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High fuel prices can alter driving habits

By Bonnie Coblentz
MSU Ag Communications

MISSISSIPPI STATE -- The cost of getting an education is high, and with gas prices hovering near $4 a gallon, just getting to school has never been more expensive.

Traffic picks up when school starts back as school bus drivers, carpooling parents and commuting college students hit the road en mass to get an education or take someone to class.

In its June 29 issue, U.S. News & World Report stated that Americans spend an average of 4 percent of their budget on fuel. Gasoline was almost $4 a gallon by July, and consumers have no way of knowing where these prices will top out. Experts suggest the best way to minimize the impact of high fuel costs is to practice efficiency.

Eugene Columbus, a Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station agricultural engineer, said carpooling and mass transportation are ideal ways to cut fuel costs.

“Carpooling is a great idea, and it also helps to plan your trips to include several stops instead of making several trips and only one stop or reason per trip,” Columbus said.

That means school buses make sense, as does arranging with a friend or neighbor to transport children to school. College students who take weekend trips can coordinate schedules with friends headed in the same direction.

David Dixon, Amite County School District transportation director, said the number of passengers on buses in his southwest Mississippi county stays constant each school year.

“The majority of our kids ride the bus, and our numbers stay the same from August to May. We're a rural county, and we have a lot of low-income families,” Dixon said. “We have a few parents who bring their kids to school, and some high-school kids drive their cars because of band or ball practice.”

The number of children living in Amite County has dropped in recent years, and the district will operate 21 bus routes this fall, down from the 33 it ran in 2000.

“We used to be an agricultural county, and we had big, big families, but we don't have industry, and we're becoming a retirement community. The folks moving in are beyond the child-bearing age,” Dixon said.

Despite fewer students, the cost of transporting them has increased dramatically. Updating the fleet keeps costs down by replacing old, inefficient buses with more fuel-efficient, new ones.

“In 2000, we were paying 99 cents a gallon for diesel. We order 7,000 gallons every 20 working days,” Dixon said. “On May 15, we bought 7,000 gallons, and it cost $29,500. That's a $22,500 increase in eight years.”

In Starkville, the number of students riding the bus increased in the last year.

“Last year we had an increase in riders of 115 students,” said Debbie Sciré, office manager for the superintendent of the Starkville School District. “Overall, there were 2,632 students who rode buses last year from our enrollment of approximately 4,100.”

While some vehicles just use more gas than others, driving style also affects each vehicle's fuel efficiency.

“Rabbit starts and stops reduce gas mileage,” Columbus said. “Do not take off fast only to stop at the next block. Instead, start off evenly and reduce speed in the same manner. Do not ride the brakes, as this causes friction that the motor must work harder to overcome.”

Other driving tips are to use only the brake at stops rather than placing one foot on the brake and the other foot on the gas pedal. People driving manual transmissions should move quickly through the lower gears to the more fuel-efficient higher ones.

Mass transit is a good option where it is available, but in Mississippi, those opportunities are limited. Columbus also said many people are not interested in changing their lifestyles to depend on these systems.

“We in small-town USA are too accustomed to going and coming when and where we want at our own convenience, and this works against mass transit schedules,” he said.

Those responsible for fleets can buy biofuels in some areas to slightly reduce fuel costs, but these are not readily available in most areas. Columbus said biodiesel is available at one location in Starkville and a few stations in the Jackson area. Biodiesel and ethanol blends are available at some stations along Highway 78 between Tupelo and Memphis.

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Released: July 3, 2008
Contact: Eugene Columbus, (662) 325-3282