Driving a car signifies opportunity, independence and adventure. Americans especially use cars to get to work, run errands, visit friends and family, and see the country. But with the freedom and freeways comes stop-and-go traffic, costly accidents, and carbon emissions that, collectively, we’ll be paying for well into the future.

While the auto industry is improving efficiency of engines with larger vehicles and more safety features, the average car still produces six tons of carbon dioxide each year. For perspective, heating an average house emits four tons of carbon dioxide per year, each hot tub produces around 3,000 pounds per year, and each plasma TV accounts for 1,500 pounds per year.

Just like carefully programming a thermostat or turning off the TV to reduce wasted energy, drivers can fine-tune their driving habits to reduce their carbon emissions. Each gallon of gas burned emits around 20 pounds of carbon dioxide. Let’s see how avoid burning those gallons of gas.

Maximize the efficiency of your transportation method

Many of the best ways to improve fuel efficiency – and reduce carbon emissions – take place before you even turn the key. The best way to use less fuel is by simply driving less. Consider your destination and the many ways of getting there. Is it walkable or bikeable? Is mass transit or carpool an option? According to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, you can reduce your fuel consumption by up to 50% by commuting via transit or carpool options three days a week. Telecommuting, when possible, is the cleanest option.

Check out our favorite hikes, bikes and walks in the Seattle area!

carbon emissions
Photo of a Chicago bike share program

Reduce your vehicles carbon emissions

Choosing fuel efficient vehicles, especially hybrid and electric vehicles on GreenerCars.org, is another effective method of reducing fuel consumption. For reference, the 2019 Jeep Grand Cherokee Trackhawk 4×4 averages 17 MPG on the highway and 11 in the city while the 2019 Honda Insight gets 49 MPG on the highway and 55 in the city. If you have several vehicles to choose from at home, drive the most fuel efficient on as much as possible. The difference may not be as extreme as a Jeep Grand Cherokee versus a Honda Insight, but it adds up over time.

If buying a more fuel-efficient vehicle isn’t feasible, maximize your current car’s fuel efficiency by following the manufacturer’s maintenance schedule, using recommended motor oil and keeping the tires properly inflated. Improve fuel efficiency by removing excess weight and drag.

According to a study by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, every 100 pounds of weight in your vehicle can decrease fuel efficiency by 1%. The lab also found that blunt-faced roof-top carrier can negatively impact fuel efficiency by 17% on the highway, whereas a rear-mounted cargo box causes, at most, a 5% reduction in fuel efficiency.

Reduce carbon emissions from idling

So, it’s your turn in the carpool group to pick the kids from soccer practice. It’s too far to walk and you need to take the SUV to fit everyone. The tires are full, the extra weight is off, and the mechanic has your vehicle running tip top. You’ve also mapped out the most efficient route to get everyone home.

Nothing you can do now, right?

Not so fast! How you drive can drastically impact how much fuel your vehicle uses. The most notable and easiest method to reduce fuel consumption is to avoid idling. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, personal vehicle idling generates around 30 million tons of carbon dioxide in the United States each year – that’s three billion gallons of wasted fuel. The rule of thumb is to turn the engine off (not in traffic, of course) if you are going to be stopped for 10 seconds or more. It is recommended to keep engine starts to under 10 per day to reduce wear on the starter but going over this benchmark occasionally will not do significant damage.

Many cold-climate drivers tend to idle their vehicles for several minutes to warm up the engine and cab. However, modern engines only need 30 seconds to sufficiently warm up, even on the coldest days, and the cab will warm up faster while the vehicle is in motion. As a Minnesota native, I understand the brutality of sitting in a frigid car, but with 250 million personal cars in the United States reducing unnecessary idling can drastically reduce the country’s annual carbon emissions.

Pollute less by driving more efficiently

Along with unnecessary idling, avoid excessive accelerating and braking to reduce fuel consumption. The Oak Ridge National Laboratory found that aggressive driving (speeding, braking hard and rapid acceleration) can increase fuel use by up to 40% in stop and go traffic and up to 30% on the highway. The lab also found that most vehicles are reach optimal fuel efficiency at around 50 miles per hour, and each additional 5 mph increases fuel usage equivalent to paying an extra $0.19 per gallon. Following the speed limit and traffic laws not only increases fuel efficiency, it keeps the roadways safer and less congested for yourself and others.

Lastly, warm engines pollute less, so combining errands into one swoop instead of several trips over time can positively impact fuel efficiency.

Featured image: Advertises a King County public transport app to get you from place to place.