Man pumping gas

Habit-changing fuel costs

Planning ahead, managing money key to dealing with prices at the pump

By Kristen Lipscombe

Our driving habits can help us better manage the impact of surging fuel costs on our budget, according to the Canadian Automobile Association.

“We can do a lot of small things that (when combined) together can make a big difference,” said Steve Olmstead, director of social responsibility and advocacy for CAA Atlantic.

And drivers are looking to do just that, considering that as of June 25, prices at the pumps were averaging 203.8 cents per litre in Nova Scotia, 206.6 cents per litre in New Brunswick, 212.1 cents per litre on Prince Edward Island and a whopping 214.3 cents per litre in Newfoundland and Labrador on the CAA National website.

“We’ve seen escalating prices through the first two quarters of this year, and people are doing what they can to get their heads around that,” Olmstead said. “They are looking for ways to better manage the fuel they do have; that’s been the challenge for everyone.”

So how can we sharpen our driving habits to ensure we make the most effective and efficient use of our fuel?

For people who are travelling, it’s important to make gas prices “part of planning for the season,” Olmstead said. “That way your eyes are open and you’re not being surprised later.”

That being said, CAA hasn’t seen any indication that gas prices are preventing people from travelling, although it’s still early on in vacation season. In fact, as COVID-19 restrictions have lifted across the country, there has been a healthy appetite for a return to travel.

“We’re not hearing from people that they’re not doing road trips with their kids,” Olmstead said, “but they are looking for ways to better manage the fuel that they do have.”

However, according to a study released by BNN Bloomberg and RATESDOTCA in late March, 54 per cent of Canadians said they were driving less due to high gas prices, with 70 per cent of Atlantic Canadians changing their habits behind the wheel the most. It’s important to note that the online survey for this study conducted by Leger only had 1,515 respondents across the country, so it’s not clear how much those numbers clearly reflect what’s going on with drivers across the country.

What’s certain is that most Canadians are more cognizant of how their daily driving habits impact their bank accounts. You may be seeing people ahead of you at drive-thru windows turning off their engines while they wait for their fast food, or notice fewer people on the roads giving their gas pedals the lead foot, for example. 

“If you are around town, and you’re just getting around doing daily stuff, try and get as many of your errands done in one trip as you can,” Olmstead added. “It just prevents having to do a second trip.”

And yes, trying not to idle whenever possible, no matter how short a time it may seem, will help you save some cash in the long-run, he said.

“A big one is actually driving the posted speed limit,” Olmstead said. “We all tend to be a little heavy on the gas pedal. If you drive consistently at the posted limit, it makes much more efficient use of your fuel than powering up 10 kilometres over the speed limit only to back off later.” 

It also helps to reduce drag by taking “any extra heavy stuff out of your trunk” and removing unnecessary racks, although Olmstead noted that will be a less popular idea at this time of year, when people are getting outdoors for summer activities, which means hauling bikes, boats and other big toys around.

However, there’s still more drivers can do to reduce the amount they spend at gas stations. Another key tip is to take advantage of cruise control if your car has that option. “Right now there’s maybe nothing more important than that cruise control button,” Olmstead said.

“Whether you’re driving down the Valley, up to Cape Breton, over to P.E.I. or all the way to Toronto, say for a summer vacation, drive the posted limit and use the cruise control feature because that will help you manage your fuel better,” he said. “It’s technology that’s designed to help us do that… to manage our speed.”

And of course, ensuring “your engine’s in good operating condition” is also important, Olmstead said. “Any little glitch makes it less efficient,” he explained. 

“Those are really incremental things that are hard to measure but … if you sharpen those habits, it pays off.”

Just as CAA notes it’s important for everyday drivers to plan ahead, it’s also vital for trucking companies to closely monitor how they’re spending on fuel costs.

For small-to-medium-sized companies, for example, “when it’s at these prices, let’s say you have five trucks, you fill those two or three times a week, there’s a significant cost increase,” he explained.

“So if you don’t have financial stability or access to more cash, you might not make it past a few months,” said Jean-Marc Picard, Executive Director of the Atlantic Provinces Trucking Association. “Because you’re not going to get paid for those deliveries for 30 days.”

For those with fixed contracts and prices, surging gas prices can be a real challenge, Picard said. Combine that with increases in equipment and insurance costs and budgeting has become a real challenge for trucking companies.

“For the big fleets, we’re talking millions of dollars, so it’s all relative,” Picard said, but many mid-sized companies have sought out extra credit lines because their fuel freight is double what it was last year.

“We’re really busy, which helps,” Picard added.

Professional drivers may not even feel the financial impact thanks to a need for more workers behind the wheel, combined with fuel surcharges on contracts, unless they’re owner-operators themselves. “Like anything else, as long as you manage your business well, then you should be fine.”

What it comes down to is that planning should be priority when it comes to handling gas prices.

“There’s a little bit more observance of budget,” Olmstead said. “And saying, instead of filling my car up at this rate, I’m going to manage by budget … I’ve only got a couple of hundred dollars a month for fuel, it’s not a lot, so I am only going to fill up to $50. 

“However much fuel that gives me, that’s what I get to spend,” he said. “I think people are just changing their habits right now.”

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