folded, certain the car wouldn’t make it.

“I just put $30 in, and it looked like nothing. I used to be able to fill up on $30,” she moaned.

Those were the days.

I used to infuriate my husband when I pulled a wild U-turn to save 3 cents a gallon at the station across the street.

“And, so, you just saved 20 cents by crossing the street, but you’re going to go inside their little store and you’re gonna buy five bucks’ worth of interesting caffeine stimulants, aren’t you?” he’d complain.

Now he’s the one making those crazy U-turns. I never thought I’d see the day.

Commuting routines are changed, cheap gas station tips are exchanged at work and online, and we start doing crazy math. If it’s 18 miles to Costco and the minivan gets 20 miles per gallon, it will cost you $8 to save.

And we start asking each other questions like: “OK, bouncy-castle birthday party is 37 miles away. Can I subtract the cost of fuel from the present?”

“Totally!” the other mom tells me without hesitation.

We carpool on weekend excursions, ditch the silly road trip just to get the Diet Faygo Moon Mist soda at Sheetz and maybe even research the legality of golf carts on city streets.

Cheap gas becomes a quest, a game.

There’s just something about staying below that $4 mark, isn’t there?

Diana Cordova’s husband uses one of the many cheap gas apps to find the best price near their home. Gasbuddy.com is my favorite. It gives you instant results on the cheapest gas around, plus gasp-inducing charts tracking the price of gas over the years ($1.61 in December 2008!)

A miscalculation landed Cordova at a Sunoco the other day, where she winced a bit at pumping $4.07 gas into the car.

“We try hard to commute into work together. My husband and I both work in downtown D.C.,” she said. “But we’ve got two kids, and they have practice and school. It’s hard to make big changes.”

Yes, it is.

We’re lucky in the Washington, D.C., region to have options such as Metro, trains, buses and my favorite new obsession, Capital Bikeshare. And we all look for little changes:

Adding up the points at Giant and Safeway, which are offering gasoline credits for frequent shoppers. Becoming obsessive tire-pressure checkers to maximize fuel efficiency. Forcing ourselves to slow down. The U.S. Energy Department says every five miles per hour over 60 that we drive is the equivalent of paying 24 cents more per gallon.

U-turns aren’t a bad idea, either. But no way am I giving up those intriguing and expensive caffeine shots at gas stations.

I need them to be able to bike home.

Petula Dvorak is a Washington Post columnist.

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