Opinion

Patriotic answer to $4-a-gallon gas: Drive less, and slow down

Don't wait for a tech fix. Help America save big by driving 55.

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Three decades ago, during an earlier energy crisis, Ronald Reagan strode into an Atlanta hotel for a political meeting. As he approached the auditorium, someone asked:

"Governor Reagan, as a conservative, don't you think the 55 miles-per-hour speed limit imposed by the government to save gas is a violation of our freedom?"

In his amiable manner, Reagan chuckled quietly and, as I recall, he replied something like this:

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"Well, that could be. But, speaking just personally, I think it's not a bad thing if we all slow down just a bit and enjoy the scenery a little more."

We could all use that kind of common sense today as gas rises past $4.

Many ideas are being put forth to ameliorate an energy-price crisis that threatens job security and economic growth in the United States.

Famous oilman T. Boone Pickens wants to build huge turbines all over the Midwest to harness wind energy.

Many members of Congress want to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) where – at today's prices – there is probably $1 trillion worth of oil waiting to be pumped.

In California, moves are afoot to make the state the renewable energy capital of the nation.

But – and there always seems to be a "but" – all of those ideas take time. Five years to build substantial wind farms. Ten years to tap Arctic oil.

Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal has published predictions that a barrel of oil could reach $200 as soon as the end of this year. If that happens, gasoline would hit $6 a gallon.

Woe is us.

Or maybe not.

Instead, the time may be ripe for individual citizen action – like the Minutemen of 1775. After all, isn't that how we got this great country started 233 years ago?

There are two steps we can take right away that could have greater impact than oil from the Arctic. They are so simple and straightforward that they are seldom mentioned. But Americans took these steps during World War II, and they worked.

First, drive slower.

Second, drive less.

The savings of gasoline from these two steps would be phenomenal. (More on that in a moment.)

During World War II, Congress and President Franklin Roosevelt mandated a nationwide 35 m.p.h. speed limit. At that time, 35 m.p.h. was the most efficient speed for autos. Even more important, it helped preserve automobile tires, which was crucial because Japan had cut off American access to natural rubber from Southeast Asia.

Today, 35 m.p.h. is no longer the best speed for autos with their sleek designs and advanced transmissions. Newer vehicles generally get the highest gas mileage somewhere between 45 and 55 m.p.h., says David L. Greene of the National Transportation Research Center at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Knoxville, Tenn.

The main force reducing mileage is air drag, says Dr. Greene. The faster you go, the greater the drag. Drag forces increase exponentially, so doubling your speed from 40 to 80 increases drag fourfold.

It makes a huge difference, for at 80 m.p.h. your car pushes against wind with the force of a hurricane.

Consumer Reports tested the effect of higher speeds on gas mileage. David Champion, director of auto testing, found that boosting the highway speed of a 2006 Toyota Camry cut gasoline mileage dramatically:

•55 m.p.h. – 40.3 miles per gallon

•65 m.p.h. – 34.9 miles per gallon

•75 m.p.h. – 29.8 miles per gallon

On a hypothetical 1,900-mile round trip from New York City to Disney World in Florida, the Camry would use 47 gallons of gas at 55 m.p.h.. But at 75 m.p.h., it would burn nearly 64 gallons – a $70 difference.

Ideally, if we all bought 45 m.p.g. Toyota Prius hybrids, US gasoline use would drop in half, from 9.3 million barrels per day, to under 5 million barrels a day. Of course, that won't happen.

So a practical and immediate response would be not only to drive slower, but also drive less. Government made that happen in World War II by limiting most drivers to four gallons of gas per week.

That's unlikely now. But consider this: If everyone could reduce their driving by just 10 percent, the savings would total nearly 1 million barrels of gasoline every day.

How much is that? Well, it amounts to about half our daily oil imports from Saudi Arabia. It also would be equal to the highest expected production of oil if we drill in ANWR. And we can do it today.

Mr. Pickens notes that America will spend $10 trillion in the next 10 years on imported oil. US wealth is draining fast overseas.

But as individuals, we can turn this around. Today. Don't wait for Barack Obama, or John McCain, or some whiz kid in Silicon Valley to solve this problem. None of them can do it quick enough.

It's up to us. Save gas, and win this fight.

John Dillin is a former managing editor of the Monitor.

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