These days when gasoline is averaging four dollars a gallon, talk is turning once again to more fuel-efficient vehicles. It takes drastic spikes in oil prices to make us even consider hybrids and electric alternatives, and in our SUV-saturated road culture, our inefficient driving habits die hard (most urban traffic congestion consists largely of single-occupant vehicles). But regardless of what you drive, you can start making a difference right now.
Just don’t brake.
This may sound insane, because of course it is necessary to stop or decelerate sometimes. We do need to brake or slow down for red and yellow traffic lights, stop signs, pedestrians, sudden obstructions, stopped traffic, parking, emergencies, steep inclines, right-angle turns, or any other situation where not doing so would clearly lead to a bad day. But outside of these situations, much of our braking is completely unnecessary, because what it really means is that we were going too fast in the first place.
Braking and accelerating are part of a cycle; every time you brake, you lose engine power, which eventually has to be made up by accelerating again. The key to smooth driving is to not brake or accelerate if you don’t have to. By doing so, you conserve both fuel and your brakes.
For instance, consider the highway onramp. When was the last time you tapped the brakes as you were entering the ramp or negotiating a particularly sinuous curve? What caused you to brake? Were you going just a touch too quickly around the curve? Afraid you might lose control of your vehicle? Was another car in front of you going around the curve at a slower speed? When you merged into traffic, did you momentarily brake because you weren’t prepared for the speeds at which faster and slower vehicles were traveling behind and in front of you?
Braking is about modulating speed. What if, instead of braking, you just slowed down enough so you could go into the curve smoothly without taking your foot off the gas? Or you factored in the speed of the car in front of you? Or looked up way ahead to see who is merging in front of or behind you and then just adjust your speed accordingly?
Here in Seattle, I often drive in congested traffic with either my foot just lightly on the gas pedal, or coasting if I am on a downward incline (but not in neutral, which is actually illegal in many states). By not having a heavy foot on the accelerator, paying attention to and anticipating traffic flow, watching out for changes in incline and grade and how they affect my momentum (which often creeps up really fast), and maintaining a safe following distance, I can easily go for miles, even in fairly heavy traffic, without having to touch the brake pedal once.
And this is especially valuable in congested highway traffic, where the braking done by a single car often triggers an accordion-like wave of braking behind it, causing drivers to halt and thus pile up. If drivers just slowed down in the first place and maintained proper following distances, traffic would keep moving (albeit slowly, but it would keep moving). Indeed, you can single-handedly prevent such a traffic backup just by not braking unnecessarily.
Try this the next time you drive your typical commute. Make a game of it by seeing how few times you can brake during your drive to work or home (while being safe, of course). Modulate your speed, and lift off the accelerator more. Anticipate the traffic flow and scan the road as far ahead as possible so you’re not taken by surprise.
Driving like this takes constant attention. It is not easy to be this vigilant all the time. It may be difficult at first, but keep practicing. Before long you’ll realize how much smoother you’re driving and how much more you are “reading the road,” which is good for a lot of obvious reasons.
I estimate that on average I probably gain an extra 50 to 70 miles per tank of fuel by using these techniques, as well as saving extra wear and tear on brake pads and shoes. Depending on your vehicle and traffic conditions, you can likely increase your fuel efficiency by 10 or 20 percent just by keeping your foot off the brake and going easy on the accelerator.