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Eco-friendly driving tips anyone can do

Try these quick changes to your routine, and you'll make every trip behind the wheel greener. (©iStockphoto.com/Serdar Yagci) Try these quick changes to your routine, and you'll make every trip behind the wheel greener. (©iStockphoto.com/Serdar Yagci)


By Elizabeth Brownfield
 

In an eco-perfect world, we'd all drive zippy little electric cars. Or better yet, we'd take public transportation and walk everywhere. But with work, running a household, carpooling and your social life, living without your car isn't realistic for even the greenest women among us.

Still, that doesn't stop the pang of guilt you may feel whenever you hear experts talk about dwindling oil reserves and the damage cars can do to the environment. (An alarming statistic: Almost one-third of all air pollution in the U.S. comes from tailpipe emissions from cars and trucks.)

Luckily, there are several simple ways you can reduce your family's footprint on the environment. Try these quick changes to your routine, and you'll make every trip behind the wheel greener. Not only are these ideas good for the planet, but they'll save you money too.

1. Keep Tires Inflated

Experts repeatedly drive home the importance of keeping proper tire pressure. And for good reason: For every pound per square inch (PSI) that your tires are underinflated, you lose about 1 percent in fuel economy (per tire!), plus it increases wear and tear on your vehicle, says Robert Sinclair Jr., media relations manager for AAA New York.

Checking your tires' pressure is easy. Look in the owners manual for the recommended tire PSI, then use an inexpensive pressure gauge (available at gas stations or auto parts and hardware stores). If the tires are low, fill up at a gas station's air compressor until you reach the right level. Sinclair suggests checking the pressure at least once a month, so keep the gauge handy in the glove box.

2. Change Your Air Filter Regularly

Sinclair also encourages changing your car's air filter every 6,000 to 10,000 miles. "Driving with a clogged filter is like running a marathon while breathing through a straw," he says. In other words, your engine has to expend far more power and gas than necessary to get you where you're going. You can save some money by changing the filter yourself; it only takes a few minutes (consult your manual for how-to's). Or simply have it replaced when you get your oil changed.

3. Practice Patience on the Road

You probably avoid aggressive driving for safety's sake, but maneuvers like speeding, tailgating and rapidly accelerating then slamming on the breaks also impact the amount of gas you use. All can lower gas mileage by as much as 5 percent on local roads and up to 33 percent on the highway, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

In fact, for every 5 miles per hour you drive over 60 mph, you'll pay 24 cents per gallon more for gasoline. So the next time you're on the highway, set the cruise control at 60 mph, take a deep breath and calmly coast to your destination. Not only are you more likely to arrive safely, but you'll save yourself potential road rage and money while helping the environment too.

4. Lose the Junk in Your Trunk

For day-to-day trips, clear out and put away any sports gear, books, toys and other stuff you've been hauling around but don't need. Aside from taking up space, unnecessary weight makes cars guzzle gas. Adding just 100 extra pounds, for example, can decrease fuel efficiency by up to 2 percent. 

On long trips and vacations -- when you can't avoid a heavy load -- try to fit everything in the trunk or inside your car. Tying bikes or cargo boxes to the roof may give you extra room, but it causes a drag on usually aerodynamic cars and reduces fuel efficiency even more than the added weight alone. If you can't fit everything, try hitching a small trailer to the back of your car, which doesn't create the same drag, says Sinclair.

5. Plan Trips Strategically

With five minutes of extra planning, you'll not only spend less time behind the wheel, but both you and the environment will save gas too. Your goal: "Trip chaining," says Tom Brahms, executive director and CEO of the Institute of Transportation Engineers. That means combining drives to work, appointments and errands into as few trips as possible.

Every Sunday night, look at your schedule and jot down your errands and activities for the following week. Then figure out how to group them together. Also try to plan routes in loops so you never have to backtrack. For example, if you know you have to get to the grocery store, dry cleaner and card shop, plan to go after work or on a night you have book club and hit them all up at once.

Bottom line: The less often you set off from home to run errands, the less gas you waste and the more time you save.

6. Get Creative With Carpooling

You're already a car pool pro, working with other moms to arrange rides for your kids. Why not organize your own car pool to and from work or for other functions? The practice, which became popular in the 1970s, is making a comeback thanks to this green-minded generation. And Web sites like eRideShare, RideshareOptimizer, Zimride and MyCasualCarpool make it easier than ever to find people to share your drive (and the gas bill) with.

If you're not comfortable commuting with strangers, try posting ride-share info on your company's Web site or bulletin board. You can also chat up neighbors to find out if their offices are near yours. Or simply try sharing a ride to work with your spouse.

Carpooling is also easier if your job allows you to think outside the nine-to-five box with "flex time." The practice lets you stagger your hours, working from, say, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. This helps you avoid rush hour traffic and the stop-go-stop-go type of driving that wastes fuel.

Green-ifying your car isn't difficult. You'll find it even easier knowing these changes benefit not only the environment but also your schedule and your wallet. More savings at the gas pump, less wear and tear on the car, and a clean, green conscience. Who knows, maybe you'll even start to think driving is fun again!

Elizabeth Brownfield is a freelance writer and editor who has been on the editorial staff at Metropolitan Home, Domino and Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia. She has also contributed to such magazines as Martha Stewart Living, Martha Stewart Weddings and Everyday Food, plus the Web site TastingTable.

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