Monday, September 12, 2005

Slow Down and Save

Our family owns two vehicles. The first, a very fuel efficient Volkswagen Golf, has been our primary commuting and errands car for over ten years. The second, a Town & Country van, was purchased several years ago when traveling anywhere as a family meant having some form of transportation that would accommodate two 6 foot plus sons, a daughter with enough books to fill the local library, and a Golden Retriever. Over the years we've tried to balance the use of the two vehicles with public transit in an attempt to save gas, money and be environmentally responsible.

The latest dramatic increase in gas prices has made us rethink this strategy. Thanks to the on-board computer on the van, we recently conducted an experiment. My mother lives exactly 150 km (93 miles) from our house. As a rule, my husband Brian sets the cruise control at 118 km/hour (73 mph), which is about the average speed of traffic. At this rate of speed, our fuel consumption averaged 21.6 miles/gal. On our return trip, Brian reduced our average speed to 113 km/hour (70 mph). Believe it or not, this improved our gas mileage to 8.5L/100 km, or 27.4 miles/gal, effectively reducing our gas consumption by a whopping 21 percent. What I found equally remarkable was that the lower speed only added an additional five minutes or so to our return trip.

At any rate, actually doing the speed limit would likely more than cover the recent hike in gas prices.

The problem is, nobody does. In order to "go with the flow" on major highways like the 401, it's necessary to travel far faster than posted limits. Reducing our speed by even 5 km/hour meant a lot more lane changing and complex driving. Despite this, Brian said that the drive home felt a lot less stressful.

Reducing speed not only saves gas, money and greenhouse gas emissions, it saves lives. According to the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), "Speeding is a factor in 31 percent of all fatal crashes, killing an average of 1,000 Americans every month. In 2003, more than 13,000 people died in speed-related crashes. NHTSA estimates that the economic cost to society of speed-related crashes is more than $40 billion each year."
The faster we go, the more dramatic the increase in deaths when we collide. 1974, the U.S. state governments reduced highway speeds that ranged from 65 to 70 mph, to 55 mph during the first oil crisis. The result was that there were 4,000 fewer traffic fatalities than in 1973. As the gas crisis faded, so did concerns about saving fuel. By the late 1980s, most speed limits had been increased to pre-crisis levels, and so had traffic deaths.

The problem is two-fold. First of all, as a society, we're hooked on speed and comfort. With the constant pressure to put more activities in the day, we tend to use our vehicles as personal time machines, using ever-increasing horsepower to save time. According to Canada's Office of Energy Efficiency, "If horsepower in car engines had stayed at 1990 levels, today's models would be about 33 percent more efficient, saving owners more than $400 per 20,000 kilometres in fuel costs."
We also demand more creature comforts from our home-away-from-home. Vans and SUVs have rapidly replaced the family sedan, further increasing gas consumption. In total, Canada's transportation sector increased fuel consumption by 26 percent between 1990 and 2003.
The second problem is greed. Oil companies represent some of the largest and most powerful corporations in the world. Reducing fuel consumption reduces corporate profits. Furthermore, reducing fuel consumption also reduces government taxes – something the Canadian government refused to do, even though we currently have federal budgetary surplus. In 1999 alone, Canadian gasoline taxes collected at the pump totalled approximately $ 10 billion.
As the old saying goes, "When the people lead, eventually the leaders follow." If everyone simply stuck to the posted speed limits, we could save more money than recent fuel hikes cost, dramatically reduce highway fatalities (and perhaps insurance costs), and make substantial process toward meeting Kyoto's greenhouse gas emissions targets. The choice is ours.


The US-based Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has compiled some interesting statistics about speed and mortality rates, among other things.

For more statistics on fuel consumption, and tips on how to reduce what you spend at the pump, visit Canada's Office of Energy Efficiency


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