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The Monitor's View

How to avoid panic at the pump

Gasoline at nearly $4 a gallon has already cut driving the most since 1942.

May 27, 2008



Gasoline at nearly $4 a gallon may cast a cheerless cloud over summer travel. But Americans ought not be discouraged and perhaps they might even be grateful – as prices in Europe reach $9. Even more, US drivers should be ready for an energy makeover.

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After the initial gasp at rising pump prices, people are indeed starting to alter their lifestyles.

The number of miles driven in March was 4.3 percent lower than a year ago, the largest decline since 1942. As more errands are consolidated and pleasure trips deferred, the shift in habits could become permanent. That may even help bring down gas prices and reduce a high US dependence on foreign oil.

Countries that boost their energy efficiency gain a competitive advantage and can prosper.

But consider any changes in behavior as a warm-up for the coming government mandates aimed at reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. Transportation in the US uses two-thirds of the oil consumed. All Americans must do their share to curb global warming, not just business and industry.

What's the average citizen to do? A lot, actually. Americans will spend $3,400 to fuel up their cars and other personal vehicles this year, estimates the nonprofit, nonpartisan Alliance to Save Energy. Cutting that figure may not be as hard as some people think.

For one, this summer is a chance for that closer-to-home vacation. Setting sights on a destination not more than one tankful away is likely to yield a vacation that's just as fun and still fits into most budgets.

Besides simply driving less, Americans should eke out the best mileage they can.

Vehicles should be well-maintained, with tires properly inflated, the engine tuned up, and the air-filter clean. By allowing more time to reach a destination, drivers can go slower – observing the speed limit – thus saving fuel.

Fresh ideas for conserving never seem to end. Michigan, for example, allows recreational-vehicle campers to store their RVs at state parks between summer visits.

Americans can make sure they don't drive with the car trunk or truck bed weighted down with unnecessary stuff that cuts mileage. They can carpool to replace some or all of their commuting. If possible, they can explore working from home all or part of the time. Or move closer to their workplace or near a public-transit stop.

A new website – drivesmarterchallenge.org – sponsored by the Alliance to Save Energy, helps drivers calculate how much they can save in cold cash by making simple, inexpensive changes to their driving habits. The higher gas prices go, the more their efficiency will pay them back.

Some may feel the urge to buy a high-m.p.g. hybrid car. That could make sense if they're driving an ancient gas-guzzler ready for retirement, and if automakers don't begin to price-gouge on their high m.p.g. models. But Consumer Reports points out that those who drive a late-model vehicle might need many years to recoup the cost of buying a hybrid. They'll still cut their gasoline costs (if they don't drive more miles), but they may not reap a financial windfall overall.

Welcome to a new world that rewards ever-increasing energy efficiency. With enough smart moves, today's oil consumer can steadily usher in a post oil era.

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