How to be a greener driver

Can't bear to give up your car? Then simply changing the way you use it can dramatically reduce your impact on the environment - and save you money, too. Clint Witchalls gives eco-motoring a try
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The Independent Online

I have a confession to make. I'm one of those awful people who drive their children to school. You can tut-tut all you like, but it's simply too far to walk and there are no direct bus routes. I once tried cycling, but my son was put off by a speeding van that almost ran him over. He tried cycling on the pavement, but got nothing but abuse from pedestrians. So it was back to the car for us.

I'm well aware that cars are the second biggest cause of global warming after coal-fired power stations, and that air pollution has been linked to a range of lung disorders as well as, more recently, to strokes and heart attacks. Unfortunately, I'm not in a financial position to buy a new Toyota Prius or a Honda Insight (both of which do about 60 miles per gallon, around town). And even if I could afford a hybrid gas-electric car, there's a limit to what technology can achieve when it comes to reducing emissions. At some point the driver has to take responsibility. If you really have to drive, then you may as well drive in the most eco-friendly way possible.

The good news is that this is much easier than you might think. It has been calculated that, just by changing the way they drive, motorists can use 25 per cent less fuel. And if the extra money in your pocket is not incentive enough, just look at the environmental difference you could make. The European Climate Change Programme has calculated that if there was a Europe-wide adoption of eco-driving across EU member states, a modest 10 per cent reduction in fuel consumption would mean a saving of 25 billion litres of fuel and reduce CO 2 emissions in Europe by 50 million tons by 2010.

Eco-driving, as it's called, is all the rage in Europe. This month, the Dutch began promoting their eco-driving campaign under the slogan "50 in 4th gear" (that's 50kph, in case you hadn't guessed). The programme's goals are to "reduce fuel consumption, cut emissions and improve safety." In the Netherlands, 90 per cent of the driving instructors and examiners have been taught the art of eco-driving. It also forms part of the theory exams when taking a driving test.

The situation in Germany is even more impressive. All of the driving instructors and examiners have been coached in eco-driving, and all learner drivers are taught and tested on it. It's even starting to catch on in the UK. Last month, the Driving Standards Agency introduced an eco-driving aspect to their advanced driving instructor's test, and The Official DSA Guide to Driving now also contains a section on eco-driving.

Eco-driving is about drastically reducing your fuel consumption through better driving practice. Last week, the Government was considering a crackdown on speeding drivers, as part of a package of proposals to help meet climate change targets. If they could reduce the speeds of the 15 million people who bust the 70mph limit, carbon emissions could be reduced by 890,000 tons each year. "If you reduce your speed from over 80mph to the speed limit of 70mph, you save 40p every 10 miles," says Luke Bosbet, an AA Motoring Trust spokesperson. "And bearing in mind that recent Government travel statistics show that 19 per cent of motorway users drive over 80mph, there's quite a bit of money and petrol to be saved."

But eco-driving is not just about watching your speed. Changing gear at the optimal time also saves on fuel. Shifting gear between 2,000 and 2,500rpm not only helps to reduce fuel consumption, it also reduces noise pollution. Did you know that a car running at 4,000rpm makes the equivalent noise of 32 cars running at 2,000rpm?

Another big fuel-waster is air-conditioning, which adds 10 to 14 per cent to fuel consumption. About 75 per cent of cars now come with air-conditioning as standard. This is a relatively new phenomenon: before 2000, only " executive" cars came with air-con as standard. If you want to keep your car cool, park in the shade, and if that's not possible use a sun shade on your windscreen. You can also wind your windows down to get some air flowing through the car. Just don't wind down your windows on the motorway. At speeds over 40mph, the drag caused by open windows uses more petrol than an air-conditioner running at full tilt.

Switching on anything electric in your car has a similar effect. "Not many people realise that, if you turn on your rear-screen heater, you add five per cent to your fuel consumption," says Bosbet.

"Put your car on a diet," says Tim Shallcross, a technical advisor to the AA Motoring Trust. "It's a good analogy, because the first thing you do when you go on a diet is weigh yourself and set yourself a target weight." Most people don't know how many miles to the gallon their car does. Fuel is sold in litres, but on-board computers and manufacturers' manuals still quote miles per gallon. Take a pen with you in the car. Every time you buy fuel, write the mileage on the back of the receipt. You'll see how much fuel you've bought and how many miles you've done, and you'll quite quickly build up a picture of what your car is actually doing to the gallon. Now introduce fuel-saving methods and see how much you save.

