SUSTAINABLE COMMUNITY - Drivers can reap benefits from slower pace

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When our sustainability group sat in a circle brain-storming articles for these biweekly columns, there were lots of suggestions, including how to get better gas mileage in the cars we all drive.

You need to know that I drive two different cars. My local errand car is a small, all-electric car called a ZENN (zero emissions no noise). It is only street legal on roads with a speed limit of 35 mph, since that's its top speed, with a range of about 30 miles. I've logged 7,000 miles on it during the three years I've owned it. Conveniently, it plugs into any 110 outlet to recharge the batteries, and no, I haven't noticed any significant increase in my electric bill.

My other car is a 1996 Ford Taurus station wagon, which gets 28 miles per gallon, that I use for any out-of-town trips I need to make, or when I need to take more than one passenger locally.

One member of our discussion group commented that when she conscientiously decided not to drive in excess of the posted speed limit on the highways, she discovered amazing savings in the amount she was spending on gasoline. I then began to wonder out loud what deliberately driving at three or four mph under the speed limit would do to my gas mileage. I was immediately counseled by the group that I should not impede traffic, nor cause long lines to form behind me on two-lane roads, and I agreed that was not polite and that I would speed up when it became obvious there were two or three frustrated drivers behind me.

When I looked at a website on speed limits, I was reminded of several things. First, the posted limit is neither a suggestion nor a challenge -- it is a requirement set by law. The limit may vary according to the type of road and surroundings (there is a difference between country and city driving), and often varies by type of vehicle, such as car or truck. Most significantly, I was reminded that for the 13 years between 1974 and 1987, no speed limit in the country was more than 55 mph. Statistics show that if you drive at 55 rather than 65, the fuel savings are usually 15 percent, though I don't know whether that holds true for the newest cars.

In the six months since I have undertaken this experiment, I have deliberately chosen to plan my scheduled trips out of town to allow the extra time required to make the trip at just under the posted speed limit. I was surprised to find that it was only about 25 minutes longer than my previous speeds on a trip to Ellensburg, for example, and 12 to 15 minutes longer to Umatilla. Have you noticed that Oregon's limit on that two-lane road is 55, down from 60 on the Washington side?

One of the major things I have discovered is that when one or more drivers are impatiently waiting to pass me on one of these trips and I then accelerate to the speed limit, most drivers pass me at the earliest opportunity and soon disappear from view on the road ahead. On the other hand, a few who pass me then drive at more moderate speeds than I normally observe, leaving me with the feeling that driving at or below the speed limit may seem like a good example to some people, who then moderate their own speeds.

Driving at or a little below the posted speed results in substantial savings of limited and non-renewable fossil fuels, and also results in fewer carbon dioxide and other emissions that are damaging to earth's environment and its inhabitants. In addition, it lowers accident rates and the severity of injuries when there are accidents, and also saves money in terms of direct fuel costs, and the cost of environmental remediation that comes along with finding, processing, transporting and burning increasingly scarce oil supplies.

My advice is that none of us should complain about the high cost of gas if we are using extra fuel to satisfy our lack of planning, boredom with the scenery, or lack of attention to the speed limit. I have found a saving of about three miles per gallon by lowering my speed a few miles per hour. I also arrive at meetings a little more relaxed and, frankly, a bit proud that I have learned how a little planning helps me sustain a better way of life for all of us.

Sarita McCaw is a member of Sustainable Walla Walla and Faith Communities for Sustainability.

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