Call it a gentler, constructive form of road rage: Helen Shondell has given the Environmental Protection Agency a piece of her mind.
Every workday, Sister Helen - a Roman Catholic nun in Birmingham, Mich. - drives 20 miles round-trip in her 2003 Nissan Sentra. While her new car is comfortable, Sister Helen is not a happy commuter.
When she bought her Nissan, the window sticker indicated a government rating of 31 combined miles per gallon. But the car really gets only 27 to 28 m.p.g.
So, Sister Helen filled out a "citizen survey" organized by Washington-based Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), which ends Monday - part of a wider effort by the EPA to solicit public comment about whether to adjust its decades-old fuel-economy tests.
In an election year when Middle East turmoil has boosted gasoline prices and highlighted America's dependence on foreign oil, a brouhaha has erupted over mileage stickers. The debate boils down to this: Would consumers buy more fuel-efficient cars if they knew the real guzzling potential of America's new-car fleet?
"The fundamental problem is that the fuel-economy test the EPA uses is over 30 years old," says David Friedman, research director of the UCS's clean-vehicles program. "Think how you drove 30 years ago. People drive faster on highways today, there's more urban driving, more congestion in cities."
The result: Fuel-economy numbers the EPA pastes on car windows overstate actual results by at least 10 percent, according to a UCS analysis of Energy Information Administration data. Those sticker numbers are themselves derived, in part, from formulas.
Since the 1980s, the EPA has employed "adjustment factors" to bring test results into closer alignment with the real world. Right now, those factors knock an additional 10 percent from city driving and 22 percent from highway driving results for each model. And each EPA sticker warns that results will vary depending on the driver and the type of driving.
But that level of fuzziness is way too high, critics argue. Consumers end up spending $20 billion more for fuel than they were led to expect, UCS calculates. And there's more at stake than bucks at the pump, some say.
"We think that if consumers knew the actual fuel economy of the vehicle they were considering purchasing, they might make a different decision," says Elisa Lynch, global warming campaign director for Bluewater Network, a San Francisco environmental organization that in 2002 first petitioned the EPA to update its ratings. "It would give more accurate information to policymakers when they're considering raising fuel-economy standards and make a significant contribution toward problems like global warming."
Cars and trucks in the US create about 20 percent of annual US emissions of carbon dioxide - which is about 5 percent of global emissions, Bluewater said in its petition.
At the same time, the US already consumes more than 20 million barrels of oil a day - importing more than half of it overall, much of that from the Middle East.
Even if adjusted, the EPA's adjustment factors would still fail to accurately reflect the real world's range of changes in driving habits and growing diversity in automobile technology, critics charge. The actual test, they point out, seems almost quaint. Flaws, UCS says, include:
• Highway speeds. The EPA highway test sets an average speed of 48 miles per hour and a top speed of 60 m.p.h. - despite the fact many states have raised their limit to 65 m.p.h. or higher. Fuel economy can fall by 17 percent for vehicles going at a more typical 70 m.p.h.
• Traffic jams. In 1982, urban congestion added seven hours a year to the average person's annual travel, UCS says, compared with 26 hours a year in 2001. In its petition, Bluewater cited a study of 68 US urban areas in which delays rose from 11 hours in 1982 to 36 hours in 1999.
• Quick starts. Maximum acceleration in the EPA test is 3.3 m.p.h. per second, about the same as zero-to-60 m.p.h. in 18 seconds. The typical new truck or car can accelerate almost twice as fast. The EPA's own data, UCS says, show that people accelerate about five times as fast as the test.
• Air conditioning. The EPA fuel-economy tests are run with air conditioning off, even though 99 percent of all cars and trucks have it, UCS says.
Changes in automotive technology - from all-wheel drive to turbocharged engines - also mean that factors like highway speed, traffic, fast starts, and air conditioning affect new cars differently from older cars, UCS says.
Auto manufacturers seem none too enthusiastic about the reevaluation process.
"It's unnecessary because the numbers on the stickers already say they are generally reliable estimates of what a motorist's mileage will be," says Eron Shosteck, a spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, a Washington lobby group representing nine automakers. "On the sticker itself it's made very clear the numbers are for comparison purposes only - and that individual mileage may vary depending on a variety of factors."
For its part, the Environmental Protection Agency says it is eager for public input.
"EPA recognizes driving habits have changed [with] congestion, more idling in traffic, heavier use of accessories like air conditioning," says John Millett, an EPA spokesman. "We think it can be captured by the adjustment factors. I don't know if we can change the test procedure."
All this is more than academic to Diane Norcross, a retired school teacher who gets around Los Angeles and out to a country retreat in a 2001 Honda Odyssey minivan. The issue of mileage bothers her, she says - first, because she cares about the environment, and second, because she expected far better mileage. Her Odyssey gets about 13 m.p.g. in the city, far lower than the 18 m.p.g. estimated on the EPA sticker.
"I don't gun it - I'm 75 years old," she says. "I do drive reasonably fast on the highway, but everyone in California exceeds the speed limit by 5 to 10 miles per hour. On the freeway near me it's almost 80 miles per hour."
Frustration over lack of information on fuel economy shows up in other areas, too. In a J.D. Power survey last year, the top complaint among owners of the Hummer H2 was poor fuel economy. In that case, however, the EPA could not be blamed since fuel-economy facts aren't required to be posted on the windows of Hummers - or about 6 million light-duty trucks, the UCS says.
To Sister Helen, however, the issue boils down to a matter of trust and honesty in government.
"I don't know how they get their numbers," she says. "If you're going to put something in the window and say, 'This is it,' it should be it, not something unrealistic."