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Drivers play chicken with their gas gauges

Driving on empty could damage a car's fuel pump, which could result in a costly repair.

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DURHAM, N.C. — Like songwriter Jackson Browne, more area drivers have been running on empty lately to avoid filling up with $4-a-gallon gasoline as long as possible.

When drivers lose the game of chicken with their gas gauges, AAA often gets called to help. The organization has seen its calls from people needing roadside gas increase by 9 percent over a year ago.

"They are trying to make it as far as they can. They are finding that they don't want to fill up a tank, (so) they get to a certain dollar amount and they stop," said Anita Flippin, AAA's manager in Durham. "This is definitely a different spike, and it's a different trend than we've ever experienced before."

By keeping the needle on empty could eventually cost drivers even more, according to mechanics.

"If you are running too low and you have debris the bottom of the fuel tank, it can get sucked up into the fuel filter, or even worse, it can get stuck in the (fuel) pump itself," said Roy Robinson, the manager of AAA's auto shop in Durham.

Robinson said he believes low fuel levels are responsible for the spike in damaged fuel pumps he's seen. Repairing a fuel pump could cost as much as $1,000.

Many people don't realize the importance of keeping their gas tank at least one-eighth full, he said.

"If you've got less than an eighth of a tank, in all likelihood it's going to get stuck in that pump, and if it does, you are going to be wasting a lot of money."