TORRINGTON, Conn. (AP) – Drivers trying to delay increasingly expensive trips to the gas pump have been cutting it close in recent months, prompting a notable increase in calls to help stranded motorists, according to police.

Troopers noticed a dramatic jump in the number of vehicles that ran out of gas during the December snowstorms, and a local AAA branch reports an increase in similar service calls in the last three months of 2007.

“People are riding around with less gas in their tanks,” State Police spokesman William Tate said.

“When they don’t expect to sit idle on the highway behind a crash or wait in the snow for a plow, they run out of gas. It was an eye-opener to see how many were stranded.”

The state’s Department of Transportation’s CHAMP vehicles, or Connecticut Highway Assistance Motorist Patrol, have been dispatched numerous times to provide a few dollars’ worth of gasoline to those who run out, just enough to get them to the nearest exit.

It’s worth the expense to help avoid congestion and keep traffic flowing, Tate said.

American Automobile Association members who find themselves stranded on empty get $5 worth of gasoline, but can use the service only four times a year.

Calls for disabled motorists out of gas increased by 8 percent in the last three months of 2007 compared to the same period in 2006, said Fran Mayko, a spokeswoman for the Connecticut Motor Club, the AAA branch serving Litchfield, New Haven and Fairfield counties.

While paying to fill the tank may be tough on the wallet, AAA advises drivers that it is better for their vehicle’s engine.

“If you run close to empty a lot, you are more prone to suck up the sludge at the bottom of your tank that will gum up your fuel filter and pump,” Mayko said. “It will create more problems in the long run.”

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