moneyvirtual children by Scott Warnock

Vrooom!: Who cares about saving gas?

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We were in an ice cream parlor the other day, and my son was looking at some old-time paintings on the wall. One was a decades-old picture of a sundae with a price tag: 10 cents. Despite my efforts, he couldn’t comprehend it — which may not be difficult to imagine since my grasp of macroeconomic issues is wanting . I had similar success explaining to him that gas, the stuff that makes our car go, was once a quarter.

Of course, we’ve all been complaining about high gasoline prices for years, and there’s been all kinds of lamenting, whining, some saber rattling (and even some saber wielding). But as I’ve watched my children’s lives overlap with constant war in oil-rich parts of the world, I wonder how much we care about conserving this energy resource. I mean, how much, on a day-to-day basis, do we really care about the people who are fighting overseas for our lifestyle?

Some years ago, I conducted a little driving study that I have since reproduced several times with similar results. The original study was prompted during a trip from Washington to South Jersey on I-95 and I-295 when I became disenchanted with the radio and tired of deciphering peeling bumper stickers.

When I left the D.C. area, I made sure to maintain a speed between 65 and 70 mph. Then (and, admittedly, this is the part my wife says makes me certifiable), at eight different one-minute intervals, I counted the vehicles I passed and the vehicles that passed me.

The results: Vehicles that passed me: 37. Vehicles I passed: 2.

If you calculate this out for the 150 minutes I was on the road, about 700 total vehicles passed me. But although I passed two vehicles in my “official” count during the time intervals, I don’t need to calculate that number out for the whole trip, because I was able to count easily  the total number of vehicles I passed because there were so few of them. In that entire 150-minute trip, I only passed nine vehicles. Of that nine, four of them were part of a caravan of campers, two were pick-up trucks that had just limped onto the highway from the shoulder, and one was a woman cruising proudly in a new SUV.

Everyone else blew by me: lumbering rigs, wimpy minivans, cute couple-driven SUVs, motorcycles, new cars, old cars. And while, for research integrity, I tried to stay around 70 mph, I admit I occasionally succumbed to an inferiority complex and nudged it up to 75 mph, but to no avail; everyone still left me in the dust.

While cars vary in efficiency, 55 is still a good number for most, and no cars are fuel efficient at 80 MPH – not to mention the reduced fuel efficiency of the many folks who came screaming up behind me, slammed on their brakes, tailgated for a while, and then accelerated past.

One good reason I heard for higher speeds on interstates is that higher speeds (and speed limits) allow drivers to reduce the time of long trips, thus reducing driver fatigue and accidents. But, good researcher I am, I noted that almost every license plate I saw during my trip was local to the three small states I traveled in: Maryland, New Jersey, and Delaware. It’s tough to fall victim to fatigue in a drive across Delaware on a beautiful Saturday afternoon.

The irrefutable conclusion: We can’t be hurting too badly, because we individually don’t care one bit about conserving gas.

So the question may be this: Should our government take measures to address high fuel prices? Keep in mind that even though lots of people lately say they don’t want government in their lives, these are the same people who any time a cyclone hits their house or they have to fill up the tank of their riding lawnmower clamor for government aid.

If our government maintains the representative spirit the Founding Fathers intended, in which elected officials serve as wise leaders to guide us not-so-bright masses, then our government should jack up the price of gas through a tax to help curb our wasteful, careless ways. Because as my study proves (and I encourage you to reproduce it), we do almost little individually to conserve fuel.

But if government should act based on the opinions of the people, then as far as the gas issue goes, the people have spoken. We need to get places in a hurry, and we don’t mind burning extra gas to do it, so government officials, you better help us get our hands on this resource, and you better make it as painless as possible.

That’s one of the great things about being American: Even when you don’t do one thing to help yourself, often somebody comes along and helps you out anyway.

Scott Warnock is a writer and teacher who lives in South Jersey. He is a professor of English at Drexel University, where he directs the University Writing Program. Father of three and husband of one, Scott is on two local school boards and coaches all kinds of youth sports.

