A Speedy Way to Save Gas, Help Mother Earth

A Speedy Way to Save Gas, Help Mother Earth

Surely there's hope for the planet when the boy who ditched college one year to buy a fire-breathing, suck-gas 427 cubic inch, hemi head, twin four barrel carburetor Chrysler V8 now proudly drives a low-emissions, fuel-sipping four-cylinder, gas-electric Toyota Prius hybrid.
Yes, it's taken 40 years to green my ride; and most of America's still not aboard. Nationally, average gas mileage remains what it was 25 years ago, about half the 50-plus miles per gallon my Prius gets. Worse, our collective miles driven, around 700 million a year when my hemi and I were drag racing through the 1960's, is pushing three trillion miles a year now.
In response I've been trying - with surprising success - something way more radical than trading V8's for hybrids. Many will find it unthinkable, dismiss it as fantasy.
But before I reveal my solution and you rush to judgment, please realize what's at stake.
We desperately need to stop using so much gas, everyone from George W. Bush to Al Gore agrees. Our national addiction to foreign oil is not the only reason we're embroiled in Iraq, but if the Middle East's major export was cauliflower, do you think we'd be tied in knots over there?
We also need to cut air pollution and global warming gasses. At least 20 percent of the United States' contribution to global warming comes from the CO2 exhausted by our vehicles. Vehicle emissions also contribute half the airborne nitrogen that pollutes the Chesapeake Bay.
I'm tired of waiting on Congress to address these problems with a mandate for higher mileage vehicles or slapping additional taxes on gas to achieve the same thing.
Meanwhile, the main 'solution' the government has devised is turning out worse than no solution. The decision to hugely subsidize farm interests to distill ethanol, a gasoline substitute from corn, requires nearly as much energy as it produces and is causing corn acreage to soar, which in turn increases fertilizer-laden runoff to our waterways. Estimates are that an extra 5 million pounds of nitrogen will flow into the bay annually at a time when we need to reduce nitrogen by close to 100 million pounds a year to restore water quality.
There's a better way. It costs virtually nothing and provides instant, major help. But brace yourselves, gentle readers, because it requires a change in habits, maybe even a little sacrifice.
It is: DRIVING THE SPEED LIMIT!
For a couple years now I've gone 55 on most roads, 60-65 on the Interstates.
That usually puts me a good ten miles per hour slower than the traffic. Yes I do have to work at keeping out of other cars' way. Yes, I occasionally go faster. And I'll admit, driving the limit is an acquired taste, but I like the tastes of war and pollution even less.
How much gas do you save going ten miles slower? There's a surprising lack of research on the subject, from both government and auto makers. But I've consistently cut gas usage 10 per cent in my Prius, and 15 per cent in a Volkswagen Passat I owned.
Gas savings of 20 per cent or more are reported by Tim Castleman, a Californian who runs the DRIVE 55 Conservation Project (www.DRIVE55.org).
How's his project doing, I asked? "Slightly more popular than the National Man-Boy Love Association," he says.
That's unfortunate, because the payoff is huge. Consider that our nation's expensive, polluting misadventure into corn-based ethanol will at most produce 17 billion gallons of gasoline substitute.
All of us driving an honest 55 would, at a very minimum, save as much.
Slowing down our big, boxy SUVs may increase mileage more than easing off the accelerator in econocars like my Prius. It's because the latter are aerodynamic, and wind resistance, which ramps up fast as speed increases, is the big culprit in lowering gas mileage.
My vote's for bringing back the national 55 mph limit, enacted after the Arab oil embargo of 1974, and repealed under Bill Clinton in 1996.
Sure, we all need vehicles that use less gas. And yes, we need alternative fuels (let's develop ethanol from switchgrass rather than corn). In fact we need all this and more to gain energy independence and reduce greenhouse gasses.
But nothing will act more quickly to ease our gasoline addiction, reduce pollution and even make the roads a bit safer than simply slowing down.

Tom Horton covered the bay for 33 years for The Sun in Baltimore, and is author of six books about the Chesapeake. He is currently a freelance writer.

Distributed by Bay Journal News Service