In This Issue

Drivers Ed: Cutting out the Carbon


May 12, 2011
By Rachel Adelson

Carbon watch Short of not going anywhere or doing anything, there are lots of ways to shrink your personal pollution when you travel. You can shorten car trips. Group errands for efficiency. Even plan your route with more right than left turns—so you don’t have to idle for long. All of these changes curb the amount of fuel you consume.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), simple techniques can really help. The EPA suggests not making jackrabbit starts at green lights, keep your oil changed and avoid idling the engine, which burns fuel but gets you zero miles per gallon. The idea is to max out the mileage per gallon.

Overall car maintenance makes a difference, too. Improperly inflated tires can reduce fuel economy by 3 percent and a single misfiring spark plug can cut fuel economy by 4 percent, according to the National Automobile Dealers Association
(greendrivingusa.com).

The biggest change you can make is to consider buying the most fuel efficient car in the class you chose.

To find a cleaner car, check the mandated fuel-efficiency grades on new cars—they’ll show up on 2012 models. All cars will have to meet minimum tailpipe standards of the year they were built, according to the EPA.  By knowing the details of fuel efficiency on different models, consumers will be educated enough to make choices that help  keep the air clean and save money at the pump. 

A second label will reflect a given model’s greenhouse gas emissions. The best choices, as they further develop, may be hybrids or electrics. (See what’s available now and what’s coming from fueleconomy.gov.)

Why go green? These greener cars get the green light in other ways, too.  “The newer models of green cars are better engineered, have more of the new safety technologies and may get in fewer crashes,” says ERIE'a Dave Freeman, vice president, Personal Lines Underwriting.  “They generally have safer drivers, too.”   

Although it’s too soon for data to confirm whether hybrids and all-electric cars have  discount-friendly safety records, Freeman suspects that these cars may in time cut collision and liability costs. With their smaller size, they’re easier to maneuver and do less damage to other vehicles.  Better, greener battery technology—smaller size, longer charges, lower toxicity, fewer fires—should further fix the ride. 

As for cutting your footprint when using other forms of transport—it’s not so cut and dried.  The EPA points out that trains can be diesel or electric.  Buses carry many more passengers than cars, but they burn more fuel.  Planes—well, they’re difficult to judge, too.  Your average jetliner burns about a gallon of fuel a second. On the other hand, it carries hundreds of people at once, potentially slashing per-person fuel use to a level lower than that of a car.  

The EPA’s official statement:  “Greenhouse gas emissions per aircraft passenger mile vary according to factors such as aircraft type, length of trip, occupancy rates, and the weight of baggage and cargo.” 

As with any trip, long or short, how you go depends on a mix of cost, time, urgency, availability and personal preference. The nice thing now is you also have tools to factor in your environmental impact. Go to epa.gov/climatechange for a calculator to measure your footprint. Or, go to epa.gov/greenvehicles to find out the latest information about fuel efficiency in cars.


Rachel Adelson writes about technology and the science of behavior from her office near Toronto.

More ▶