Bob Winger is that guy on the highway, puttering along in the far right lane.
As Chevrolet Tahoes, Cadillac Escalades and a host of other cars and trucks whip by in the passing lanes, Winger slowly accelerates up to the 60-mph speed limit on Interstate 64 in Newport News. He eases up on the gas a bit, fixated on a display next to his speedometer that shows his mileage.
For short stretches, his 2006 Honda Civic Hybrid gets as much as 90 to 100 miles per gallon.
Winger is a hypermiler, trying to squeeze as many miles as he can out of every gallon of gas. He drives at or below the speed limit. He accelerates slowly after stops and only uses the air conditioning when the temperature outside hits 90 or 95 degrees.
He started hypermiling two years ago after buying the Honda. Since then, he said, his hybrid has averaged 62 mpg, far better than the 42 mpg estimated by the Environmental Protection Agency.
“The key is driving gently,” Winger said.
By not accelerating quickly – literally hitting the gas – and driving more slowly, Winger lets the hybrid’s engine and electric motor operate more efficiently and therefore burn less gas.
Hypermiling was coined by Wayne Gerdes, an Illinois resident who started trying to improve his gas mileage the day after Sept. 11, 2001. He now runs cleanmpg.com, a Web site where hypermilers talk about commuting and saving gas. The site, which now has more than 6,000 registered members, has seen its traffic – especially from guests who aren’t registered on the site – shoot up along with the price of gas.
Hypermilers can be fervent about their driving style and its benefits. Winger is an avid contributor to discussions on cleanmpg.com. His wife, Marjorie, however, who prefers to drive normally, doesn’t want to hear him talk about it anymore, he said.
“This is the way we’re going to save us from ourselves,” Gerdes said of hypermiling. “We can save the U.S. a significant amount of fuel and money.”
Winger’s gentle driving style is only the tip of the iceberg for some hypermilers. Some shut off their cars at long red lights. They brake slowly or try to anticipate the traffic ahead so they don’t have to brake at all. They drive to the farthest destination first to thoroughly warm up the engine when running errands.
Others employ more aggressive, even illegal, techniques. They draft behind big trucks or shift into neutral and coast at highway speeds. Some roll through stop signs.
Such practices prompted AAA, the nation’s largest driving club, to criticize hypermiling. AAA urged drivers to think of safety first and to refrain from fuel-saving techniques that could put them in danger.
Georjeane Blumling, vice president of AAA Tidewater, said Winger’s style of gentle driving is a good idea. If more drivers would be less aggressive, she said, people would save fuel and improve their own safety.
“You don’t have to be first, don’t have to get up to speed so fast,” Blumling said. “We’re a rush, rush, rush society, and we’ve gotten away from safer driving techniques.”
Hypermiling has added 15 minutes to Winger’s 31-mile commute between his home in James City County and Langley Air Force Base in Hampton. The 52-year-old civil servant changed his driving route to avoid the interstate and its high speeds, but he said he enjoys the drive more. It also doesn’t hurt that he leaves home at 5:30 a.m. and returns before the evening rush hour traffic gets bad.
“I feel like I’m a lot more relaxed, focused and in tune,” he said. “In my mind now, speed limits are limits, not requirements.”
When he does have to journey onto I -64 between Hampton and Williamsburg, Winger stays in the right lane and maintains a safe distance from other drivers.
If a driver comes up from behind and is unable to pass, Winger speeds up. While he wants to get good mileage, Winger said he’d rather sacrifice a few miles per gallon than tick off another driver.
“I try to keep an eye on it,” he said. “If I’m out there annoying people, that’s not helping.”