How your driving style hits your pocket

Are you wasting money behind the wheel? I recently changed my driving habits to see how much I could save…

The rocketing price of fuel is a huge incentive to use less petrol each week but many of us don't feel able to cut down.

After all, we use our cars to get to work, visit the shops, and often travel to see our far-flung friends and family.

But petrochemicals giant Shell reckons the average driver could save £500 a year through smarter driving. It recently challenged 18 cabbies from cities across Britain to adopt fuel efficient driving tactics on the road.

These drivers reduced their fuel consumption by an average of 20%. That's very impressive, so I set out to see if I could make some similar savings.

I made a huge effort to adopt better habits behind the wheel to see if I could improve the miles per gallon (mpg) I wring out of my small car.

Eco road warrior

There's lots of information on the web on driving more efficiently, including a very thorough guide from Yahoo!.

About town you should drive smoothly, avoid over-revving, don't idle unnecessarily, dump any heavy items you don't need, maintain momentum, and try not to use the air conditioning.

[Useful: Compare car insurance at Yahoo! and get £20 if you switch]

On the motorway, aim to keep your distance from other road users, use higher gears, don't speed, use air conditioning rather than open the windows, and set your speed using cruise control.

But it can be hard to keep these in mind all the time. I've been driving for about four years and some of my bad habits are pretty ingrained.

In particular, I noticed that I often keep my foot down even when I can see a red light ahead — meaning I have to brake rather than gradually slow down. I quite often get caught at a nearby railway crossing but hardly ever think to switch off my engine.

Not only that, but I usually leave my baby's heavy travel cot in the boot of my car, which is just unnecessary weight.

First of all, I emptied the boot and made sure my tyres were pumped to the manufacturer's recommended level, to reduce unnecessary friction.

Then I wrote the above tips down and left them on my passenger seat, where I could re-read them every time I got behind the wheel.

Did I use less fuel?

I'm the first to admit that this has not been the most scientifically rigorous study into enhancing the fuel efficiency of the small car about town. Lots of things can affect your mileage per gallon, including the weather. However, I did manage to fractionally lower my average fuel consumption compared to the previous week.

My car doesn't have a fuel computer, so I worked this out for each week by filling my tank and recording my mileage at the start of the experiment. When I filled up at the end of the week, I could see how many litres I had used and the miles I had travelled.

Then I divided the total mileage during the week by the number of litres and multiplied that by 4.546 to work out my miles per gallon.

Following? For example if you've covered 1000 miles and used 101 litres of fuel, your average mpg = (1000/101) x 4.546 = 45mpg (thanks to The AA for spelling out the formula for me!). My urban mpg rose from 34mpg to 35.2mpg. It's not breathtaking but over a year it will really add up.

On top of that, this experiment made me much more aware of my fuel use. That motivated me to cut back on my miles by combining journeys and leaving the car at home for shorter journeys.

How much could you save?

Now, I don't do that many miles, so my savings will be fairly small. But the average driver is doing 12,000 miles a year, according to Santander.

If these motorists increased their mpg to the same extent as me, they'd effectively be getting around 410 miles a year for free.

The average price of unleaded petrol was 135.7 pence per litre in August, according to The AA, meaning a saving of £71.86.

But I think I will be able to increase my efficiency even more as these tips become habit. I'm confident that many drivers could indeed save hundreds of pounds a year by simply changing their habits on the road.