Safety & Accident

Incentivizing Drivers to Conserve Fuel

Fuel is the No. 1 fleet operating expense. Polk County, Fla., achieved favorable results by addressing one of the main, yet overlooked sources of rising fuel consumption — the driver.

January 2011, Government Fleet - Feature

by Bob Stanton

Polk County, Fla., affixed decals to the rear of its vehicles to alert fellow motorists that County drivers observe 55 mph speed limits.

As fuel costs continue to fluctuate, how can a local government, whose services must continue based on the needs -- sometimes emergency -- of its citizens, mute the impact of fuel costs, especially when those costs rise uncontrollably?

By only reading industry publications, one might presume fuel conservation success can be achieved by technology alone through the use of alternative fuels, hybrid, or all-electric vehicles. The Clean Air Act of 1990 certainly steered governments in that direction and now, 20 years later, it's clear that legislation failed to achieve tangible results. Governments at all levels nationwide have collectively invested billions in technology, which at best has yielded marginal fuel conservation success, and at worst, the technology, hardware, and vehicles have been scrapped at enormous cost. A negative return on investment (ROI) is certainly hard to justify for any organization, public or private.

Like many others, Polk County, Fla., dabbled in the "technology du joir" with mixed results and achieved an unsatisfactory ROI.  

In the summer of 2008, as fuel costs rose to historic levels, the clarity of two alternatives became evident. Government fleets can't take the same steps as private fleets, such as reducing the inventory of vehicles, adjusting routes, or consolidating trips.  As fuel costs rise, governments can either accede to the increases and cut expenses in other areas, or take proactive and perhaps dramatic steps to conserve fuel. This is the approach taken by Polk County.

Starting at the Source

Polk County already had an idle awareness program in place. It was downsizing vehicles and engine sizes and assuring vehicle utilization was maximized by monitoring utilization and repositioning or retiring vehicles that failed to meet utilization criteria. In summer 2008, Polk County went where few other fleets have gone -- to its drivers.

All studies show the largest single contributor to fuel use and/or conservation is the driver. Polk County decided the quickest route to meaningful fuel conservation was to target driver behavior and modify it where possible.

A three-pronged approach was used to modify driver behavior. First, the maximum travel speed of the County's on-highway vehicles was limited to 55 mph.An in-house Eco-Driver training program was developed to train, reinforce, and promote driving habits proven to reduce fuel consumption and assure driver buy-in, and the County added an incentive program to allow employees to share monetarily in their own conservation success.

Instituting a Miles-Per-Hour Restriction

Speed is a huge factor in fuel consumption and vehicle efficiency. Countless studies, both public and private, document the differential in fuel use at various speeds. Although study results vary slightly, they all reach the same conclusion about the efficiency benefits of operating a vehicle at 55 mph compared to higher speed operation. Most agree that operating a vehicle at 55 mph versus 65 mph yields a 15-percent fuel economy advantage.

Polk County is as large as the State of Rhode Island and its fleet operates more than 14 million miles per year. The potential benefit from slower speed operation was clear. Because safe vehicle operation is paramount in any vehicle-related decision, the County consulted with the sheriff's office and the Florida Highway Patrol to verify that such a reduction in speed, for a fleet of its size (2,158 on-road vehicles and 498 off-road units) wouldn't pose an undue hazard to fellow motorists. Both agencies approved the plan. 

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