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7 Responses to “Vrooom!: Who cares about saving gas?”

  1. Interesting point, and I whole-heartily agree. If we’re going to continue our glutinous ways, then we shouldn’t bitch about the impact on ourselves. It seems that gas is a wonderfully easy thing to complain about even though we never even consider how to use less of it individually. We turn out the lights when leaving a room to save electricity. We use more recycled paper to save trees. Gasoline gets the shaft, and by extension so do we. Too bad it’s a shaft of our own making.

    And by the way; your wife is correct, you are certifiable.

  2. Ahhh, the time-tested Warnock theory of 55. I missed it. I truly did.

  3. Well said, Scott. Unfortunately, money is indeed the driving force – no pun intended – when it comes to conservation. How many of us do “the right thing” unless it effects our pocketbooks? Case in point: Ikea’s buy a bag policy. I’ll be damned if I’m going to pay a nickle for a plastic bag, so I either bring my own reusable bag or carry everything out in my arms, on my head, between my knees, etc…. Perhaps if cars came equipped with not only consumption meters
    ( like the Prius) but also with a way to plug in current gas prices to see exactly what we were spending per trip, per mile, and at various speeds, we would change our habits. Money talks, but it needs to speak slowly, simply, and boldly for Americans to understand it!

  4. The government you say should get a handle on this should start with itself. Obama cruises around in a beast that gets 6 miles to a gallon on a good day. All his body guards are packed into those evil SUV’s. Obama has a minion fly back and forth from Washington to the West coast in a guvment jet almost every weekend so he can stay in contact (ever heard of a cell phone?) Lets not even talk about Pelosi and her private Air Force of jets she used to command.

    One step further. I see the lumbering hulks of fire trucks parked in front of my local grocery store daily, idleing (they use them for food runs). Police departments have notoriously used big, heavy, large motored cars to drive around in and write tickets. One local police chief had a Hemi powered Chrysler 300 (Obama had one to as a Senator) to use personally.

    The people you complain of are actually paying for the fuel they use from their own pockets. The guvment you propose should save us, is spending our tax money to lumber around and waste fuel.

    I am not trying to come down hard but people will change their driving habits as fuel prices increase (just as I have). The Guvment will just roll along and want more tax money to pay the costs, because they really do not care since WE the taxpayer are footing the bill.

  5. Propaganda. The author obviously knows NOTHING about cars, and his “little study” as he calls it is merely a futile exercise in anecdotal evidence according to his own bias, not “irrefutable” as he claims. Car built during the middle of the era of the Federally mandated and despised “double nickel” (55MPH) were engineered to do the best fuel economy at about 55-60MPH. However, as the Feds finally gave up that nonsense in the early 90s, the automotive engineers went back to building cars people actually liked, and would get optimum efficiency at about 65-70MPH. As far as anecdotal evidence, when my Mom passed, I drove to New York from Florida 1150 miles in a drive time of 13.5 hours, with the cruise control set at 97MPH. my 1995 Pontiac Firehawk with a dual overdrive 6-speed manual transmission averaged 27.5 miles per gallon. It rarely got better than 16MPG around town, but it was aerodynamic and geared to cruise. My best buddy John had a 1998 Corvette that did even better – over 29MPG at speeds ranging between 100 and 150MPH across the desert from Los Angeles to Las Vegas. One more note on your propagandist – people that drive significantly slower than everybody else on interstates are a safety hazard. Stay on the back roads if you are just gonna be a rolling blockade.

  6. One more thing. We don’t need the government doing any more meddling in the affairs of free men and women. Most of the problems in this nation can be traced to that very thing.

  7. Life is short, old friend. The less time that I’m on a highway, the more time that I can spend with my family. If I’m 7.6% less fuel efficient, so be it. If you could get to Drexel every morning 5 minutes faster but you used 10% more fuel, I would venture to say that your tree hugging days would be numbered.

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