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Motorists, gambling on finding a better price, are running out of gas

For the first time since the record-setting gasoline- and diesel-price summer of 2008, there has been a double-digit increase in the number of Southern California motorists gambling -- and losing -- a bet that they will find a pump price they can live with before they run out of fuel. Experts say it's a common form of rolling the dice out of anger and frustration.

CA_grph "When prices go up, people like to push it. If it is costing you $50 or $75 or $100 to fill up, that is real money they don't want to part with. They are hoping to find a bargain, and they push it further and further," said Jason Toews, co-founder of GasBuddy.com, a system of 185 websites where members post the highest and lowest prices they find.

AAA of Southern California says that an average of 15,600 of its members a month are having to make one of those mildly embarrassing "stranded, need gasoline" emergency calls in the 13 counties within the organization's jurisdiction. That's an increase of 12.9% over the first quarter of last year, and it represents the biggest jump since the California gas-price average hit the AAA all-time-high mark of $4.61 a gallon on June 19, 2008.

AAA of Southern California includes Imperial, Inyo, Kern, Los Angeles, Mono, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Tulare and Ventura counties. Spring said most of the stranded motorists were in Los Angeles County.

"It's happening again to a lot of people," said local AAA spokesman Jeff Spring. "Our presumption is that these current high gasoline prices have a lot to do with it."

The current state average is $4.191 for a gallon of regular gasoline, according to the AAA Fuel Gauge Report, which is compiled by the Oil Price Information Service and Wright Express. That's up from $4.125 a gallon a week ago and just $3.112 a gallon at this time last year. Among states, only Hawaii, with an average of $4.464 a gallon, has more expensive gasoline than California.

Nationally, AAA said the average had reached $3.815 a gallon, up from $3.739 a week earlier and $2.858 a year ago.

AAA is advising against the riding-on-empty strategy, which it said can wind up costing motorists a lot more money in the long run because of engine and mechanical problems that can arise when there is too little fuel in one's tank and when one runs completely out of gas.

"'E' for an empty gas Tank May Turn into a capital 'E' for Expensive repair," the AAA warned in a news release Friday.

Steve Mazor, manager of the auto club's Automotive Research Center, said "as painful as trips to the gas station may be getting, letting your car regularly run on an almost-empty tank can cause even more wallet damage with expensive repairs." He added that very low fuel could cause the electric fuel pump inside the tank to overheat. "The cost to replace this one component alone can be $500 or more in parts and labor."

Running a vehicle with a nearly empty tank on a regular basis may cause sediment in the bottom of the tank to clog the fuel pump pickup, the fuel filter or the fuel injectors, Mazor said.

Said Spring, "It's better to just buy some gas."

-- Ronald D. White

Image: Graphic charts the price of gas nationally and in California. Credit: AAA Fuel Gauge Report

 
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