More drivers run on (nearly) empty

The New York TimesJune 15, 2008 

As gasoline prices climb, automobile clubs and towing services say they are taking more calls from motorists who have run out of gas.

In most instances, the stranded drivers are just trying to squeeze every mile possible from their fuel tanks, but officials say some drivers are pretending to be out of gas so that they can receive a precious free gallon of fuel.

"I think the vast majority of people are simply pushing it, trying to buy few gallons and trying to make it home on less gas," said David Weinstein, a spokesman for the AAA Mid-Atlantic region, which includes New Jersey, eastern Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, Delaware and Washington. The automobile club charges customers for the gasoline unless they are AAA Plus members.

Weinstein said the region had seen a 14 percent increase in out-of-gas calls from May 1 to June 12 this year, compared with the same period last year.

"It's just another example of the high cost of gas that isn't going to go away soon," he said.

The CVS Samaritan Van Program, which provides free roadside assistance in nine Midwest and East Coast cities, has seen a 30 percent to 40 percent increase in stops to help people who have run out of gas just in the last two months, said Mike DeAngelis, a spokesman for CVS Pharmacy, which operates the program as a community charity.

The AAA Northern California regional office, which covers Utah and Nevada in addition to Northern California, has seen a 3 percent increase in out-of-gas calls in the first five months of this year, spokesman Michael Geeser said.

But it saw even larger increases in some months when gas prices shot up quickly. In April, such calls rose 6.5 percent compared with April 2007.

Some areas, such as Chicago, have not seen a spike in roadside service calls from drivers with dry tanks. But roadside assistance agencies said the calls had increased so sharply coast to coast that they started monitoring closely for repeat callers.

David Castillo, supervisor of the Dallas County Courtesy Patrol, a county-run agency in Texas that uses 10 pickups to aid stranded motorists, said, "Of course you get the people who try to scam us out of gas, so we always ask them now to try to start it first, and, of course, it starts right up with some of them."

Over the last six months, Courtesy drivers who had been using about three gallons a day to help stranded motorists now use as much as 10 gallons a day.

The patrol now makes it a point to write down the license plate number of each stranded vehicle in order to track motorists trying to pull a fast one. That became necessary recently after one motorist used three cars in the same day to try to arrange for free gas, Castillo said.

"We still try to help everyone," he said. "We just want them to play by the rules. But with gas prices going higher and higher, it's not like a lot of people are making more money."

But wait, it gets worse

Ol Sem, a grocery clerk in Philadelphia, was caught in that bind on Friday. He said he had been buying $15 to $20 worth of gasoline at a time for his 1996 Mercury Villager van, hoping to make it to his next paycheck.

"I just try to get by day to day with the gas I need," Sem said. "It's too expensive to buy a whole tank."

But on Friday, with his gas gauge near empty, he found out the hard way that running your gas so low all the time can cause problems: His engine died.

Gary Siley, a mechanic for AAA who responded to Sem's call when his car died on Sixth Street in Philadelphia, knew the problem well.

He put $3 worth of gas into Sem's Mercury -- and charged him -- gave the fuel pump a knock or two to rattle the gunk that seeped into the pump when he ran it low on fuel, and the engine started right up.

"You see this all the time now," Siley said. "A lot of our members aren't exactly millionaires, and they're just trying to get by with these crazy prices."

The added problem for motorists, roadside agencies said, is that if running low on gas is bad, running out of gas is worse because it can overheat the fuel pump.

"That can cost $500 to $1,000 to replace," said Weinstein of AAA. "And that's a lot more than a $50 fill-up."

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