By Julie E. LeeJulie Lee

From recycling, to sustainable grocery bags, to “Meatless Mondays,” Americans are finding many ways to “go green.” If you’re interested in reducing your carbon footprint, making environmentally conscious decisions doesn’t have to be difficult. In fact, there is one simple way to curb your impact on a regular basis. It starts with your driving.

Most Americans rely on their personal vehicle to get around on a daily basis. But unfortunately, our cars are a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions. According to National Geographic, “Vehicles are America’s biggest air quality compromisers, producing about one-third of all U.S. air pollution. The smog, carbon monoxide, and other toxins emitted by vehicles are especially troubling because they leave tailpipes at street level, where humans breathe the polluted air directly into their lungs.”

Not only will the following tips help the environment, but they can also save you a little money in fuel costs and automobile up-keep along the way. This spring, make your driving a little greener by following these tips.

1. Drive smart: How you drive significantly affects your car’s efficiency and fuel economy. Aggressive driving, including speeding and sudden starts and stops, wastes gas, increases the wear and tear on your vehicle, and is unsafe for you and those around you. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), aggressive driving can lower your gas mileage by 33 percent at highway speeds and by five percent around town. Plus, gas mileage usually decreases rapidly at speeds above 50 miles per hour.

2. Combine trips and avoid idling: Plan ahead by combining your trips. When possible, steer clear of rush hour to avoid stop-and-go traffic. Avoid taking a trip just to fuel up your vehicle, but do so on your way to another destination. Also, avoid idling, which can use up to a half gallon of fuel per hour, depending on engine size and air conditioner use (EPA). If you expect to be parked for more than 30 seconds, simply turn off your engine.

3. Lighten your load: Extra weight in your car boosts the amount of fuel needed to carry it. An extra 100 pounds reduces fuel economy by up to two percent (EPA). To decrease vehicle weigh-down and gas usage, only keep essentials in your trunk—things like spare tires, flares, and a first-aid kit.

4. Maintain your car: Regular tune-ups will help improve your vehicle’s performance and gas mileage. Regularly change your car’s air filter, keep your engine properly tuned and change the oil and oil filter regularly. It’s also important to keep your tires inflated to the proper pressure. Doing so can improve your gas mileage by up to 3.3 percent (EPA). Also, check your car’s gas cap before you hit the road. If it’s loose, damaged or missing, the gas in your car is evaporating. Have your emission systems checked routinely, too, to keep the engine running smoothly and efficiently.

5. Opt for a “green” car: If you’re in the market for a new vehicle, consider purchasing an eco-friendly or hybrid car. These efficient, reliable vehicles allow you to save money and help the planet at the same time. Most eco-friendly cars are lighter in weight and have smaller engines, which burn less gas. The average eco-friendly car can drive more than 30 miles on one gallon of gas. The U.S. Department of Energy offers a free online tool to help you learn about your current car’s gas emissions, or to shop for a new, fuel-efficient vehicle. EPA has awarded a select group of cars the “SmartWay” certification for emitting less greenhouse gas and smog-forming tailpipe emissions than other vehicles.

Learn more at: www.fueleconomy.gov.

For more tips on how to stay safe and save money, consider taking the AARP Smart Driver Course—AARP Driver Safety’s flagship offering and the nation’s first and largest refresher course designed specifically for older drivers. The AARP Smart Driver Course is available in a classroom and online, in both English and Spanish. In some states, you may even be eligible for a multi-year insurance discount upon completion of the course. *

For more information, visit www.aarp.org/safedriving or call 1-888-AARP-NOW (1-888-227-7669).

*The insurance premium discount is not available in all states for the online or the classroom versions of the course. Please consult your insurance agent for further details.

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Julie E. Lee is Vice President and National Director of AARP Driver Safety in the Education and Outreach group at AARP. She directs the largest driver improvement course in America designed for drivers age 50 and older. She can be reached at jelee@aarp.org