In the United States we have become comfortable with our large cars, even larger SUVs and we have further assumed that we would always have inexpensive fuel and freeways to speed comfortably between cities.

In the last 20 years however, the assumptions of the optimistic 1950's have started to conflict of environmental responsibility, economic reality and increasingly recognized limits on boundless consumption.

But not everyone wants to drive in an economical way, promting us to ask what society can do to encourage road users to be more green? Do we use the threat of fines and citations for those who drive uneconomically in a Big Brother style survelence of our roads, or do we use a softer approach? 

The problem isn't just caused by how we drive though. It's what we drive. 

Large and heavy vehicles consume more fuel and take up more resources in their manufacture. They also contribute more heavily to the rapid wear of our road surfaces. When it comes to passenger vehicles it is normal that regardless of size these vehicles are still only carrying one person most of the time. 

In Europe and Asia, things are different. Small cars are more popular and fuel prices are often twice as expensive as they are in the U.S. thanks to high taxation. 

As a consequence, these high fuel prices have encouraged the development of fuel-efficient, and thus smaller, personal vehicles.  Economic forces have been used to control vehicle operation.

If taxation and high fuel prices encourages eco-minded driving there, could it do the same here in the U.S.? 

We could tax fuel much more heavily and that certainly is likely no matter what else is done, but here is an additional way that might be considered:

2011 Chevrolet Caprice Police Car

2011 Chevrolet Caprice Police Car

Many studies find that speed monitoring, via visible police presence, decreases speeding. But this apparent control decreases with increasing distance from the site of the police presence.  (There is some effect that lingers even over several days for those who were speeding the most.)

In Canada back in 2005 there was an experiment with GPS monitoring of vehicle speed and an auditory warning whenever the vehicle exceeded the mandated speed for that section of roadway, and in the U.K. there has been discussion of "external speed control" on individual vehicles.  

The general approach of these earlier experiments has been focused on combining safety issues (speeding above posted limits even in city areas) with saving fuel by reducing turnpike speeding.  For the purpose of controlling freeway speed to decrease fuel use, here is a proposal based on cognitive psychology:

  • Restrict any vehicle that is not EPA highway certified to achieve at least 35 mpg at 65 mph to a max freeway speed of 55 mph.  By equipping these vehicles with smart transmitters which signal to highway patrols and law enforcement when the vehicle exceeds this limit for an extended period of time would enable automatic speeding tickets and violation citations to be sent out.  Ultimately, these would discourage speeding habits when combined with high enough fines. 
  • Permit all vehicles that meet an EPA highway certification of 35.0 mpg or better and which have maximum occupant safety features to travel at maximum posted legal speed limits.  These vehicles would have smart transmitters as well but trigger only when excessively high speeds are recorded for more than a brief time.

Traffic enforcement camera

Traffic enforcement camera

This proposal is based on the psychological principles of freedom and responsibility.  Time is a commodity that all of us have too little of, and the freedom to travel more quickly and the constant reminder that others with more efficient vehicles are able to travel more quickly would strongly motivate as many of us as could afford it to move to more energy efficient vehicles.  Think about the sports car buyer who is forced to go only 55 mph when the green car driver is passing him going 70 mph 

And the "violation transmitters" would also yield potential income from fines and further motivate speed control by all of us. This would incorporate the universal research that external speed monitoring reduces speeding violations.

Is this proposal plausible, or is it a scary future vision which threatens our constitutional rights? Let us know in the Comments below.