I Can Drive 55

When I was a bit younger, and Sammy Hagar’s “I Can’t Drive 55” would come on my car radio, I always found myself easing the speed up higher and higher. I would ease up to 75, 80, or more. Even when I wasn’t listening to songs encouraging me to drive faster, I had a hard time keeping my speed down. Not only did I get a lot of speeding tickets, but I wasted a lot of gas. But that was long before I began to challenge myself to significantly reduce my energy consumption.

If you want to make an immediate contribution toward lowering the demand for gasoline, and you don’t want to run out and purchase a new hybrid, there is a very simple answer: Slow down. I know it’s a bit of a sacrifice, but so is $3.00/gallon gasoline. Just leave a bit earlier for your destination. Ignore those elderly grandmothers who pass you and shake their fists at you. Be satisfied that you are making your own small contribution toward easing demand.

You may not realize just how much you can impact your gas mileage by slowing down. The following graph illustrates just how fast your fuel efficiency drops off above 60 mph:

Source: http://www.fueleconomy.gov/

According to the site:

As a rule of thumb, you can assume that each 5 mph you drive over 60 mph is like paying an additional $0.20 per gallon for gas.

So, want to save $0.40-$0.60/gallon on gas? Ignore that 70 or 75 mph speed limit, and slow down. If you drive 12,000 miles a year, you can save over 100 gallons of fuel, which at today’s prices amounts to around $300. You can also feel good that you took some steps to personally reduce your fuel consumption, and it doesn’t hurt that you lower the risk of being in a serious accident.

Of course this a bit of a generalization, in that each car’s fuel efficiency will vary, and the particular “sweet spot” for gas mileage will vary from vehicle to vehicle. But it will generally be in the vicinity of 55 mph.

Other Tips

Properly Inflate Your Tires

Properly inflated tires reduce the rolling resistance between the road and your tires. The higher the rolling resistance, the more fuel you use overcoming that resistance.

Don’t Use the Air Conditioner

In addition to slowing down, I have also completely stopped using my air conditioner. It isn’t for everyone when the temperature exceeds 100 degrees, but I have found that I can cope with the heat by cracking my windows and turning up the air vent. However, I only do this when I am driving alone. It might save fuel, but driving around with 3 hot, cranky kids and a hot, cranky wife presents its own set of unique safety hazards.

Don’t Idle Your Vehicle

Idling wastes fuel, and should be avoided whenever possible.

Use Your Cruise Control

Driving at a steady speed saves fuel, and it avoids the “speed creep” that can occur if Sammy Hagar comes on the radio.

Drive Less

Of course this one is pretty obvious. Don’t hop in your car to drive 2 blocks. Walk, or ride your bike. Your car gets the worst fuel mileage on very short trips because the engine doesn’t have time to warm up.

Additional Information

There are lots of other resources on the Internet with tips for improving your fuel efficiency. But my favorite is http://www.fueleconomy.gov/.

15 thoughts on “I Can Drive 55”

  1. Thanks for the tips Robert, but one request: Don’t block traffic. You may save a few cents, but if people behind you get mad, they may do something dangerous. If they pass you then drive extra fast because they are ticked off, there may be a net loss of gasoline overall. But I think the main problem with impeding the flow of traffic is that it’s just plain rude and disrespectful. In California, if you have more than 5 cars behind you on a single lane road, the law says you have to pull over. I know you didn’t specifically advocate clogging the roads, but I would hate for people to sacrifice safety and civility to save a few cents.

  2. Yeah, but if you block 5 cars by driving 55, your savings are multiplied by 5! Just kidding. 🙂

    I am specifically thinking about interstate driving, where passing isn’t an issue. I am not sure if there is a law in Texas, but when I lived there I noticed that it is generally the same as what you mention for California. The shoulders are well-maintained, and people are quick to pull over and let you pass if you overtake them. That is the case even on most country roads.

    Personally, I have come to the view that if we want to get serious about conserving gas, the quickest way to do so would be to drop the speed limit. If the government did that, the fuel savings would be substantial. On an individual basis, though, we can each save a little by slowing down.

  3. To be honest, I don’t think anyone’s time is worth using up our fossil fuel endowment at the current rate. This is going to hurt all of society, and no man’s time is worth the price we are almost certainly going to pay as fossil fuels start to become scarce. But the problem we have today is that nobody wants to be inconvenienced, which is why we find ourselves with $3.00 gasoline.


  4. I’m sorry, but I just can’t agree with the “55 for everybody” philosophy. I’m all for driving safe and saving gas, but please let me figure out the tradeoffs of what I drive and how I drive it.

    Consider this: I own both a Chevy pickup and a Cavalier. If I drive the Cavalier at 75 mph with A/C blasting and get stuck in a few traffic jams, I still get over 30 MPG in my daily commute. With the pickup, if I do everything I can to save gas, I might get 20 MPG.

    I’m more than willing to make sacrifices to save energy. I just may not want to make the same sacrifices that you have chosen to make. Given a choice, I’d rather downsize my car than try to drive the bigger one more efficiently.

  5. I agree that others may be willing to make sacrifices in different ways. Downsizing can certainly save more gas than slowing down. But not everyone is in the position to do that. If you have already purchased a vehicle that is not fuel efficient, and really aren’t in a position to trade it in, you can make an immediate impact by slowing down.

