A young mother pulled her massive white pickup truck up to the air pump and left the engine run as she inflated one of the large tires. She gathered up her young child and ran into the store. I waited a few moments to see how long the lady took before she returned to her still-running vehicle. Minutes passed and she was still nowhere to be found.
Sitting on the rocking chairs in front of a local eatery the weekend before, I watched a man leave the restaurant and drive his shiny club cab truck toward the entrance. He waited there, engine running as three other people from his party slowly returned over the next six or seven minutes. They talk and chuckle for a few more minutes. As we enter the restaurant, the group finally departs, never having turned the engine off for the nine or ten minutes we looked on.
Rain or shine, snow or balmy warmth, two well-intentioned parents drive their children (in a truck and SUV respectively) to the end of their thirty foot long driveways, waiting for the school bus. Both engines run until the bus arrives and, almost in unison, the two gas guzzlers back the thirty feet down the driveway. Thankfully, the children have been spared the long walk up that driveway, safe from any wild, carnivorous animals running about Blair County!
These most recent incidents happened on pleasant days when neither the heater nor air conditioners were needed. There was no logical reason (beyond the continued exercising of a bad habit) for any of these folks to let the vehicles idle. Depending on the size and fuel efficiency of your car or truck, every hour of idling burns a quarter to a half gallon of gas. It's estimated that Americans use nearly four million gallons of gas every day letting their engines idle unnecessarily. That also means an hour of idling emits up to ten pounds of carbon dioxide, giving off more than 75 million pounds of CO2 each year nationwide.
Beyond being oblivious to the downside of letting their cars and trucks run unceasingly, their preference for large, inefficient vehicles would indicate these folks are not concerned about fuel economy. Yet despite these tales of unawareness or apathy, there is good news. During the ten years that gasoline prices were high, fuel efficiency continued to increase, rising over six miles to the gallon during that time. Though truck and SUV sales have remained robust, more fuel efficient cars are easier to find and many Americans have responded by buying them.
Higher fuel prices have pushed us toward more efficient cars in much the same way the oil embargos of the mid and late seventies brought similar changes and greater energy conservation in general. In a recent conversation with Penn State Altoona Physics Professor and energy specialist Richard Flarend, I lamented our apparent slide backward in the eighties (when energy prices decreased). Flarend reminded me that improvements in efficiency and conservation continued even after prices went down. Despite some unenlightened souls, it would seem that many Americans respond to market forces that push us toward conservation. Let's hope that trend continues.