The Slowest Driver is Back

Years ago, in the very early 1990s, I was the slowest driver in Vermont. I was that guy that people hate even more than the 9-year-old kid sitting next to them on the regional jet who has a half-dozen ketchup packets, a toothpick, and absolutely no concern for the welfare of anyone’s clothes. (Okay, this really happened to me and he was a perfectly nice child once he understood that I had many speeches to go before I slept and no dry cleaner on the route. Sure, I may have told him that his tray table was capable of cutting him in half when we landed if he didn’t fold it up into the seat before him and put his toothpicks and ketchup packets away — which would have dwarfed any mess he could have made with the condiments — but that’s only because I am a responsible parent.)

Back in the early 1990s I drove about as fast as a golf cart because I had nine points on my license. It just seemed wise to always motor along about five miles below the posted speed limit.

Lately I have become the state’s slowest driver once again. This time, however, it isn’t because I have points on my license. Nope. This time it’s because I bought a hybrid vehicle this past summer.

The main reason I bought the car was because I wanted to minimize my carbon footprint. Make no mistake, I am far from a model citizen when it comes to the environment: I produce so much paper that I have probably deforested whole hillsides in Maine and I really do spend freakishly large amounts of time on airplanes. Moreover, the hybrid is a Mercury Mariner — not a capsule-like Prius. I am no environmental saint. But it seemed to me that one thing I could do was drive a car that did not guzzle gas.

The Mariner’s engine isn’t nearly as powerful as my old car’s, but even if it were, my sense is that I would be driving the hybrid like I was 15 again and my driver’s ed teacher was sitting beside me. Why? Because I have become obsessed with how many miles I am getting per gallon. I have become fascinated by what seems to stretch the mileage and what doesn’t. And one thing is clear: Going 60 and 65 miles per hour really does burn through a lot more gas than going 45 or 50.

Of course, it also takes longer to get places. It takes an extra 10 minutes to get from Lincoln to Burlington this way, and not merely because I am driving like I’m pulling a truck full of road salt over black ice. It takes longer because I am less likely to view yellow traffic lights as the signal to go faster and race through the intersection. These days, I seem to wind up stopped at all three traffic lights in Hinesburg and the vast majority in South Burlington. (I find it interesting that when I moved to Vermont, there were zero traffic lights in Hinesburg.)

It even takes longer to coast down the hill from Lincoln into Bristol, a mere five mile trek. I stare at the block on my dashboard that shows how much the battery is assisting the engine, hypnotized, virtually coasting. When I see the cars starting to line up in parade file behind me, I pull over.

I am not completely sure this new obsession is healthy. When I was driving pathetically slowly almost two decades ago, it was because I was in danger of losing my license. I had to drive like a dead person. This time, I fear, I am annoying by choice. In addition, I understand that a hybrid is not an environmentally perfect vehicle, either. It still pollutes and I worry about the toxicity of the battery when the car is ready to go to hybrid heaven.

Still, if you are behind me, you have my apologies. Feel free to pass. I’ll slow down even more.

(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on October 4, 2009.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.

2 thoughts on “The Slowest Driver is Back

  1. Bruce Alvarez says:

    Mr. Bohjalian,
    It is nice to see others shifting from the ‘how fast can I get to x MPH?’ to ‘can I get to x MPG?’ mindset. I’m sure you have noticed that as you look ahead and see a light turning that you frequently NEVER stop since you start slowing early and arrive at the line of cars as it starts to move. Start/stop, start/stop or just keep moving. Waste gas and wear the brake pads or just keep moving. Not hard decisions and you get to your destination at the same time as those who race to each red light.
    55 MPH on I/89 and I/91 is perfectly safe and not a hindrance to others most of the time. I find a 15% to 20% decrease in MPG going from 55 MPH to 65 MPH on trips from Burlington to western Mass. In my Prius, that is 8 to 10 MPG. In the summer it is a: ‘Do I want to spend 1/2 hour more and get mid to high 50s or get there in 3 hours at mid to high 40s?’ decision.
    I warn you now to be mentally prepared: whatever you were able to achieve for mileage during the summer will be a happy memory as winter sets in. I generally use the first tank in Nov as the ‘start of bad MPG season’ and the first tank in April as ‘start of good MPG season’. Anytime the temps stay above 70 is ‘great MPG season’. Figure at least a 20% winter MPG drop on average. Installing a block heater can help, especially on the ‘few miles’ trips. Nothing will help a ‘mile to the store’ trip, even in the summer.
    You will find that you LOVE how easily the vehicle starts in the winter. It will NEVER be ‘crank, crank, crank’, hope it starts, with a rough idle while it warms up like every other vehicle you have owned.
    In closing, while you COULD have been ‘greener’ by buying a Prius, you need not worry about the hybrid battery, it is recyclable. I’m not sure how Ford handles it but had you purchased a Toyota, an ‘end of life’ hybrid battery would be going to a purpose built recycling plant in Japan (and they pay a $200 ‘bounty’). To date it has had very minimal use since the batteries really do last the life of the vehicle.

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