Area gas prices reached record highs again yesterday, and crude oil neared $120 a barrel. So, how would you like to improve your fuel economy by 30 percent or more without buying a new car?

Try hypermiling.

Or ecodriving.

They both involve a radical approach to driving in a society that seems to view speed limits as minimums. The approach involves slowing down, though some extreme hypermilers use techniques that are fast and risky.

Take your foot off the gas and coast to that red light. When the light turns green, go easy on the gas pedal. On the highway, set the cruise control to the speed limit - maybe even a little lower, if you dare.

Such techniques have been known and largely ignored by the motoring public for decades, but they are getting new disciples thanks to connections forged by the Internet and the harsh reality of $50 fill-ups.

The techniques of the hypermilers and ecodrivers are shared and honed on Web sites such as cleanmpg.com, ecodrive.org, greenmpg.com and hypermiling.com. Their advocates insist they will work for hybrid or conventionally powered cars, from tiny Smarts to hulking Hummers. Many of these disciples speak of rewards beyond higher mileage and lower emissions.

"You really get a whole different feeling when you drive this way . . . It's very Zen-like," said Eric Powers, a 39-year-old former hospital administrator from Wisconsin. When the weather is warm (cold weather is bad for mileage), he routinely gets more than 80 miles per gallon in his 2001 Honda Insight, a hybrid rated at 53 miles per gallon by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Powers and other practitioners of these gas-saving techniques share tips at a handful of eco-friendly Web sites. One site, ecomodder.com, aimed at people who modify their cars to improve mileage, is run by 19-year-old Benjamin Jones of Mount Holly and a partner. A sophomore at Dartmouth College, Jones gets more than 50 miles per gallon from his conventionally powered 1991 Honda CRX, a car that the EPA says should get about 31.

Most boys buying their first car at age 17 would care more about horsepower than mileage. But Jones' environmental consciousness led him to seek "the most fuel-efficient car I could" when he went shopping for his first car in 2005.

Hybrids, still relatively new on the market, were beyond his financial reach. He settled on the then 14-year-old CRX.

He quickly began working the Net in search of tips for getting better mileage. That is where he discovered the ecomodders.

Jones says that one of the easiest modifications he made was also the most effective: Installing a dashboard-mounted computer that provides a real-time display of current and average gas mileage. Hooking up the $170 ScanGauge (www.ScanGauge.com) would seem like a complex undertaking, but it can easily plug into a data port under the dashboard in most automobiles manufactured since 1996, he said.

"I was never a very aggressive driver," Jones said this week, but he saw a "huge difference" in his fuel economy as he kept trying to improve the numbers on that gauge.

Such displays are standard equipment in most hybrids and in some conventionally powered cars. Indeed, many ecodrivers say their obsession with fuel economy began when they first encountered the huge mileage display that is the most prominent feature on the dashboard of the Toyota Prius.

If the EPA really wants to reduce fuel consumption, says a post on one of the Web sites, it should mandate mileage displays as standard equipment on all cars.

Prius, Insight and Honda Civic Hybrid owners have compared their mileage numbers on Web sites such as greenhybrid.com since the early days of the hybrid market. Naturally, competition ensued.

Powers recently quit his comfortable job to devote full attention - at one third the pay - to the annual Hybridfest that he helped found in 2006. The event includes an "MPG Challenge" that attracts hypermilers from around the country. The winner in the most competitive division was William Kinney of Kennewick, Wash., who achieved 168 miles per gallon in a Honda Insight.

That kind of mileage requires extreme hypermiling techniques, some of which can get a driver in trouble with other motorists - or the police.

Those techniques include drafting behind big rigs with the engine in neutral, or off, and declining to use brakes when entering a sharply curving ramp from a limited-access highway.

"My litmus test," Powers said, "is to ask myself if this is something I would do in a driver-training test. There are things I would do if I'm the only person on the road or if I'm in a competition that I wouldn't do otherwise.

"I wouldn't draft a big-rig in a driving test," he said.

"I think it's important to be courteous," Jones said. "I usually drive at 55 or 60, but I'll go faster if that doesn't feel safe."

And, he said, "I know that using these techniques make me a better driver because I'm much more aware of my surroundings and I have to anticipate what's down the road."

The regional gas price records set yesterday were $3.50 on the Pennsylvania side of the Philadelphia area, and $3.35 in South Jersey, according to the AAA, which has been tracking local prices since 2000.

In that kind of economic environment, could these slower, gentler driving techniques catch on?

"Extremely unlikely," said Leon James, who for decades has been studying road rage and other aspects of the driving psyche at the University of Hawaii.

"We're trained from our socialization to be very regimented by time," he said. So driving fast and even discourteously "is a completely natural way of dealing with the environment."

People in a time-pressed society are unlikely to stop pressing the gas pedal, he said.

But while ecodrivers and hypermilers would like to see more people follow their lead, they're happy to just enjoy the benefits they've discovered.

And though Jones still spends about 10 hours a week tending to the ecomodder Web site, he spends little time in his car.

"I commute by bike most of the time now."

Driving for Mileage

Some driving practices recommended by Ecodriving groups, AAA and the EPA:

Observe the speed limit. 55 to 60 m.p.h. is the optimum speed for fuel-efficient highway driving. Every 5 m.p.h. above that reduces fuel economy about 5 percent to 7 percent.

Remove excess weight and roof racks when they are not being used. Store your bowling ball or other unnecessary gear in a closet, not the trunk. Roof racks increase drag.

Coast to a stop sign or traffic signal. Keeping a foot on the gas and braking abruptly wastes gas.

Keep tires fully inflated. Underinflated tires increase rolling resistance. But do not overinflate.

Use cruise control on the open road. Acceleration is the enemy of fuel economy. Avoid cruise control on hilly roads.

More Driving Tips

www.fueleconomy.gov lists official EPA mileage ratings for most cars and trucks from the 1985 model year on.

www.cleanmpg.com has detailed tips from top hypermilers, including Wayne Gerdes, who is widely credited with coining the term.

www.ecomodder.com, Benjamin Jones' how-to site for people willing to modify their cars to boost mileage.

www.ecodrive.org takes a global look at driving for mileage, and points to European countries that now require ecodriving instruction.

EndText

Contact staff writer Tony Gnoffo at 215-854-2466 or tgnoffo@phillynews.com.