When you look at U.S. transportation habits, you start to wonder where in the world we’re all going, and why we’re working so hard to get there. The average household makes more than six car trips per day, each averaging nine miles. With busier schedules, we are each spending an average of 70 minutes a day in our cars, and traffic congestion doesn’t help. Average rush-hour delays due to roadway congestion in 68 U.S. cities more than doubled between 1982 and 1997, according to the Texas Transportation Institute. And trends suggest that things are getting worse. At this rate, it’s a wonder we find free time to do anything other than sit behind a steering wheel.
The average American spends approximately $7,000 a year to buy and drive an automobile. What does this sum really buy, and how can consumers get more for their money? On the plus side, cars make possible a lifestyle of independence with the freedom of spontaneous travel and the ability to live and work in separate places. We can get in our cars and go virtually anywhere at any time (provided there’s no gridlock), without concern for schedules and routes, and with a certain degree of confidence that we will reach our destination. Cars and light trucks also make it possible to easily carry goods that would otherwise be too heavy or awkward to maneuver on foot, bicycle, or public transit. And finally, cars can be just plain fun to drive.
But these benefits come at no small price. The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that the life-cycle impact of cars and light trucks accounts for nearly half of all toxic air pollutants, as well as just over a quarter of greenhouse-gas emissions and more than one-fifth of all water pollution associated with the average household. Ozone, a primary component of smog, is a byproduct of motor-vehicle pollutants and builds up in the lower atmosphere, causing serious health problems, especially among the rising number of people with asthma and other respiratory disorders. Cars are also the leading cause of death among six- to 27-year-olds. More than 40,000 people die each year as a result of automobile accidents. Auto accidents also cost taxpayers over $11 billion annually in publicly funded health-care expenses, reduced income-tax revenues, and increased public assistance, according to the latest data available from the Department of Transportation.
Our car culture has also limited our ability to safely walk and ride bicycles. Some highways, bridges, and tunnels expressly prohibit pedestrians and cyclists. In 1997, the number of pedestrians and cyclists killed by motor vehicles was more than 6,100, the equivalent of a commercial airline crash with no survivors every two weeks.
These are just a few reasons to find other ways of getting around, at least occasionally. Driving less not only helps the environment, but it can also help cut the traffic congestion that makes automobiles an increasingly inefficient form of transit. Although public transit may still be unavailable or impractical for many rural and suburban consumers, planning trips, carpooling, and even car-sharing can significantly reduce miles traveled, and in some cases help households avoid the need for a second or third vehicle.
If you still find that you need to purchase a car, there are relatively eco-friendly models that offer good performance. When shopping for a new vehicle, look for high fuel efficiency and low emissions in addition to the usual factors of convenience, handling, reliability, and safety. Some models from Honda and Toyota that Consumer Reports has evaluated have shown that it’s possible to find all these features in an affordable car. New technologies and government regulations suggest we can expect further improvements in both fuel economy and emissions in the foreseeable future.
Among the first companies launching new hybrid technology that greatly cuts fuel consumption are Toyota, with the 50-plus-mpg Prius, and Honda, with the 60- to 70-mpg Insight.
But these changes have been a long time coming. In the last 11 years, the average fuel efficiency of American vehicles has actually decreased by about 2.1 mpg to 23.8 mpg as of 1999 (from a peak of 25.9 mpg in 1987-88). Congress has refused to require efficiency improvements, even for the increasingly popular light trucks (which include sport utility vehicles, pickups, and minivans) whose average fuel economy is a dismal 20.3 mpg. The EPA has taken steps to tighten emissions standards for both cars and trucks, but those changes aren’t going to happen overnight. In the meantime, some companies are voluntarily meeting more stringent emissions levels with some new models.
To find these greener vehicles, buyers can consult Consumer Reports performance ratings in our new car profiles (available to site subscribers only), along with the Green Book: The Environmental Guide to Cars & Trucks, produced by the nonprofit American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. This handy guide rates cars by class and allows consumers to compare models based on emissions and fuel consumption.
If you’re among those consumers who feel they can’t live with the limited carrying capacity of the most efficient vehicles, first consider how often you need to carry additional passengers or lots of stuff. If you really do need a larger vehicle, unless you go off-road or frequently tow heavy loads, consider a station wagon or minivan. Minivans are roomier, more comfortable, and have a better safety record than SUVs, and both minivans and station wagons are more fuel-efficient and generally less expensive. Although many SUVs are now meeting stricter emissions standards, these standards are far less stringent than the standards for cars.
Keep in mind that fuel consumption not only affects the environment but also your wallet. Buying an SUV that gets 16 mpg instead of a station wagon that gets 22 mpg can cost you about $383 more per year, assuming $1.50 per gallon of gas and an average driving distance of 15,000 miles per year. The average SUV will also emit 4,800 more pounds of carbon dioxide per year than the station wagon.
Once you purchase a new vehicle, limit its environmental impact by keeping it in good running condition with regular tune-ups, maintaining constant speeds, observing the speed limit, and consolidating trips.
To find ways to cut down on driving, contact your local or state government or department of transportation. Many offer referrals on car pools and some may have special financing for public transportation. Many employers now offer ride sharing and financial-incentive programs to help get workers out of their cars. For more information on these types of programs, visit the EPA’s Commuter Choice web page.