How good an eco-driver are you?

Regulator’s tips on careful motoring may save £500 a year

by Stephen Bates in Hertfordshire

The Guardian,
Wednesday September 10 2008

As the rising price of petrol starts to affect driving habits, it was perhaps only a question of time before the Driving Standards Agency, regulator of driving tests, got in on the act. Deploying an instinct which combines expediency with usefulness, the agency is today instituting eco-awareness for those undergoing the test.

Would-be drivers can expect Britain’s 2,000 examiners to comment not just on their proficiency in deciding whether it is safe to let them out on the roads alone, but also on their driving efficiency.

Roaring through the gears and sudden braking – apart from the emergency stop routine – will not mean you fail the test, but may give rise to a word of advice about the advisability of smooth acceleration from the examiner at the end. You will get a nice leaflet too.

To assess just what sort of a saving there is to be made, I was let loose on the roads of Borehamwood, Hertfordshire, with one of the DSA’s chief instructors to check my environmental awareness behind the wheel.

I like to think of myself as a pretty careful driver – 30 years without an accident and only the odd penalty point or three – but it’s fair to say that in 1977 when I passed my test the environmental impact did not play much noticeable part, not least because in those halcyon days petrol was still under a pound a gallon.

Sitting with an instructor beside me for the first time since then – in his shiny Ford estate with all the gizmos rather than my battered 20-year-old Renault 5 which only starts, like its owner, with a wheeze these days – was also a daunting experience.

Beside the satnav and the CD console – luxuries that I am also not used to – sat a small black handset like a mobile phone, ready to record every stutter and over-acceleration as we sped away on a nine-mile course through housing estates, up hills and down dales, past the estancias of suburban Hertfordshire and, briefly, down the London-bound A1. I thought I did pretty well, until we got out and Bob, the instructor, said: “Hmmm, something to work on there.”

Back at the test centre, he pointed out my shortcomings, together with notes on smoother driving, gentler acceleration, keener anticipation of traffic movements, less sudden braking and, of course, the importance of keeping the car serviced and well-maintained, uncluttered with impedimenta or wind-dragging roof racks.

“It’s a holistic view of environmentally-friendly driving,” he said, proving his command of jargon skills as well as driving ones.

“Environmentally-safe driving doesn’t mean going exceptionally slow or arriving later. Maybe you arrive in a better frame of mind, more safely – and having saved some money. These [petrol] price rises are a godsend for this scheme.”

With that, we returned to the car and proceeded along the same route again, though with rather more instruction this time, and the aggravating pointing out of my faults, including what I had fondly imagined was an energy-saving tendency to slow to a stop in neutral rather than by engaging progressively lower gears.

Surveys have shown that drivers instructed in eco-driving methods achieve an average 8% saving in fuel over a year, with newly-qualified drivers managing even better at 15%.

How did I do? A saving of 0.4 of a litre of fuel on the nine miles, equivalent in an hour’s urban driving of using 1.8 litres instead of 2.2: roughly 50p for this trip but, multiplied by the 10,000 miles I might do in a year, £500.

“That’s a reasonable amount of pocket money, isn’t it?” said Bob.

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