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Obama Is Right: It's Easy to Reduce the Nation's (and Your Own) Fuel Bill Dramatically

Dave Lindorff

I have a 2001 Honda Civic CX. Just like most Americans, I have for years been racing that car around, ignoring speed limits, accelerating out of intersections, racing ahead at light changes as if I were coming out of starting blocks, ignoring things like checking my tire pressure, and so on.

Two weeks ago, though, I read about eco-driving, and thought I'd give it a try. I filled up the tank, took a lot of crap out of the trunk that I'd been lugging around for no good reason, set the air pressure at the manufacturer's specs, changed the air filter (it was pretty clogged), changed the oil to fully synthetic, and started driving conservatively. I stuck to the posted speed limits on local and highway, used my cruise control wherever possible to avoid needless accelerations, kept a good distance behind other vehicles to avoid unnecessary braking, avoided fast accelerations, turned off the engine altogether when stopped at a light or in traffic jams, and gave myself plenty of time to get to appointments.

The result: My mileage leapt from 27 mpg to 38.5 mpg! For the math challenged, that's a 42% improvement in gas mileage!

I know from earlier experience when I owned a Chevy Nova, and I let the muffler go too long, that I could do even better if I poked a little hole in the muffler. Reduce the back pressure on the engine, and while it might run a little noisier, you'll boost your mileage another 5-10% on a small-engined vehicle.

Think about this a minute. If American drivers, who are nearly all congenital speeders, were to suddenly start driving according to the posted signs, and better yet, if the nation were intelligent enough to go back to a 55 mpg national speed limit, we would gain far more than all the offshore drilling and North Slope drilling that could possibly be done. And we'd be helping to slow global warming at the same time, instead of just spewing more carbon into the already smoggy atmosphere.

A side benefit -- but by no means a minor one -- of my change in driving habits, is that I'm more relaxed. Driving slower and giving other cars more room makes for a much less tense ride, and by allowing myself a few extra minutes to make my appointments, I am relaxed about getting places on time.

I already wrote earlier about ways we're planning on saving on heating costs by shutting up parts of the house this coming winter during the coldest months. Americans for the most part live in houses that are way too large for our needs. When I was in China, most of our friends' families lived in two small rooms -- sometimes in just one room. We aren't talking about doing that, but we are talking about living in four or five when it's cold. I don't have the figures, but my guess is we'll save maybe 30 percent on our winter heating bill by doing that.

Notice that these are not little incremental savings. They are huge.

If I drive my car 20,000 miles a year, the difference in the number of gallons of gas I buy, driving my old way and eco-driviing, is 220, which at $4/gal is almost $900. As for heating, if I can go from 2000 gallons of heating oil a winter to 1400 gallons, that could end up saving me as much as $1400, so altogether we're talking about my avoiding burning 880 gallons of oil-based fuel and saving myself well over $2000 in the process. That's a pretty good deal for me and my family, and for the environment, at very little or really no sacrifice on our parts.

The idea that Republicans and the McCain campaign would mock this kind of conservation is pretty pathetic. But Obama didn't go far enough.

What we really need instead of cheap-shot criticism of conservation tactics is leadership for a national campaign to get everyone to do the same thing. All those people who were so quick to buy those stupid plastic American flags to put on their antennas and attach to the windows of their cars so they'd flap wildly in the wind as they sped along burning up imported Arab oil after 9/11 2001 would be much more patriotic if they'd just slow down, get rid of all the extra pseudo-patriotic wind resistance, and start cutting their oil consumption. (They might even save enough to be able to make a catch-up payment or two on their mortgages, and avoid a foreclosure notice.)

Then we can move on to serious steps. Instead of spending hundreds of billions of dollars to repair the highway infrastructure over the next 20 years, for example, as politicians are talking about doing, why not admit that 20 years from now we're not going to be using all those highways and bridges? Sure we need to fix the dangerous bridges, but most of those billions should be spent on researching, developing, and disseminating non-carbon-based energy alternatives for both heating/cooling and for transportation.

An MIT research team has just developed a technology for using solar power to directly produce hydrogen using readily available materials and plain water -- a system that, if not distorted and controlled by the energy industry, could lead to energy-self-sufficient households! A people with any collective intelligence would be demanding government support to develop this solution as rapidly as possible. I'd be happy to see my tax dollars spent on a program that would free me of a $6-7000 annual fuel bill that I'm sure will be much higher five years from today.

Meanwhile, if I'm not on my bike or at home working in my un-air-conditioned home office, you can find me driving at a leisurely pace on the roads in and around Philadelphia. As for the people behind me cursing and honking, as they look at the back of my car, like it or not they're seeing the future.

Dave Lindorff is a Philadelphia-based journalist. His latest book is "The Case for Impeachment" (St. Martin's Press, 2006 and now in paperback). His work is available at

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