Ticket to a green ride

A screenshot from Ford's Driving Skills for Life Web site

TEXT OF STORY

KAI RYSSDAL: Oil prices reached an all time high last week. Sweet crude hit the sour price of almost $75.50 a barrel Friday. Gas prices continue to hover around $3 a gallon. That's not a record, still though, it has consumers changing their lifestyles, like carpooling more or taking the bus.

But what about changing the way you drive? Starting in 2008 candidates for driver's licenses in Great Britain will be tested on their "eco-driving" skills. Translation? How fuel efficient you are behind the wheel. Driving schools here in LA don't offer classes in eco-driving, but we arranged a special lesson for our sustainability reporter Sarah Gardner. And Sarah found out, it's not easy drivin' green.

SARAH GARDNER: I've always considered myself a good driver. I passed my road test at age 16 in icy Wisconsin weather. I maneuvered the crazy streets of Boston for three years. And I can parallel park with the best of them. But when I hit the streets of Los Angeles with Steve Mazor of AAA, I find out that driving fuel-efficiently isn't about maneuvering.

STEVE MAZOR: "Probably the number one key is to properly inflate your tires. Every two weeks you should check 'em. You need to check 'em when they're cold. so ideally you do it before you drive."

GARDNER: "I'll bet you less than five percent of drivers do that."

MAZOR: "Since the demise of full service gas stationsm, checking tire pressure is one of the most neglected maintenance items that people do."

Mazor says you lose up to two percent of your gas mileage for every pound your tires are underinflated. And one more thing before you get in the car, he says. Stop treating it like an extra closet.

MAZOR: "Every time you accelerate the vehicle from a stop or just speed up, all the mass within the vehicle needs to be accelerated and the more mass you have the more energy it takes to speed that stuff up. So we like to say, get the junk out of the trunk"

GARDNER: "Okay, we're going to take a drive now thru Hollywood."

Mazor has me drive a 2006 Hyundai Sonata. There's a trip computer on the dashboard that shows what kind of mileage you're getting on any given outing. Mazor has loaded about 120 pounds of junk in the trunk just to help prove his point about weight and fuel efficiency.

GARDNER: "Now we're on Sunset Boulevard. Traffic isn't bad!"

As we pass the Hollywood Wax Museum and Grauman's Chinese Theater, Mazor teaches me the basics. Maintain as steady a speed as possible and accelerate and decelerate as smoothly as you can.

MAZOR: "What we like to say is you want to imagine you have a raw egg between your right foot and the accelerator pedal and you don't want to break it."

The 'raw egg' idea proves challenging, especially when I hit the on-ramp to the Hollywood freeway.

GARDNER: "I'm going to have to speed up here, well you can see how I normally do it . . ."

MAZOR: "Well, the merging onto the freeway part you did just fine. But the accelerating down the ramp was a little bit more aggressive than I'd recommend for fuel."

Gotcha. Stop gunning the engine at the top of the ramp.

The Sonata can get 24 miles per gallon in the city, 33 on the highway. When we return to Marketplace we check the Sonata trip computer. It says I drove a gas-hogging 18.6 miles to the gallon. Mazor tells me I have a bad habit of mimicking the car in front of me, accelerating exactly when it does instead of trying to maintain a constant speed of my own. So, we reset the trip computer. We also take the bags of dog food and bird feeder out of the trunk and turn off the AC.

GARDNER: "Now we're in Echo Park and we're on Sunset, and I'm going to try and drive as smoothly as possible . . . Oh. Oh . . .I broke that egg!"

MAZOR: "Yeah."

I retrace our path through Hollywood, trying to maintain a constant speed, taking my foot off the gas pedal and coasting into the stoplights. I tsk-tsk at the speeding BMW weaving in and out of traffic. Gas-waster! I take that entrance ramp to the freeway again, this time, trying not to gun it.

MAZOR: "Much better"

GARDNER: "Alright, that was better huh?"

MAZOR: "Yeah"

I'm getting the hang of this eco-driving. But it takes concentration and restraint. If you do this right, you're really driving a lot less like a NASCAR winner than, well, like your grandmother. In other words, gently, at the speed limit.

MAZOR: "We live in a rush. We try and get everywhere as fast as we can and minimize the commute time, when if you could just give yourself five extra minutes, you could maybe see as much as 20 or 30 percent less fuel use on the same trip."

When we get back to the Marketplace studios Mazor checks the trip computer.

MAZOR: "You're at 23 miles per gallon."

GARDNER: "What was I before?"

MAZOR: "18.6. You improved by 4.4 miles per gallon, which is about 25 percent."

GARDNER: "That's pretty good!"

If you extrapolate that out over a year of driving in Los Angeles, Mazor figures, I'd save $517 a year. I return home and boast about my new fuel-efficient driving. Then I begin to wonder, how much of my improvement was simply due to turning off the AC and unloading those bags of bird seed.

Maybe it's just easier to buy a Prius?

In Los Angeles, I'm Sarah Gardner for Marketplace Money.

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