10 driving tips to save gas (and reduce air pollution)

Pumping gas. Driving tips to use less gas
 U.S. Air Force photo by Rebecca Amber

When you use less gas, you save money and use up less fossil fuel. Obvious, right? But you also save whatever it would have cost to refine and transport the gas you don’t use. And when you save gas, you reduce air pollution.

If you’re planning to buy a car, you will probably pay attention to its fuel efficiency, but most of us don’t buy cars very often. If you take public transportation or carpool, you share fuel use with other people. Your own share is less. 

For that matter, if you walk or ride a bicycle, you don’t use any gasoline at all.

But we have to drive, don’t we? These driving tips will help you get better gas mileage when you do. For this article, I assume your car has a gasoline engine. If you have diesel, some of the statistics will be a little different. 

If you have a hybrid, pay special attention to tips about loads on your electrical system, such as air conditioning. Carelessness with these systems might cost you more than someone else’s gasoline car.

I hope you’re practicing some of these driving tips already. But I also hope you’ll learn something new here.

1. Combine and plan errands

During the Depression and the Second World War, signs used to be posted that asked, “Is this trip really necessary?” Times have changed, but it’s still worthwhile to ask the question.

Getting in the car to run a single errand wastes not only gas but your time. So plan your errands to do them efficiently. If you have three or four errands, try to do them in one trip to save gas. Your car gets the most fuel efficiency when it’s warmed up (more about that later), so go to the most distant place first.

If your trip includes getting groceries, stop there last. That way your refrigerated and frozen goods will stay cold. Your grocery store is probably among the closest places you ever go.

Take a lesson from delivery trucks: they save gas when their route has mostly right turns, even if it makes the route a little longer. After all, you have to wait at the intersection longer to make a left turn. 

2. Avoid rush hour traffic if you can

Traffic jam. How to save gas
Image by Alexander Grishin from Pixabay 

Have you ever wondered why the time of slowest traffic is called rush hour? Too many people driving to or from work at the same time puts more cars on the road than it can handle. 

Traffic safety requires keeping a distance of one car length between cars per every 10 mph. That is, when you drive at 60 mph, you need to keep six car lengths between you and the car in front. When there are too many cars for everyone to maintain that distance, everyone has to slow down.

If you can take public transportation, do. When I lived in Chicago and took trains downtown, I marveled at how many cars on the expressway they zipped past. Besides wrecking fuel economy, traffic jams raise everyone’s stress level.

If you aren’t traveling to work, plan your errands at times when traffic is lighter. You’ll use less gas and not lose your mind. 

3. Reduce idling

When your car idles, it gets zero miles per gallon. The easiest way to save gas, therefore, is to idle less. If your car has a 2-liter engine, it uses about 0.16 gallons of gas per hour of idling. A 4.6-liter engine uses about 0.39 gallons per hour. 

One study found that the average driver spends about 16 minutes a day idling. Only half of that includes idling in traffic. The rest comes from warming up the car or waiting for something. That much idling while parked easily amounts to an hour in a week. 

A small car, then, can waste more than eight gallons of gas every year. A larger car can waste more than 16 gallons. Not only does it cost money, but just think of the extra greenhouse gases idling pumps into the atmosphere. Being mindful of how much you idle with both save gas and reduce air pollution perhaps more than any of these driving tips.

Idling leaves fuel residues in engine components that cause higher maintenance costs than if you restart the engine frequently. Modern cars don’t need to warm up before moving except in temperatures lower than 0ºF. Even then, it’s easier on the engine to drive slowly for a while than warm the engine by idling. 

Avoid the drive-thru lane entirely. Parking outside and walking in burns calories, not gas. Plus you won’t be sitting in your car breathing everyone else’s exhaust fumes. 

Otherwise, if you’re picking someone up or waiting for a train or something, shut the engine off if you’ll have to wait more than 30 seconds. 

And here’s another way to make a small improvement in fuel economy: fasten your seatbelt before you start the car. It only saves about five seconds of idling per start, but it adds up. 

4. Keep up with routine maintenance

Change the oil in your car regularly. It needs oil to protect the moving parts. But after a while, the oil starts to take on contaminants, which accumulate on engine parts. A dirty engine runs less efficiently. Therefore, a clean one gets better gas mileage

So keeping up with oil changes will save gas. But be sure to use the right grade of oil. Using the wrong grade can lower fuel economy by 1%-2%. 

And don’t forget small parts such as filters and the gas cap. 

Keep your tires in good shape. Used tires have their own environmental costs, so the less frequently you have to buy new ones the better. A poorly aligned car makes tires wear out faster.

Properly inflated tires use less gas. Underinflated tires lower gas mileage by about 0.2% for every one pound per square inch of air pressure less than proper inflation. 

Fixing a car that has failed an emissions test can improve gas mileage by 4% on average. If the car has faulty oxygen sensors or other serious problems, fixing them can improve mileage by as much as 40%

5. Fill your tank with the right gas at the right time

Fill your car with regular gasoline unless the owner’s manual says otherwise. Gas with higher octane burns more slowly. If the manufacturer designed your car to work on fast-burning gas, higher octane gas makes it run less efficiently and actually use more gas. 

