What falling gas prices mean for you

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(MoneyWatch) Delighted drivers are finding lower gas prices at the pump. The national average price for regular is $3.63, according to the AAA Fuel Gauge. Even gas in California, where refinery problems drove the price above $4.50 a gallon, was down to $4.36 -- a 21-cent drop in a week.

So how should you react? That's a silly question, you say. You are going to enjoy the lower total when you fill up at the pump. And so you should. But with gas prices potentially as volatile as ever, don't be too quick to shift gears on what car you might buy next or good habits you have developed to help save on gas.

Part of the current price decline results from refiners' switch from summer blend gasoline, required to help curb air pollution, to the cheaper winter blend. But to state the obvious, in a few months they will be switching back to the more expensive version. The U.S. Energy Information Adminstration projects that regular gas will average $3.44 a gallon next year compared with $3.65 for all of 2012. But filling up a 15-gallon gas tank at $3.44 will still cost you over $50.

And, as we have all become aware, events such as oil supply disruption from a flare-up in the Middle East could send gas prices soaring again.

If you are shopping, keep high gas mileage in mind

High gas prices prompt consumers to buy high-mileage cars. The family of Toyota Prius hybrids was the best-selling vehicle line in California this year through September, according to a report just issued by the California New Car Dealers Association.

You don't have to buy a hybrid. A combination of federal regulations and potential buyers' desire for higher mileage has produced a generation of new comfortable small cars with lots of features and high MPG. And as dealers continue to clear out their 2012 models, you can take advantage of rebates and financing deals.

For instance, the 2012 Chevrolet Cruze carries a $500 rebate or 0 percent financing for up to four years. The Cruze base model is rated at 22 MPG in city driving and 35 on the highway but the Eco version is rated for 42 MPG on the highway.

And even if you need a larger mid-size car or a small crossover SUV, higher mileage versions are now plentiful.

Don't drop your gas-saving routine

If you have developed gas-saving habits like consolidating trips for errands so as to use less gas, don't change now. When you are driving, paying attention can boost your mileage significantly. Here is a reminder of some of the most effective techniques to increase fuel efficiency:

  • Slow down and calm down. By cutting speed from the mid-70s to 65 mph and avoiding lane changes and bursts of acceleration, test drivers at auto site Edmunds.com got a 33 percent to 38 percent mileage improvement in various vehicles.
  • Don't tailgate. Not only is it dangerous to drive close to the car ahead of you -- it also means you need to brake and re-accelerate when cars in front slow down. So even in stop-and-go rush hour traffic, leave yourself enough room to drive smoothly and save gas.
  • Avoid idling. While shopping or doing errands in the city or suburbs, shut off the engine if you are stopping for more than a minute. When you sit with the motor running, you are basically getting zero miles per gallon.
  • Check your tire pressure. Like tailgating, under-inflated tires are both dangerous and detrimental to gas mileage. Keep the tires at the pressure stipulated by the manufacturer -- usually on a plaque on the driver's door visible when the door is open. Having tires inflated 25 percent less than the recommended pressure can cut gas mileage 3 percent to 5 percent.

Following these simple steps will help you save money even if gas prices head back up early next year.

  • Jerry Edgerton On Twitter»

    View all articles by Jerry Edgerton on CBS MoneyWatch»
    Jerry Edgerton, author of Car Shopping Made Easy, has been covering the car beat since Detroit companies dominated the U.S. market. The former car columnist for Money magazine and Washington correspondent for Business Week, Edgerton specializes in finding the best deals on wheels and offering advice on making your car last.

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