Motoring and the environment: Are drivers willing to act?


The RAC Report on Motoring has shown that, over the years, issues relating to the environment have steadily become more important to drivers. In 2019, for example, 14% of all motorists said the environmental impact of motoring was one of their four main concerns – double the 7% recorded in 2016. And, concern about the impact of harmful diesel emissions on health has also doubled over the past three years, from 6% to 12% of drivers, which doubtless coincides with the rise in public awareness around the issue.

But the bad news for policymakers is that thie 2019 Report has recorded a fall in the public’s willingness to take action to reduce their own personal vehicle emissions’ footprint – although there are significant differences among different groups of drivers. For example, while more than two-thirds (67%) of motorists last year said they would be willing to switch off their engines while in traffic for environmental reasons, the proportion has fallen to 61% in 2019.

Fewer people are interested in understanding how their vehicle’s emissions affect air quality (down to 55% from 64%), or are willing to share a car with a friend or colleague in order to cut emissions (down to 43% from 51%). And, only 39% of drivers would consider walking or cycling a short journey for environmental reasons instead of using their cars – a sharp fall on the 49% recorded in 2018. It is possible that some of these findings could be explained by the fact that drivers are increasingly reliant on using a car, as other data from this year’s research shows.

Differences among drivers

This year’s Report demonstrates differences between various sections of the population when it comes to the environment. Concern relating to the environmental impact of motoring, for example, is highest among under-25s – 16% say this is one of their four main concerns against 12% of drivers aged between 45 and 64.

Age differences relating to concern about the health impact of diesel emissions are even starker: 20% of under-25s cite this as a top four concern against just 11% of over-65s.

This trend also applies to the type of action motorists are willing to take to reduce their emissions footprint. Drivers under the age of 25 are more likely to consider car-sharing (53% against an average of 43%), or replacing a short car journey by walking or cycling (45% versus 39%). And, more than a fifth (22%) of younger drivers would consider giving up their cars altogether in order to cut their environmental impact. Among the over-65s, this rate is just 7% – and 6% for motorists in villages and rural areas, which reflects the fact that they are particularly reliant on their vehicles due to a lack of alternative transport options.

There has also been a slight fall in the proportion of all motorists – from 58% in 2018 to 53% this year – who believe that changes in the vehicle excise duty (VED) system should be made to favour of low-emissions vehicles. And, only 24% of drivers think that more polluting vehicles should be banned from city centres in order to promote the take-up of electric cars.

Buying the right car for the environment

Purchasing or leasing a vehicle can be costly and is often the second most expensive item a person will spend money on after a house. Consumers look at many aspects of what appeals to them when making their buying decision, but what type of car to opt for can often be a confusing process. Given concerns about the environment and the introduction of Clean Air Zones in many cities, the RAC has some advice to match your driving habits:

Petrol vehicle – modern petrol cars emit lower levels of harmful nitrogen oxide emissions than diesels. This can make them a more appealing choice for shorter, urban journeys while also a reliable, if less fuel-efficient choice, for longer motorway journeys. Would-be buyers of petrol vehicles should ask whether the vehicle is ‘Clean Air Zone’ (Ultra Low Emission Zone, or ULEZ, in London) compliant, though most petrols registered after September 2005 are currently not likely to be subject to charges.

This year’s Report on Motoring found that petrol cars are the likely next-vehicle option for 48% of drivers, down from 52% in 2018 but still the most popular choice.

Diesel vehicle – modern diesel cars are renowned for their fuel efficiency on longer journeys, especially those on motorways and major A-roads where average speeds are far higher. Drivers that typically do these sorts of journeys, can save on fuel costs throughout the year with a diesel.

However, diesel engines tend to operate less efficiently on urban roads and emit higher levels of harmful nitrogen oxide pollution. Many modern diesels have soot-reducing diesel particulate filters, which often require journeys on faster roads to help ‘burn off’ soot that can accumulate in the filter. Would-be buyers of diesels should also ask if their vehicle is ‘Clean Air Zone’ (ULEZ in London) standard compliant.

A number of recent controversies over diesel manufacturers and the health impact of diesel emissions have seen these cars fall sharply in popularity: this year, only 15% of motorists say they will buy a diesel next, down from 18% in 2018 and 28% as recently as 2016.

Conventional hybrid (battery assisted) – This type of vehicle is often the choice of private hire companies because of low urban running costs and no requirement to plug-in. These cars tend to be lower emitting because, in addition to a petrol or diesel engine, they can be powered at low speeds by a battery. These often carry lower annual tax but overall are higher emitting than many plug-in models on the market.

Recent years have seen a steady increase on the part of drivers to consider a conventional hybrid as their next vehicle purchase: the rate has risen to 21% this year from 17% in 2018.

Plug-in hybrid electric – Plug-in hybrid electric cars give those who predominantly drive in urban areas the opportunity to drive on a charged battery alone (in effect be ‘zero emissions capable’) while also being safe in the knowledge that should they need their vehicle for longer journeys, the internal combustion engine will kick in and allay any concerns about the vehicle’s range. It’s important to note these cars tend to have smaller fuel tanks.

In 2019, 7% of drivers say they plan to buy a plug-in hybrid as their next car, the same proportion as recorded in 2018.

Pure battery electric vehicles – Though these types of cars often carry a higher initial price when compared to their conventional equivalents, they are cheaper to run, carry no tax costs and are quiet and clean, which is perfect for the city driver. Research for the 2019 RAC Report on Motoring shows drivers would like an average range of 375 miles before purchasing an EV, and the reality is most EVs do not have that level of battery range yet. For longer journeys, EV owners will probably need to charge their vehicles at a service area during their journeys.

While pure electric cars remain a minority option, there has in the past 12 months been a notable increase – from 3% to 6% – in the proportion of drivers who say they intend to buy such a vehicle next.