Also, fill your tank when it is less than a quarter full, but fill it. Don’t just put in a little bit. Filling the tank adds weight, and extra weight uses up extra gas. Topping it off, therefore, reduces mileage. Not filling the tank, however, means you’ll need to return to the gas station more often, which means more braking and more wear and tear on the engine.

6. Don’t carry excess weight

It’s easy to accumulate junk in the car. It’s often easier to leave something there than figure out what else to do with it. But it adds weight to the car. Manufacturers have gone to great length to make your car as  light as possible for the sake of better fuel economy. All that extra weight you add undoes their work.

For that matter, if you golf once a week, take your clubs out of the trunk between times. Anything you can do to lighten your car helps you save gas.

Also, avoid carrying cargo on the roof. A roof rack greatly increases wind resistance. It may cost you up to 25% more in gas. In 2015, roof racks accounted for almost 1% of the fuel usage for cars and other light-duty vehicles. That amounted to 100 million gallons of gasoline. Unfortunately, roof racks are becoming more popular.

For a long trip, you might get better gas  mileage if you tow a small trailer instead. If you must use a roof rack, take it off when you have nothing to carry on it. Don’t bother to buy one you can’t remove easily.

7. Know the effects of the season

Summer and winter are different, so tactics to save gas have to be different, too. In the summer, the sun heats the inside of your car. In the winter, snow and ice can accumulate on it. 

Hot weather can be good for mileage. The engine warms up faster and warm air causes less wind resistance. It can get very uncomfortable inside the car, though. 

We have two ways to cool the interior: open the windows or use the air conditioning. Both reduce mileage. Open windows increase wind resistance. At slow speeds, it doesn’t matter much. At highway speeds, however, the effect increases. 

On short trips, air conditioning can reduce fuel efficiency by 25%. Drive with the windows down for a little while before turning on the air conditioning. It gets hot air out of the car faster and doesn’t make the air conditioning work as hard. Basically, at speeds below 55 mph, figure that it’s cheaper to roll down the windows. Above 55 mph, it’s cheaper to run the air conditioner. Don’t idle with the air conditioning on. It works faster while driving. 

Winter brings up different issues. Park in a garage or under a carport if you can. If snow and ice pile up on your car, you need to remove it before driving. Not only does the weight affect fuel efficiency, but if it blows off as you drive, it makes a traffic hazard. 

You’ll want to use the heater, of course. Don’t let it warm up the interior while idling. It will get to a comfortable temperature faster once you start moving. 

8. Watch your speed

Speedometer. how to save gas

Cars operate at peak efficiency between about 50 and 60 miles per hour. Above 60, wind resistance increases exponentially. The engine has to work harder to overcome it and has to burn a lot more fuel in the process. 

A four-cylinder car might get 30 mpg at 60 mph and only 20 mpg at 80 mph. Driving below 50 mph decreases mileage, too, but we mostly have to drive that slowly in populated areas with stoplights and such. Since most of us do most of our driving in town, that’s where we’re most likely to drive too fast.

Unless you are on a long-distance trip, measure the time you save in seconds. It just doesn’t matter. Keep to the speed limit and save gas instead.

9. Drive smoothly and calmly

When a traffic light turns green, accelerate slowly and smoothly. Jackrabbit starts waste gas. So, ironically, does coasting for a while before applying the accelerator. After all, cars operate most efficiently in the highest gear. So apply the accelerator immediately to get to the highest gear as quickly as possible.

But if you can coast to a stop, do. If you see a red light ahead and coast, it may turn green before you have to come to a complete stop. Cars get better mileage if they can keep  going. Starting from a complete stop takes more gas.

If you’re stuck in traffic, stay in your lane. Leave frequent lane changes to NASCAR drivers. You won’t get where you’re going any faster by changing lanes, but you will make it more dangerous for everyone else stuck with you.

And if you’re in a bad mood, do your best to calm down before you start to drive. Your anger will decrease your concentration and probably make you drive faster.

10. Ask for directions if necessary

If you have a dependable GPS, maybe you don’t need this driving tip. But if you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll wind up making all kinds of unnecessary turns. Driving farther than necessary, of course, wastes both time and gas.

When you’re lost, the sooner you find out how to get where you’re going, the less extra driving you’ll do. 

When you use these driving tips to save gas, you save money and reduce air pollution in your area at the same time.

Shop related products

The ultimate guide to green living: 156 tips to save money, improve your health, and transform your community / David M. Guion

The Original Recycled Seatbelt Guitar Strap

Valvoline Advanced Full Synthetic SAE 0W-16 Motor Oil 1 QT

5 gasoline-wasting mistakes most drivers make / Rick Newman, US News. July 10, 2008
Fact #861 February 23, 2015: Idle fuel consumption for selected gasoline and diesel vehicles / Office Of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy Fuel economy in hot weather / Fueleconomy.gov
How much & why people idle unnecessarily / Idle-Free VT&
Idling: why it’s a problem and what you can do / South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control. November 2015
Keeping your vehicle in shape / Fueleconomy.gov
Roof racks a drag on fuel economy / Julie Chao, Berkeley National Laboratory. April 25, 2016


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