No doubt, the big story of the summer is the high cost of gasoline. With prices topping $4 a gallon over several weeks (before a bit of a dip last week), Americans have had to make hard choices about their driving habits.
Many of us have adjusted. Quite a few consumers are trading in their gas-guzzling rides for more fuel-efficient vehicles, even those pricey hybrids. Many folks are taking fewer trips and planning their driving excursions more carefully to maximize what they get from that precious tank of fossil fuel.
Some are even trying mass transit and telecommuting rather than fighting the morning traffic each day. That's particularly tough for those of us who live in North Georgia, who generally have few travel options other than our own personal vehicles.
Both individually and as a society, Americans are doing what they can to burn up a little less of their precious paychecks in their gas tanks. Except for one small change that, for some reason, most of us refuse to make, no matter what the cost and how much fuel it might save us: Slowing down.
Despite ironclad evidence that driving even a little a bit slower increases gas mileage significantly, drivers who throw an apoplectic fit every time they gas up still refuse to ease off the pedal.
Don't believe it? Take a trip down Interstate 985. Try going the speed limit of 70 mph in the right-hand lane; you'll have angry people going around you the whole way. And forget trying to drive that slowly in the left-hand lane. You'll have a line of impatient drivers riding your back bumper in no time. And many of them are driving trucks and SUVs, the type of vehicles that burn the most gas.
And still we complain at great volume about high gas prices, pointing fingers at politicians in Washington and oil company execs for their inaction on our behalf. "Why won't somebody DO something?" we holler. Yet we keep zipping around at NASCAR-like speeds on area roads, knowing full well it's the wrong thing to do.
Why? It's been shown that driving slower can increase fuel mileage considerably. Any speed over 60 mph takes an exponentially greater slurp from your gas tank, as do accelerating and braking abruptly.
You'd also think that folks would be willing to save gas while also saving lives. But traffic fatalities are actually on the rise in Hall County: up from 19 to 27 from 2007-07, and at 11 and counting this year, the state Department of Transportation reports. Speed is a factor in a good many of those accidents. But if drivers refuse to take safety into account when driving, fuel economy surely won't make a difference, either.
So we know that slowing down is safer and also saves gas. What exactly is the downside?
Oh, yeah. We're in a big hurry all the time, everywhere we go. We can't possibly get somewhere a little big later if a heavier foot will shorten that wait.
But look at what you really save. Take a daily commute of, say, 20 miles, perhaps a bit long but probably typical for many South Hall residents. If you drive 60 mph on the highway (not factoring in side roads), you'll get there in about 20 minutes. If you go 70 mph, burning up considerably more gas in the process, you'll save all of three minutes. Yep, three minutes. Just enough time to pour a cup of coffee and rehash last night's Braves game, if that.
Experts say that every mile per hour we drive faster than 60 mph costs us about 4 miles per gallon in gas mileage. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that driving 10 mph slower can add up to gas savings of $12 over 500 miles.
There's the trade-off: Give up that extra three minutes each morning for a few weeks and you'll have enough left in your pocket to buy lunch.
This is not to say we need to return to the 1970s and reinstall a mandated 55 mph national speed limit. For one thing, few drivers observe the limits already in place, so changing them won't make much difference. And hardly anyone slowed to 55 mph back in the day; getting them to do so now would be futile. There's no need to pile more of a burden on law enforcement agencies who already have their hands full getting folks to comply with the laws we have.
Anyway, we shouldn't need a slap a new law on everything that merely requires some common sense. Just slow down a little and see the difference. Take it up to 60 or 65 mph and lock in the cruise control; the steadier speed will burn less gas and still get you there in plenty of time.
Consider, too, what we all may gain if we burn a little less fuel. The more efficient we all are, the less we tax our overall demand for fuel; with less demand, prices are more likely to fall.
But if the few minutes you save flying down the highway is still more important to you than the savings, at least be a little more patient with those in the right-hand lane who choose to save a dollar or two by slowing down. That $12 a month might not mean much to Daddy Warbucks in his Escalade cruising at 80, but to the rest of us, a little more cash in our pockets at the end of the month is welcomed.