Car Talk's Eco Area
Part 1: Driving Tips for Tree-Huggers

Introduction
Driving and Maintenance tips
New car options
Ideas from the Fringe
Share Your Ideas

Despite what Ralph Nader says, you don't have to start riding a tofu-powered lawn mower to help save the environment. There are plenty of simple things you can do that will help clean up the air--and save you a few bucks.

Here are our tips:

I. Get Your Car Serviced Regularly
II. Check Your Tire Pressure
III. Don't Top Off Your Gas Tank
IV. Don't Use More Octane Than You Need
V. Dispose of Fluids Properly
VI. Slow Down and Drive Sensibly
VII. Stop Your Idling
VIII. Join a Car Co-op
IX. Carpool with the Yutz Next Door



I. Get Your Car Serviced Regularly
Tree-Hugging Factor: 2 out of 5 trees
TreeTree

Getting your car serviced regularly is one of the most important things you can do to minimize emissions and maximize fuel efficiency.

Regular service can spot lots of problems that reduce gas mileage and increase pollution, such as a broken thermostat, low transmission fluid, sticky brake calipers--or even something as simple as a dirty air filter.

If you can't remember when the last time was you had your car serviced, take it in. In extreme situations, you might increase your mileage by up to 10 percent. So what? Well, if you drove 20,000 miles a year, you would save $145--enough to cover the cost of the service and buy yourself a super-size falafel sandwich with free-range bean sprouts, and still have a few bucks left over to start tipping your mechanic. (You did know you're supposed to tip your mechanic, right?)

Even if you got only another two miles to the gallon, you'd be decreasing the carbon dioxide that your heap spews into the air by more than 2,000 pounds per years. And that would be more than enough justification to go out and buy that coal-fired hot tub you've been yearning for, right?

Tips list

II. Check Your Tire Pressure
Tree-Hugging Factor: 1 out of 5 trees
Tree

The softer your tires are, the greater the friction between the road and the rubber and the harder your engine will have to work to get you where you're going. When we check tire pressure on our customers' cars, we notice that they are often nowhere near the recommended pressure. And being off by as little as four pounds of pressure can reduce your mileage by 10 percent.

Don't get us wrong: This doesn't mean you should overinflate your tires (you don't want to be riding on stale bagels). Too much air in your tires can seriously jeopardize your car's handling--not to mention cause a tire to explode. But you DO want keep your tires right at the recommended pressure, which represents a good balance between ride, handling, and fuel efficiency. Here's how we recommend checking tire pressure.

By the way, if you're not sure what the correct tire pressure is for your vehicle, you can find it on the door to the glove compartment or on the driver's-side door pillar.

Tips list

III. Don't Top Off Your Gas Tank
Tree-Hugging Factor: 1 out of 5 trees
Tree

When you're refueling, stop when the gas pump automatically turns off. Why? Besides the embarrassing stain on your chinos, overfilling your tank can ruin your gasoline-vapor recovery equipment. The recovery canister is supposed to store gasoline vapors rather than release them into the atmosphere. But if you overfill the tank and liquid gas sloshes into the canister, it will stop working, contributing to the formation of ground-level ozone, smog, acid rain, and airborne toxins.

Tips list

IV. Don't Use More Octane Than You Need
Tree-Hugging Factor: 2 out of 5 trees
TreeTree

Lots of drivers think that they're benefiting their engine or the environment by occasionally "treating" their car to premium gas.

That's hogwash.

Modern engines don't require premium gas and don't benefit from it in any way. And, in fact, most experts say excess octane creates more pollution. So unless your owner's manual specifically calls for the use of premium gas, don't bother. Regular gas is less expensive and less harmful to the environment.

Don't believe us? Fine. Here's what the Environmental Protection Agency has to say: "Unless your car needs high-octane gasoline, use of 'premium' gas will not improve performance or emissions--it will just cost you more."

There you go. For more information, you can check out the government's Fuel Economy Web site.

Tips list

V. Dispose of Fluids Properly
Tree-Hugging Factor: 3 out of 5 trees
TreeTreeTree

Your car is a veritable supermarket of toxic fluids, including brake fluid, motor oil, transmission fluid, antifreeze, and battery acid, each of which can become a toxic pollutant if not disposed of properly.

Spent fluids should be taken to an authorized drop-off location. How do you find such a place? Call your local recycling district office.

What happens to the waste fluid once it's out of your hands? Some of it is sent to a recovery center, where it will be recycled. In most cases, such as with batteries, antifreeze, and oil, it will be processed and reused. Of course, in some cases recently paroled waste-disposal subcontractors will simply empty it into the drinking-water reservoir for New Jersey.

If you're changing your own oil and you purchased motor oil at a store, that business is legally obligated to accept your used motor oil. (But only up to the amount you purchased.)

As for other used fluids, check with your local mechanic. If you're on good terms with him, he might take it for you, for a small fee, since he's got a contract to have the stuff hauled away.

