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Expert offers tips for drivers fuming over higher gas prices

CHARLES TOWN – Though no one can coax gas prices back in the $3-per-gallon range, longtime green activist Dave Bassage can offer suggestions for wringing the maximum from each fillup.

The Fayette County resident regularly gets more than 50 mpg in his 9-year-old Toyota Prius, and at times has scored as high as 70 mpg.

He made national news in 2005 after he and a group of friends set a world record during a weekend-long, self-styled “Prius Marathon’’ in Pittsburgh in which they averaged an astounding 109 mpg.

His key tip for drivers aiming for better gas mileage? Instead of taking the all-American route of going as fast as possible, he advocates slowing down. Way down. Like your 80-year-old grandmother slow.

“On the Interstate I try to do 55 or 60 if I can get away with it,’’ said Bassage, chief of staff at ACE Adventure Resort, one of West Virginia’s largest whitewater raft companies. “If I’m running late, yeah I’m going to drive faster. But a lot of people don’t realize the tradeoff for that speed.’’

Slowing down by five or 10 miles per hour can save a driver almost that many miles per gallon, Bassage said.

Charles Davis of Charles Town fills up his minivan at a station on Washington Street Tuesday. With the cost of a gallon of gas nearing $4, many Panhandle residents are looking for ways to make each fillup go farther.

Charles Davis of Charles Town fills up his minivan at a station on Washington Street Tuesday. With the cost of a gallon of gas nearing $4, many Panhandle residents are looking for ways to make each fillup go farther.

It’s not always easy to go slow in big-city traffic, admits Bassage, a Chagrin Falls, Ohio, native who earned a bachelor’s in mathematics from Earlham College in Richmond, Ind.

In his previous career as a nationally recognized environmental consultant, Bassage would drive slowly even on the Beltway, in Philadelphia, Boston and other major cities.

“You get over into the slow lane and you’ll be surprised how many people are right there with you,” he said. “I try to go as slow as I can without actually being an impediment.’’

Bassage’s other tips include:

Lose the jack-rabbit starts and stops.

“Every time you brake, you’re wasting energy you used to get you going that fast,’’ Bassage said. “If you see a stoplight up ahead or a turn or if traffic’s slowing down, instead of racing up and then braking, you’re being much more energy efficient if you slow down and try to coast to a stop. Pretend you’re riding a bike and you’re tired – you wouldn’t use a lot of energy to get going fast and then have to brake at a stop light. You’d conserve your energy.’’

 Take tires to the limit. Making sure to inflate your tires to the maximum level suggested on the tire wall is another simple change that will improve a driver’s fuel efficiency.

More inflated tires aren’t dangerous, but do make for a less soft ride, he said. “In every other way, though, it’s better. Your car will handle better and stop more quickly. That’s a quick and easy change you can make, and you can easily pick up 2 to 3 miles per gallon that way.’’

Watch your windows. Keep the windows up and the AC off. “Not all the time,’’ Bassage said. “My personal rule is that once my shirt starts to stick to me, I start the air conditioning.’’

Bassage, once head of the office of innovation for the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, says that for him, getting the maximum from each tank of gas is part of his outlook as an environmentalist.

“That’s the reason I bought a Prius,’’ said Bassage, who has lived in West Virginia since 1984. “I wanted to do everything I could to shrink my personal footprint on the planet.’’

It’s his hope that electric car technology continues to improve so that Bassage can go that route whenever his Prius finally wears out.

Being green isn’t the only reason to aspire to better fuel efficiency, Bassage said. Other drivers may be motivated to better their mpg in order to save money or to make a political statement against American dependence on Middle Eastern oil.

Another reason Bassage began pursuing higher mpg numbers: He’s driven to it by his competitive nature.

“I’d always mentally kept track of how many gallons I was getting per gallon,’’ he said. “But when I got my Prius, suddenly I had a Fuel Consumption Device putting all these numbers in front of me. You’re looking at both the instantaneous and the cumulative fuel economy figures. It’s like driving a video game; I couldn’t resist the urge to go for the high score. I wanted to make my numbers better and better.’’

Soon after, Bassage found an Internet community of like-minded drivers, whose suggestions for improving gas mileage moved beyond the obvious ones such as don’t drive with a rooftop cargo rack, don’t leave heavy items in your trunk, avoid idling and make sure to get regular oil changes along with other needed maintenance.

Bassage would love to see more drivers catch the mpg obsession, and not only those in hybrids and subcompacts but also the folks behind the wheel of Hummers, F-250 pickups and other guzzlers of gas.

“Just because you drive something that doesn’t get good gas mileage doesn’t mean you should throw up your hands and not try to do better,’’ he said. “A driver who can go from 14 mpg up to 17 is going to save a lot more per fillup than I do when I shave a little off my mpg.’’

If the number of Americans driving with an eye on fuel efficiency rose, the overall impact could be colossal. “You don’t have to make all the changes the hypermilers do,’’ Bassage said. “If a lot of us make a little improvement, that would make a big difference.’’

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