    In the longer term, though, lowering the speed limit would be the fastest way to reduce our fuel demand. It wouldn’t require that everyone trade their vehicles in. It would be enforced sacrifice, and would go a long way toward reducing our fuel demand. Increasing the fuel efficiency standards is another way to accomplish this, but will take much longer to have an effect.


  6. …the particular “sweet spot” for gas mileage will vary from vehicle to vehicle. But it will generally be in the vicinity of 55 mph.


    Don’t know about sweet spot, but when living in Germany I drove a Mercedes with a 4-cylinder, 2.2-liter diesel engine. That car wouldn’t accelerate very well, but once up to speed, it could cruise easily at 85-90 mph on the Autobahn while getting 50 mpg.

    Now driving a VW Jetta with a turbocharged diesel engine. The turbo takes care of the acceleration problem, and I still get 45-50 mpg. People riding with me don’t know its a diesel unless I tell them.

    American automakers could very quickly raise their CAFE standards if they started using diesel engines such as the VW TDI. Anyone who couldn’t be satisfied with the performance from a TDI engine while getting close to 50 mpg wouldn’t be satisfied with anything.

    In Europe now, companies such as VW, Puegeot, and Mercedes have micro-cars with 3-cylinder diesel engines that get in the range of 70-80 mpg. Why they aren’t selling those kinds of cars here is beyond me.

    I walk to work most days and every time I see a single person in an SUV cruise by (usually talking on a cell phone by the way) I cringe. Much of our fuel use problems come from all the extra steel, glass, plastic, and rubber most of us haul around with us when we drive. A 120 lb woman or 190 lb man using the energy necessary to move their body PLUS 4,000 extra pounds is a great part of out problem. Just think of all the steel, rubber, glass, and plastic this country burns fuel to push along our highways during each day’s commute.

    Were I king, big cars and vans would be allowed only for businesses and long-range weekend trips and vacations, but personal suburban and urban commuting would have to be by public transportation, or using micro-commuter cars weighing only 5-700 lbs and getting 90-100 mpg.

    A high percentage of the fuel we burn daily is used to push around huge amounts of unnecessary metal, glass, and rubber and is a large part of the demand problem.


    Gary Dikkers

  7. Maybe we need different speed limits depending on what you drive. That is already the case for big rigs. Maybe full sized SUVs, pickups, etc. could be subject to the same speed limit as the big rigs.


  8. “To be honest, I don’t think anyone’s time is worth using up our fossil fuel endowment at the current rate.”

    Life is short. Eat Dessert first.

  9. Years of observation of the American auto industry has taught me that Detroit will never make a change for the public good unless they are forced to. (Or they can make money from it.) Look at their history in safety, emissions, or low-speed colision capability. In each case, laws forced them to improve, they screamed bloody murder, initially came out with horrible solutions, then finally did some engineering and built cars that are vastly the better for it. We have had a framework for fuel economy regulation for years- the CAFE standards. Our gutless, vision-impaired leadership has ignored it, and allowed “light trucks” to be nearly unregulated while half of the country used them as cars. Detroit and the rest of America is now reaping the fruit of this irresponsible policy. For the time being we can drive slower and keep our tires inflated, but I would like to see some serious increases in CAFE standards as soon as possible. (Like that’s going to happen…)

  10. As far as I can tell, fuel use didn’t change with the speed limit — just the number of speeding tickets we all got.

  11. Robert Schwartz- if your time is so goddamned valuable, perhaps you should spend less of it trolling blogs.

  12. 55MPH will be very detrimental to the economy. Yes, many vehicles do get up to 27% better gas mileage at 55 MPH as compared to 75 MPH. However you are also driving 28% slower at 55 MPH. A 100 mile trip takes all most 30 minutes longer at 55MPH as compared to 75MPH.
    The added labor costs to business paying for employees being on the road 28% longer is far above the savings in gas. That added expense will ultimately result in increased prices of all goods and services.
    For the sake of discussion, let’s use the your math for the 100 mile trip: A car that gets 25 MPG would get 31.75 MPG at 55 MPH (27%) – Gas at $4.00 per gallon – Employee labor cost of $15 per hour.
    Driving at 75MPH will take 80 minutes and cost a total of $36.00 in gas and labor costs
    ( use 4 gallons of gas at a cost of $16.00 and the labor cost would be $20 (1.3 hours x $15/hour))
    Driving at 55MPH will take over 109 minutes and cost a total of $39.87 in gas and labor costs
    ( use 3.15 gallons of gas at a cost of $12.60 and the labor cost would be $27.27 (1.8 hours x $15/hour))
    THAT’S AN 11% INCREASE IN COSTS BY SLOWING DOWN TO 55MPH. The burden labor rate for many service industries is actually $25 to $ 35 and more and therefore the problem is even worse.
    The saving lives argument has also be very exaggerated. The chances of being involved in an accident on the highway increase the longer you are actually exposed to the risk. In other words, if you are on the highway an additional 30 minutes per day, your exposure to potential risk has been increase 30 more minutes. Being on the road longer also greatly increases driver fatigue. Driving while sleepy is as dangerous as driving drunk.
    The claims that the National Highway death toll went down around 1974 due to the 55 MPH limit imposed after the 1973 Oil crisis has often been disputed. It has been suggested that this drop was actually due to new enforcement of seat belt laws and people driving less because of high gas prices.
    As a business owner of a service industry, the interference by the Federal Government to make me inefficient will cost me thousands of dollars. Those who want to drive at 55 are more than welcome to drive 55. Just don’t make everyone else along with the economy slow down with you!

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