Some motorists press limits of tanks

Some motorists squeeze every drop from tanks

Staff WriterJune 10, 2004 

Alandria Johnson sat sweltering on the side of Interstate 40 in Raleigh in her dark green Ford Windstar, her three kids climbing over the back seats, her fuel tank dry.

"The price of gas is arranging my life," said Johnson, 28, of Zebulon. "I like to try to keep my tank full or at least half full, but it's too expensive to put in a full tank now. You know, you try to put in $2 here, $3 there, but it's not enough."

Drivers such as Johnson are stretching the limits of their fuel tanks as gas prices sting wallets, roadside assistance groups say. Instead of filling up, they put in a few gallons and hope they don't run out.

AAA Carolinas said it received 999 requests for fuel from stranded motorists last month in North Carolina and South Carolina. That is up 19.1 percent from May 2003.

"The common theme we have gotten from our members when we're talking about fuel delivery is that they are basically trying to get every ounce out of their tanks," said Dusty Holcomb, general manager of automotive services for AAA Carolinas. "They're concerned about the price of gas and making every dollar count, so they're trying to get to that gas station down the street or make that dollar stretch a little further."

East Coast Towing, a Raleigh-based contractor for AAA, has been dropping off more gasoline to stranded motorists as a result. But getting an emergency gallon of gas delivered roadside is expensive.

East Coast Towing used to charge $2.50 to $3 for gas. These days, that fee is up to $4 or $5, in addition to delivery fees, said Paul Best, the station's owner. The average price per gallon of regular unleaded in the Triangle on Wednesday was $1.936.

More people travel in the summer, but that doesn't entirely account for the increasing number of people running out of gas, Holcomb said.

"We do know we are experiencing an increase due to the prices because when we're talking to members, that's what they're saying," he said. "There's definitely some increase in volume due to price sensitivity."

Some law enforcement agencies also have noticed more cars abandoned on roadsides, though it is not clear whether that relates to gas prices. The Durham County Sheriff's Department tagged 29 abandoned cars last month, compared with 16 in May 2003.

The state's Incident Management Assistance Patrol came to Johnson's rescue Tuesday on I-40 with a gallon of gas. Afterward, she drove to a nearby gas station for enough fuel to make it home to Zebulon, drop off her children and switch to her Toyota Tercel to go grocery shopping.

"It burns less gas," she said.

Michael Clinard, the assistance patrol driver who had spotted Johnson on the roadside, said he regularly helps drivers like her.

"All type of people let their cars run out of fuel," he said. "You see a pretty diverse group -- expensive cars or not-so-expensive cars. Many folks seem to think, 'Well I can get just a little bit farther.' "

Staff writer Emily Almas can be reached at 829-8927 or ealmas@newsobserver.com.

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