Editorial: When Is Saving Energy Not Good For The Planet?


By Bruce Rhodes


April 20, 2005


During March break, I drove with my son to visit my father, who lives in Florida. Normally we might fly south, but we took our minivan, as my Dad had household items he wanted us to bring back. (We also own a Biodiesel-sipping VW Golf {our preferred vehicle, to be sure}, but it was too small to haul the cargo.)


We drove south through Windsor, taking I-75, and back home through Buffalo. In the interests of both safety and environmental responsibility (or so I thought), I drove at or below posted speed limits the entire trip. This isn’t necessarily saying much, given that the limit was often 70 miles per hour. However, my average speed was just under 60 mph.


Driving near the speed limit proved to have mixed consequences: on the plus side, I got better fuel economy than if I had traveled at higher speeds. I stayed in the right ‘slow’ lane, cruise control on, and almost never had any vehicles in front of me. This experience was quite relaxing – until I looked in my rear view mirror.


All told, thousands of drivers passed me, a few looking exasperated. In my trying to assess the ‘principal versus practical’ of doing something as counter-cultural as obeying the speed limit, the negative side of my law-abiding behaviour became increasingly evident: the fuel I saved by driving near the limit could be more than offset, so I feared, by the gas burned through the collective braking and reaccelerating by drivers who roared up behind me and then passed me.


Looking at it in this way, it seemed as though an individual motorist, by trying to do the right thing from a safety and emissions standpoint, may indeed incur greater risk of being rear-ended, and “cause” greater overall exhaust emissions from faster-moving vehicles first braking and then wanting to pass. I made what seems to be a perverse conclusion: assuming that one is going to drive from A to B, the planet may be less worse off if one drives, like most everyone else, in excess of the limit at speeds that are nowhere near the most fuel efficient.


On the trip, I got a copy of USA Today. In its April 8 issue was an article entitled “Gas prices not expected to spoil driving vacations.” I believe it: to pass the time, my son and I played the game of identifying vehicles from different places. We counted vehicles from 55 states and provinces; North Americans are truly on the move. On this point, the article stated that during the 2005 “summer driving season”, American motorists will consume 9.3 million barrels of gasoline per day. This works out to 108 barrels every second, all summer long. I saw enough people driving big, heavy recreational vehicles at 75 mph, while also towing SUVs (!), for me to believe these consumption forecasts. Do I try to keep up with such drivers, in an effort to save the planet?




Copyright ©2005 Bruce Rhodes. All rights reserved.