For more information check out Earth's 911 Web site for the disposal location near you.

Tips list

VI. Slow Down and Drive Sensibly
Tree-Hugging Factor: 1 out of 5 trees
Tree

Tear up the pavement and pretend you're Evel Knievel if you want--just realize that it's going to cost both you and the environment. Sudden braking and jack-rabbit starts are notoriously inefficient ways to drive.

Driving sanely will maximize your car's fuel efficiency, reduce wear and tear on dozens of parts, and make you a safer driver. The Environmental Protection Agency suggests trying to "smooth" your driving by accelerating and decelerating gradually, anticipating stops and starts. An added bonus? You'll probably get fewer dirty looks from the blue-haired ladies around you.

If your car is equipped with overdrive, use the overdrive gear as soon as your speed is high enough. If you have a manual transmission, the sooner you can shift to a higher gear without causing your engine to buck, the better the fuel economy.

Because wind resistance increases dramatically with speed, for every mile per hour over 55 that you drive, your fuel economy goes down by 2 percent. In other words, you'll get about half the mileage driving at 70 mph compared to 50 mph!

So slow down, and start and stop smoothly. You'll be a safer driver, more relaxed, and you'll increase your fuel efficiency. And, believe it or not, due to an unexplained Einsteinian time warp, you'll also get to your destination in about the same time.

Tips list

VII. Stop Your Idling
Tree-Hugging Factor: 1 out of 5 trees
Tree

Granted, not idling goes against our nature, but this is one time when it makes sense. Because modern cars don't emit nearly as much noxious fumes as the cars of yesteryear, and therefore don't stink as much, it's easy to forget about the pollution you're creating.

We think that's too bad. If you're sitting outside a tattoo parlor waiting for your grandmother, and you know it's going to take her a good 15 minutes to get that new Komodo dragon tattooed on her left butt cheek, turn off your engine. If you don't, you'll just be wasting gas and polluting the environment.

If you really have the energy and don't mind exercising your sorry tuchus, park your car and walk into fast-food joints and banks instead of idling in drive-up lanes.

Finally, if you're used to starting up your car and letting it idle five or 10 minutes before driving off, you can forget about that too. The fact is, cars these days don't need to be warmed up. Except in below-zero conditions, you can just start the engine and drive off.

Tips list

VIII. Join a Car Co-op
Tree-Hugging Factor: 5 out of 5 trees
TreeTreeTreeTreeTree

A new idea to the U.S., formal car co-ops have been around for years in Europe. How do they work? Members share a fleet of vehicles and pay a monthly fee. And, since the organization takes care of all of the maintenance and repairs on the fleet, you'll never have to worry about making a boat payment to your mechanic.

A variety of programs exist around the country. In Our Fair City, there's a service called Zipcar. You become a member, log on to the Web site, and sign up for a car during the hours you want it. Then you take it from the designated parking spot, use it, and put it back. And you pay a reasonable hourly fee. That's it.

Is a car co-op right for you? If you drive 10,000 miles per year or less, a car co-op probably makes sense. AAA estimates that people who drive 5,000 miles a year will save more than $1,300 annually by joining a car co-op.

Car co-ops have been shown to reduce individual members' driving by more than 50 percent. A study by the Swiss Office for Energy Affairs indicated that car co-op members reduced their driving by more than 70 percent without feeling particularly bothered by not having immediate access to a car.

For more information and for specifics about programs in your area, check out these car-sharing Web sites:

Car Sharing
Zipcar
Flexcar
My City Wheels

 

Tips list

 

IX. Carpool with the Yutz Next Door--Or Use Public Transportation
Tree-Hugging Factor: 4 out of 5 trees
TreeTreeTreeTree

Okay, so carpooling or using public transportation is not exactly a revolutionary idea. But the fact is, we don't do enough of either one of these things.

Admittedly, driving to work with the schmo next door could be a colossal pain in the butt. But then again, if you're lucky, you just might carpool with an investment banker and get in on some valuable insider trading tips. Or carpool with the cute massage therapist next door and, well . . . you do the math.

If you live in a town or city with decent public transportation, leave your car home and use the bus or train. Even if you use public transit just once or twice a week, you'll save wear and tear on your car, you won't be shelling out for all that gas, and you'll find it a lot more relaxing than trying to dodge cell-phone-addicted rush-hour commuters. Plus you get to people-watch--an underappreciated activity.

Still not enough reasons for you? Consider this fact: Actress Debra Winger met her husband on the subway. We rest our case.

Finally, think about asking your boss if you can work from home one day a week. Tommy works from home at least twice a week, enabling him to stay in his one-piece flannel pajamas for days at a time.

For more information on public transportation in your 'hood, check out the directory at the American Public Transportation Association Web site.

Introduction
Driving and Maintenance tips
New car options
Ideas from the Fringe