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Published: Tuesday, 6/3/2008

Increase seen in out-of-gas motorists


PHILADELPHIA - Brent Saba had just dropped a church group off at Philadelphia International Airport on Sunday morning and was heading north on Interstate 95 when it happened: His 15-passenger van ran out of gas.

Mr. Saba, a 24-year-old church pastor, made it to the shoulder just past the Ben Franklin Bridge and waited more than 30 minutes for someone to stop and lend him a cell phone. Then he waited a while longer for AAA to arrive with fuel.

With gas prices hovering at $4 a gallon, motorists like Mr. Saba are putting less fuel in their tanks - then coming up empty on the highway.

Though national statistics on out-of-gas motorists don't exist, there's plenty of anecdotal evidence that drivers unwilling or unable to fill 'er up are gambling by keeping their tanks extremely low on fuel.

Though exact numbers aren't available, "we have definitely seen an increase" in the number of stranded motorists needing fuel, said April Cochran, marketing operations manager for AAA Northwest Ohio, which covers an eight-county area.

The jump is likely related to high prices at the pump and motorists not filling their tanks fully, she said.

As a service to its members, AAA will take gasoline to motorists with an empty tank, though Ms. Cochran noted the organization only provides the amount needed to get to the closest gas station. Those with a basic AAA membership, rather than a "plus" membership, must pay for the fuel.

Ms. Cochran encouraged drivers not to let their tank get too depleted because it can be bad for the car, including the possibility of damaging its fuel pump.

In the Philadelphia area, calls from out-of-gas AAA members doubled between May, 2007, and May, 2008, from 81 to 161, the auto club reported.

"The number one reason is they can't stretch their money out from week to week," said Gary Siley, the AAA mobile technician who helped Mr. Saba.

"Some of them are embarrassed. They say, 'I was trying to make it till Friday,' and they couldn't do it," said Mr. Siley, who has assisted numerous out-of-gas motorists.

Mr. Saba blames himself for not paying enough attention to the fuel gauge, saying he doesn't normally let the tank get so low. But he said the spiraling cost of gas has led the church to reduce its use of the fuel-guzzling van.

And when he does get gas, he puts in only a half-tank. "If the prices were lower, I'd probably just fill it up," Mr. Saba said.

Convenience stores, which sell about 80 percent of the nation's gas, are seeing fewer fill-ups, said industry spokesman Jeff Lenard.

"When the pump hits a certain dollar amount now, you're seeing more customers stop," said Mr. Lenard, with the National Association of Convenience Stores.

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