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Do today's motorists know how to be 'green' in their driving?

Most motorists recognise the environment is an issue that can't be ignored, and that they are being asked to play a part in helping reduce our impact on it. Mostly, they think this is fair.

However, they lack confidence in their understanding of the issue, leaving them unsure of their options for change.

The latest RAC survey asked motorists to assess the degree to which different aspects of motoring impact on the environment. Whilst a deliberate simplification of a complex subject, the results provide valuable insight into the motorist's mindset (Fig.5).

At a basic level, two thirds of motorists are confident that the size of a car's engine has a major impact on the environment, and also recognise the way the car is driven makes a difference.

They further appreciate the fuel a car uses has a part to play, although they lack a precise understanding of exactly what this means environmentally.

CO2 emissions from different fuels

The findings show drivers' understanding of the CO2 emissions generated by different fuels is somewhat confused and simplistic: petrol and diesel being generally "bad" whilst other options are "less bad".

In fact, only half of motorists feel confident that they understand the differences in CO2 emissions between different fuel types. (Fig.6)

How confident are you that you know and understand the differences in the levels of CO2 emissions between different fuels such as petrol, diesel, natural gas, bio-fuels and electric?

Diesel cars emit more CO2 than petrol cars per litre of fuel burned, but use fewer litres of fuel to travel a given distance. The overall impact is that diesels typically emit less CO2 per kilometre than petrol cars7. The problem is that this is not immediately clear to drivers.

There is also confusion over other types of fuels, with drivers failing to realise that CO2 emissions from CNG or LPG are no better than those from petrol or diesel engines.

More fundamentally, a significant minority thinks neither petrol nor diesel has any, or only a minor impact on the environment (27% and 36% for petrol and diesel respectively). And a further one in ten (9% for petrol and 10% for diesel) is unable to say if either has any impact.

It is a confusing picture, compounded by the lack of clear guidance from experts, and there is currently no clear-cut answer on what is greener, petrol or diesel.

Greener driving

The majority of drivers have a degree of confidence that they know how to be a "greener" driver. However, a fifth of those surveyed did not, with female drivers in the main being less confident than men.

While today's cars are cleaner than ever before – and emit less CO2 than 20 years ago – the fact that in 2008 there are 49% more cars on the road than there were in 1989 has resulted in an increase in the total amount of CO2 being emitted by cars8.

But it is hard for anyone, including motorists, to make a change if they cannot easily measure what they are trying to change in the first place. The drivers surveyed said information is highly valued - 78% of motorists in the survey felt fitting cars with CO2 meters would have a positive impact on making driving more environmentally friendly in 20 years time.

Currently, few cars give any form of "real time" reading of CO2 emissions. Some cars have mpg read-outs, either as an average for the journey, or in real time, or both. But these default to zero when a car is stationary. European cars read out fuel consumption in litres per 100km, which, when a car is stationary defaults to litres per hour, so the driver always knows how much fuel is being used at any time.

RAC calls for:

  • Driver training and re-education courses for motorists on "how to be green". This has already started with the greener driving element of the driving test, which is welcomed by RAC. It is important that if we are to affect behavioural change, we need to ensure the behaviour is seen as a natural reaction to the driving process starting right from the first time a motorist sits behind the wheel of a car. But how do we affect those drivers who have already passed? Through our research, we understand the average driver passed their test 24 years ago.
  • Fuel efficiency calculators to be built as standard in all new cars.

So how 'green' are Britain's drivers?

Choices and alternatives