Point of View

Live right and dangerously – drive slow in NC

May 13, 2013 



RENAUD THOMAS — Getty Images/Hemera

I drive a 10-year-old Toyota Prius hybrid. I hate cars. I view them as necessary evils in our fast-moving world. Cars are responsible for tens of thousands of injuries and deaths annually. Car wrecks are the No. 1 killer of our teenagers, and the pollution cars cause has incalculable consequences for the air we breathe.

That being said, I drive a car every day. During the school year, I have to drive most of my children to and from schools in Raleigh. If Wake County had better and more reliable public transportation, I would send my kids on the bus, which is how I got to high school as a kid growing up in Queens, N.Y. I try to drive for utilitarian purposes only, and I do walk and ride my bicycle to reduce my carbon footprint.

Some hybrid drivers like to tout their vehicles as being “good” or “better” for the earth than a standard vehicle. That is ridiculous. Hybrids simply get better gas mileage; they still pollute just like all motor vehicles. Still, many of us who drive Priuses do take pride in getting farther for less. My Prius often averages just above 50 miles per gallon, and I can drive more than 500 miles on a tank of gas.

However, there’s a method to getting good gas mileage, and unless your trip is all down hill, there’s only one way to do it: by driving slowly. Therein lies the rub. Americans simply hate to drive slowly. That’s why the N.C. Senate recently passed a bill to raise the state’s maximum speed limit to an insane 75 miles per hour.

The science is clear on two points that were apparently irrelevant to our state senators:

1. The faster we drive, the more we die.

2. The faster we drive, the more we pollute.

Short-sighted Americans simply don’t care about the harm being done for the convenience of having the automobile.

I do my part to buck this trend, and this annoys my fellow motorists. Even on the interstate, I try to keep my speed at 60 miles per hour or slightly less. This almost always means that I am the slowest vehicle on the highway. In-town, I do what Prius drivers call “creeping,” a way of driving that maximizes the use of coasting (which also charges the car’s hybrid battery, which in turn powers the electric motor). Rather than speed up to a red light and brake hard, I usually take my foot off the gas pedal and coast up to the red light as cars fly past me – only to come to a complete stop at the same red light.

Creeping works as an energy-saving tactic for any car. Coasting up to red lights and stop signs is the thing to do if you want to drive more responsibly. My favorite Prius bumper sticker is, “The Last One to the Red Light Wins.”

There is, however, a consequence. Rather than pass me in an open left lane, many drivers come dangerously close to my rear bumper as an intimidation tactic. Other times people pass me and re-enter my lane as close to my car as they can get without hitting me, sometimes blasting their horns. Road rage is a real phenomenon, and it is almost always irrational.

My bet is most wrecks can be attributed to driver impatience. It is not illegal to drive slower than the posted speed limit within reason, but to most Americans driving at the speed limit is far too slow.

My friend Wendy has a vanity license plate that says “55 I drive.” Her life behind the wheel must be hell. Driving more mindfully is a great idea, but not an easy sell. I urge people to slow down to save lives, pollute less and embrace a gentler way of living. Take your time, relax and you might even live longer.

Patrick O’Neill of Garner is co-founder of the Fr. Charlie Mulholland Catholic Worker House, an intentional Christian community that provides hospitality for men, women and children in crisis.

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