Lead-Foot Nation

We have a dwindling supply, a hugely hungry demand and a government unwilling to act. I’m talking about oil, of course, and our head-in-the-Middle-Eastern-sand attitude. Just keep driving, we think, and maybe our grandkids will figure it out.

A story to illustrate: In 1989 my wife and I bought our first new car, a cherry red Volkswagen Jetta we named “Lucy,” in honor of our favorite comedian. Nothing earth-shattering, or earth-saving, except for this: It was a diesel and got 43 miles per gallon.

After 237,000 miles and 18 years of hard use, the shine has evaporated but this car still gets 43 mpg. And though it won’t win any beauty contests — we had to bolt the bumper to the car because of a little rust — it chugs right along, giving us over 500 miles for every tank of fuel.

Say we had bought instead a car that traveled 20.7 mpg, the average for all U.S. passenger vehicles in 1989, according to the Energy Department. We would have burned 5,937 gallons more, over twice as much fuel.

Now pretend that everyone in 1989 had a car as efficient as our little Lucy. Given the roughly 148 million household vehicles in the United States in 1989, and that each traveled on average 10,000 miles, we would have saved almost 40 billion gallons in just that one year. Multiply that by the 18 years since, and it is enough to make one stop the car and weep.

But an even sadder truth is that the United States hasn’t changed its fuel economy standards for passenger cars in 17 years, and this leads to another story.

In 2004 our family needed another vehicle, something that could handle our long, steep driveway, even in winter. I wanted another VW, but couldn’t find one with both a diesel engine and four-wheel drive. So now a Subaru Forester parks beside the VW Jetta, the shiny green making Lucy’s red even more dull. The Forester gets 27 mpg — not bad compared with other vehicles, family and friends point out. But I look at the VW and know better. Had our country’s standards improved, we’d have more and better choices.

Other advanced industrial countries — the United Kingdom, Germany, Japan — use less than a third as much gasoline per person as we do, according to the World Resources Institute. They’ve accomplished this with a combination of higher taxes on gasoline and better fuel efficiency.

So what will it take to make us change? Why should we care about our vehicles’ minute mpg numbers? Start with air pollution and the health problems it can cause. Then consider unregulated carbon dioxide, the leading driver of humankind’s role in global climate change. The Energy Department says that vehicles emit about 25 percent of our country’s carbon dioxide. If you drive a 25 mpg car instead of a 20 mpg car 12,000 miles in a year, you cut carbon dioxide emissions by 1.2 tons.

What’s more, boosting fuel economy saves us money and reduces the oil we import, bolstering our nation’s energy security.

But simply improving efficiency is not enough. Historically, efficiency has led to even more resource consumption, so we’ll need to raise fuel taxes to ensure we don’t drive away our efficiency gains.

So when will we no longer be Lead-Foot Nation? When can I buy a 75-mpg four-wheel drive? Soon, I hope. Slowly, the auto industry and our legislators are shifting gears, but we steer them as much as they steer us. With voices and wallets, we can speak more loudly for more fuel-efficient vehicles. Both the president and Congress are considering bills to improve efficiency standards; we can urge them to act instead of just consider.

Ironically, last year my family didn’t pay taxes on beloved Lucy. The assessor deemed the Jetta too old to have any value. Though I appreciate paying less in taxes, I disagree with the assessor’s, and our country’s, definition of value.

JIM MINICK teaches at Radford University in Virginia and also farms. A poet and essayist, his latest book is “Finding a Clear Path.”