Inspired by this advice, I decided to give eco-driving a try. First stop, the garage. My tyres were looking a bit deflated, so I jacked them up to 30psi (slightly above my driving manual's recommended limit of 28psi). Tyres that aren't filled to the optimal pressure increase "rolling resistance", which causes more fuel to be used. Later, Shallcross tells me that I probably didn't inflate my tyres enough. "It's well worth it to invest in a decent tyre gauge, because what most people don't realise is that tyre manufactures quote tyre pressures when they're cold," he says. Driving to the filling station will have warmed the air in my tyres and added about 3 to 4psi to the pressure. Shallcross recently conducted a survey across Britain and found that 50 per cent of forecourt air pumps overstate the tyre pressure by 10 to 15 per cent. So, with the hot air and incorrect pressure reading, my tyres could probably still do with a bit more air.

Shallcross also advised that I should shed excess weight from my car. Golf clubs, tools and bicycles can add significant weight and increase fuel consumption. There was certainly a lot of junk in my trunk: two basketballs, about 30 reusable shopping bags (because I keep forgetting to take them with me when I go shopping, so I end up buying new ones), a picnic blanket and a school lunch box with some green fur inside. In all, I don't think it weighed much, but it did make the car look tidier once I got rid of it.

Shallcross also tells me that roof racks and roof boxes add to the weight of a car, and, more importantly, create a lot of wind drag, especially on the motorway.

But I was just fiddling with the peripheral bits, because I knew the hardest part would be the smooth driving and speed control. Speeding, rapid acceleration and sudden braking are all a no-no to eco-drivers - not just because it's unsafe to drive like that, but because you lose a lot more fuel when you do.

I drove to pick up my kids with some trepidation. I'm usually late, so rapid accelerating and sudden braking are the norm for me. I checked my rev counter (a new experience), and changed up a gear. But this being inner London, you don't get far before you reach a queue of traffic. This time, though, I saw the traffic ahead, and I began decelerating long before I got to the car at the back of the queue. Some eco-driving tips include switching your car off if you think you're going to be idling for more than 30 seconds, but this seems a bit daft. Who knows how long you're going to sit in traffic? I could be switching my car on and off all day. But I didn't need to worry this time, because as I approached the back of the queue (at my super-slow speed), the traffic started to move.

As instructed, I left a gap between my car and the car in front. If this was Toy Town, nobody would cut me up, but I was in Brixton. Within seconds, a car whizzed past on the inside (on a single-lane road) and took the gap. I was tempted to keep close to his bumper to prevent it happening again, but I remembered the statistic that aggressive driving adds 5 per cent to petrol mileage when driving in town and 33 per cent on the motorway.

I arrived at the school five minutes late, but feeling calmer than usual. I could go for this eco-driving thing. It's not too hard to do and it's a big benefit to both the environment and your wallet. It's not often that being green is this easy.

How to drive smart

* Watch your speed. Your car creates most pollution when driving at less than 15mph, and pollution decreases up to 60mph. After that, it increases again.

* Take roof-racks off when they are not needed, as they create wind drag. Driving with the windows open also creates drag.

* Remove unneccessary items from the car, such as tool boxes, golf clubs and bicycles to reduce weight.

* Keep the engine speed between 1,200 and 3,000rpm.

* Keep your distance from the car in front. Sharp braking wastes fuel.

* Maintain your car properly. Have the engine tuned, change air filters and keep the tyres pumped to the maximum pressure to reduce friction.

* Consolidate trips; for example, if you have to pick the children up from school, do the shopping in the same trip.

* When you turn on something electric in the car, it increases fuel consumption. There is only one source of energy in the car, and that's the fuel tank. Don't needlessly press buttons, such as the rear-window heater.

* Keep the inside of your car windows squeaky clean. This stops the windows misting up, so that you don't need to use the rear-window heater or the air conditioning to dehumidify the car.

* Avoid driving in the rush hour, if possible.

* If you've got a garage, use it. If it takes you 10 minutes to warm up your car, you're losing petrol at a rate of 2p to 3p every minute.

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