By Tony Whitney

With gas prices running at an all-time high, even the most well-heeled motorists may want to consider taking a closer look at their driving habits and tailoring them to our dollar-a-litre-plus world. A little attention to driving techniques can make those visits to the gas station even less frequent.

Natural Resources Canada (NRCan), which plays the role of overseer when it comes to fuel efficiency and organizes the annual awards contest for Canada’s most economical vehicles, has a few tips that are worth noting. Number One on NRCan’s list is the need for motorists to follow the manufacturer’s recommended maintenance schedule.

Tire pressures are another key area when it comes to saving fuel. Tire pressures should be checked monthly using a good pressure gauge – the equipment at gas stations is often not as accurate as it should be. Every two psi of under-inflation adds up to a one per cent increase in fuel consumption. Just imagine the fuel wastage when tire pressures are seriously under the recommended level – it can really add up.

NRCan advises motorists to use a block heater in winter to warm the engine before starting. Of course, this advice is more critical in some parts of Canada than others. When the engine is cold, fuel consumption, engine wear and exhaust emissions are at their worst. Most vehicles can be specified with a block heater when the order is written up and several models have “winter packages” available which include a block heater.

In summer time, it’s not a bad idea to use the air conditioning sparingly. Using the air conditioning system can hike fuel consumption by as much as 20 per cent in the city and NRCan would rather have you opening the windows. Of course, drivers should also bear in mind that air conditioning, used properly, is a valuable safety element in a vehicle, helping, as it does, to keep the driver comfortable and alert.

Another NRCan tip is to drive at or below the posted speed limit. According to studies, increasing speed from 100 km/h to 120 km/h can increase fuel consumption by 20 per cent.

It’s always a good idea to keep idling to a minimum. Evidently, idling for more than 10 seconds burns more fuel than it takes to restart the engine. The best way to warm up a vehicle in the morning, incidentally, is to drive it – not leaving it idling in the driveway while you have breakfast. Of course, if you buy one of the new hybrids, it’ll probably have a system that shuts the engine off whenever the vehicle stops. Remote car starters are very much in vogue right now and they’re certainly nice to have. Even so, NRCan says you shouldn’t start your car with one of these systems until you really need to. Start it just before you’re ready to drive away.

It almost goes without saying that with the slippery shapes of vehicles today, any interference with the car’s aerodynamics is going to affect fuel economy. A typical case here, and one underlined by NRCan, is the fitting of aftermarket roof racks. It’s best to install add-on roof racks only when they’re needed. It’s worth adding that many of those spiffy factory-fitted racks you can order for your new vehicle are quite aerodynamic and probably don’t have a dramatic effect on fuel usage.

Fluid levels should be checked every month and kept in line with manufacturer recommendations. Drivers who have any doubts as to how to check these levels should leave the job to the service professionals. Another worthwhile NRCan tip is to keep your vehicle free of unnecessary weight. A worst-case scenario is the driver who keeps winter tires in the trunk all summer, and summer tires back there during the winter. With that kind of added weight, fuel economy is bound to suffer greatly.

One sure-fire way to reduce fuel usage is to plan trips so that you’re making one long one instead of several short ones. Of course, there’s no avoiding those frequent, short, runs for many drivers, but the point is worth considering.

A final pointer from NRCan is for motorists to develop smooth driving habits – something race-car drivers take for granted. Sudden braking or gearshift moves and abrupt stops and starts will add up to reduced economy. You’ll also draw fewer complaints from friends or family when you drive them around.

Modern cars, SUV’s, minivans and pickups have never been more fuel efficient and less likely to generate harmful pollution, but there’s always room to improve driving techniques and habits to make the situation even better.

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