Earth Day: Five driving tips that could save you gas money and help the environment

Follow these five Earth Day driving tips and you could save up to 20 percent of the fuel you normally use and help reverse US dependence on oil.

Americans are bombarded daily with different approaches for lessening US oil dependence, ranging from the use of methanol or switch grass for biofuel to adopting various kinds of electric and hybrid vehicles.

It’s enough to make your head spin. Some of these approaches make great sense, but others are hard to understand, much less execute successfully in a fickle consumer market.

Enter ecodriving. It is the most overlooked and yet the simplest way to decrease oil dependence.

Indeed, the Paris-based International Energy Agency has found that ecodriving can significantly increase fuel efficiency and reduce global carbon emissions. Nigel Jollands, the agency’s director of energy efficiency, pointed out to me that the agency is now “encouraging all countries to develop ecodriving programs that are appropriate for their national circumstances.” Ecodriving is especially important for Americans, because we account for one-fourth of the world’s daily oil use.

What is ecodriving, exactly?

Ecodriving is the opposite of the hurry up, put the pedal to the metal of Americana, of an individualistic culture that wants convenience and speed in all things. It involves driving in a manner that minimizes fuel consumption and emissions by:

•Turning off the engine when the vehicle is not moving for extended periods, such as in a massive traffic jam.

•Avoiding rapid acceleration and deceleration.

•Driving at efficient speeds. Fuel efficiency goes down significantly in most vehicles at speeds above 75 miles per hour. David Champion, director of auto testing at Consumer Reports, found that boosting the highway speed of a 2006 Toyota Camry cut gasoline mileage dramatically: The car that got 40.3 miles per gallon at 55 m.p.h, got 34.9 m.p.g. at 65 m.p.h. and 29.8 m.p.g. at 75 m.p.h.

•Removing unnecessary items from the vehicle (such as ski or bike racks) to reduce weight and for limiting wind resistance.

•Learning how to shift gears effectively so as to avoid abrupt stops and starts.

The International Energy Agency has found that these steps could save up to 20 percent of the fuel used by some drivers and possibly as much as 10 percent on average across all drivers on a lasting basis. That’s a lot of oil.

To put it into perspective, the United States imports about 15 percent of its oil per year from the Middle East. In theory, ecodriving could eliminate a good portion of what we import from this volatile region.

Europeans have started to embrace ecodriving. The European Commission, which is the executive body of the European Union, has strongly promoted ecodriving. Many European trucking companies now require their drivers to be ecocertified and to monitor their fuel consumption. And yet, it’s still rare to hear about ecodriving in the US.

The Obama administration has taken oil dependence seriously, but if it wants to make a dent in dependence immediately, it should make ecodriving a key element of its national energy policy. To do so, it should widely advertise both the benefits of ecodriving and the steps that citizens can take to become smarter drivers. It should discourage efforts by states to raise the speed limit (as Virginia recently did and other states are considering). And it should strongly promote the purchase of vehicles that provide feedback to drivers on their driving and consumption behavior.

Consumers should be given tax breaks for buying such vehicles, provided they meet other efficiency standards. And producers should be given incentives to mass-produce vehicles with this technology.

Citizens also have much to do. We can start to drive more sensibly and to spread the word on ecodriving. Sure, ecodriving can be annoying. Few auto-loving Americans want to be under constraints when behind the wheel.

But ecodriving makes too much sense to ignore, and it’s safer, too, because it is less quick and hasty and therefore less prone to accident.

American and global oil dependence represent key challenges of our time. The use of oil is tied to serious environmental, security, and economic problems. Ecodriving is part of the solutionthat we can all adopt.

Steve Yetiv is a professor of political science at Old Dominion University and is the author of “Crude Awakenings” and “The Absence of Grand Strategy.”

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