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Talent & education

Lightening the lead foot

I don’t know what it is with me and paying for energy, but whatever it is, I inherited it from my father. Growing up, my friends referred to our chilly winter house as “the meat locker” and knew that just because the house looked dark when they pulled into the driveway, it didn’t mean we were gone, only that my dad was enforcing his “if you’re not in the room, the light doesn’t need to be on” rule.

Over time, I’ve learned to make peace with my husband’s insistence we leave the porch lights burning all night as a cheap anti-crime measure, and once in a blue moon, I can even light our natural-gas fireplace without twitching (too much). But now that gasoline prices are on another steady climb, I’m starting to deploy countermeasures. I have not downloaded the GasBuddy app to my phone, or otherwise cluttering my brain keeping track of where I can save a few cents per gallon. As the economists say, I’m impacting the demand side — driving less, running short-hop errands on my bicycle and otherwise thinking twice before I reach for the car keys. But the place where I’m having the most success is one even my dad didn’t teach me about.

I’m driving the speed limit.

On a Michigan freeway, this is truly a radical move. When I first navigated Detroit rush hours, I was reminded of nothing so much as the chariot race in “Ben-Hur,” and in my seven years here, I’ve learned to keep up with my fellow charioteers, flying down I-96 between Detroit and Lansing at 80, easy. But a few days ago, I started an experiment, balancing the few more minutes it takes me to cover the distance with the number on my instrument panel that tells me my gas mileage. And so far, I like what I see. I’m getting to work just a few minutes later, but saving three miles per gallon.

At 70 miles per hour, locked and steady on cruise control, I am a rolling blood clot in the artery. Everybody passes me. But I use the extra time to think.

In 2008, Barack Obama was widely ridiculed for the “tire gauge solution,” suggesting Americans could save more gas than we could pump offshore simply by keeping tires properly inflated, engines in tune and practicing other boring-but-effective habits to maximize mileage. But he’s right; these techniques work, and simply slowing down is another one.

I’m old enough to remember the national 55-mile-per-hour speed limit, instituted during the OPEC oil crisis of the 1970s in the hope of saving gas. Like no law since Prohibition, it made lawbreakers out of ordinary citizens, who used everything from CB radios to radar detectors to evade police speed traps. (One friend used a black box he built himself, which he claimed scrambled law enforcement radar guns. He called it “the cloaking device.”) No one wants to go back to that poky pace, but 70 feels just about right, once you let it settle in.

I realize this is heresy in a state that venerates driving, and I’m no longer astounded by people charging up behind me like Charlton Heston, whippin’ those horses. I try to get over as quickly as possible, and in return I’d appreciate you sheathing the middle fingers or — on one astounding morning last winter — flashing your brights.

On that day, when I did get to a clear spot and was able to pull to the right, I took note of the driver who’d done it. His car had a state of Michigan seal on the door.

Oh, well. I guess he wasn’t paying for the gas.

3 comments from Bridge readers.Add mine!

  1. Curtis Baker


    Good article…great advice. I have tried the same experiment myself and found that I get ‘there” a few minutes later. Of course it’s a simply math equation that most people should comprehend. You travel 10mph less and you are traveling 80 miles you are going to arrive there about 8 minutes later. My gas mileage has jumped 3 to 4 mpg.

    The unexpected benefit has been that I feel much less stressed because my head is not on swivel looking for police cars ready to pounce.

    On a separate note…I would think that the middle finger is the ‘astounding’ reaction. Flashing one’s bright lights is the accepted road signal of ‘please move to the right lane.’ While the light flashing may not have seemed like a ‘please’ I would certainly take it better than a derogatory hand gesture.

    Now the State seal on the car going that fast is another matter althogether.

  2. Nancy Derringer

    The flashing brights were astounding because they occurred as I was passing someone, in the left lane. Plus it was dark, AND snowing. I can only get over when I have somewhere to get over to, after all. A little patience shouldn’t be too much to ask during the morning commute in January, should it?

    I guess it’s possible the state employee was carrying a donor kidney and really-really-really needed to get somewhere fast, but I’m betting on simple rudeness.

    My final gas savings seem to have leveled at 3.5 miles per gallon. As the kids say: Woot.

  3. Hardvark

    I’ve tried driving at 65 in a 70 for a long trip (4 hours) and the mpg savings is actually minimal. Going to Chicago from Kalamazoo, any savings is lost in downtown Chicago traffic. Basically, the savings in mpg driving less than posted speed is only a psychological feeling since overall efficiency by reducing your speed 5 mph has no appreciable cost savings. Do the math.

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