How high gas prices could make the world a safer place

No more road rage. As every Prius driver knows, maximizing fuel economy leads to Zen peace, safer streets, and joy everlasting

Published June 9, 2008 11:14PM (EDT)

Drive a Toyota Prius, and let harmony and peace reign throughout the land. The lion will lie down with the lamb, road rage will vanish from the highways, and the world will be a safer place for reckless highway-crossing animals.

Provided, of course, that the Prius in question is a modified plug-in hybrid capable of recharging itself from the electricity grid.

Toronto Star "Clean Break" columnist Tyler Hamilton tells us this week of his experience driving just such a Prius for a week in this week's column. But I'm going to skip past all his delighted observations about mileage, and cut to a point he made in an accompanying blog post concerning how the experience of driving a Prius changed his driving habits.

To use electric mode as much as possible you're forced to drive less aggressively. It's difficult at first, but after a while it becomes natural and is actually more relaxing. In fact, I realized that if everybody just drove the speed limit, learned to coast to stop signs and traffic lights, and didn't accelerate toward every traffic light, the streets would be safer and we'd all save oodles of fuel.

Hamilton isn't the first Prius driver to note that the Prius's real-time feedback on fuel economy encourages an immediate feedback loop. As the very geeky Brad DeLong noted last summer, very geekily, "trying to maximize one's gas mileage in the Prius by maximizing regenerative braking and minimizing friction braking losses is a highly cool video game one can play." Much as real-time page view statistics about exactly how many readers will inevitably click on a blog post whose headline connects gas prices and Prius-driving in an unorthodox fashion will encourage some bloggers to (some might say excessively) over-indulge in Prius-related content, the mere availability of such real-time fuel economy data clearly has an enormous impact.

But until now, perhaps because How the World Works does not drive a Prius, I had not considered the larger social implications of millions of drivers deciding, for fuel mileage reasons, to glide gently across town, never gunning the engine through a yellow light. Imagine all those drivers during the morning commute frantically attempting to pass each other on crowded highways suddenly transforming into paragons of Zen harmony as they realize that hurrying is wasteful -- hurrying is actually economically irrational!

Think of all the aggravation that vanishes from the world when we all refrain from putting the hammer down on the accelerator pedal -- when the only thing that bothers us when some asshole cuts off us while merging onto the freeway is, gee, it's really too bad how much gas that jerk just wasted. Pedestrians and bikers and errant raccoons and armadillos will all breath sighs of relief as average speeds of hurtling vehicles decline across the globe.

How the World Works doesn't mean to ignore the very real economic pain inflicted by high gas prices on those least able to absorb the hit, but, from the vantage point of safer streets, a gas tax holiday could be a real killer.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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