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National Association of Counties
Washington, D.C.

www.NACo.org

 

 County saves on fuel by changing driver behavior

By Charles Taylor
SENIOR STAFF WRITER

Polk County, Fla. has a message for drivers of county fleet vehicles: Don’t be fuelish. The advice is paying off — for the county’s bottom line and for some employees’ pocketbooks.

The county’s fuel conservation program is all about behavior modification. It includes a cash incentive for drivers to slow down, stop idling and, ultimately, get better mileage by using less fuel.

Drivers who improve their vehicles’ mileage by at least 5 percent get to split the cost of the fuel saved with the county 50-50. One employee received almost $500, according to Bob Stanton, the county’s director of fleet management. It’s part of a broader initiative that was recently recognized as a Bright Idea by the Ash Institute at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

 
Photos courtesy of Polk County, Fla.

Polk County, Fla. spent about $800 on signs for its fuel conservation program, which officials say saved hundreds of thousands of dollars.
 

"If you look at statistics, 35 percent of your miles per gallon is affected by the person behind the wheel," Stanton said. "So if you can modify that behavior … even if you don’t get 35 percent, if you get 5 percent, 10 percent, 15 percent, that can be a significant number for a government fleet."

The incentive program is voluntary. Its participants — and all fleet drivers — must follow eco-driving practices, which Stanton teaches, such as avoiding quick starts and stops, maintaining proper tire pressure and using cruise control, when possible. Emergency-response vehicles are ineligible for the program, since they often must exceed speed limits.

The classes are an adaptation of vehicle manufacturer Ford’s Driving Skills for Life program. To date, Stanton has taught almost 1,000 students. Of that number, he said 108 employees signed up for the incentive program; 40 received an incentive check.

Nick Harboe, who drives a Ford F-250 truck for the county’s mosquito control program, was one of them. He already considered himself a "conservative" driver when he decided to participate in the incentive program.

"I didn’t think it was going to make as big a difference with me as it would with someone else who had tended to always hot-rod it," he said. "But I did the steps they told you about. Actually, I think I ended up saving 120-some-odd dollars when all was said and done." That was his share of the $240 in fuel savings he realized. He was so impressed with the program that he’s adapted some of the techniques to driving his personal vehicle.

To participate in the incentive program, an employee must also sign a Fuel Incentive Program Employee Agreement, and she or he must be the exclusive driver of the vehicle, so any driving behavior changes can be tracked to a specific driver and vehicle.

The one-year contract obligates the driver to practice eco-driving techniques, enter the vehicle’s odometer reading at each refueling, adhere to preventative maintenance schedules and have no preventable crashes. A driver can only be in the program for a year, Stanton said, because it’s difficult to squeeze out additional fuel efficiency year after year.

In its first year, the program contributed to overall fuel savings from all conservation measures of 187,000 gallons and about $500,000, Stanton said. The incentive program helped, but he said the biggest savings came from drivers observing the 55 mph speed restriction.

Because of the county’s size, 1,875 square miles, and the high number of roads with posted speeds of 65 mph, he said the opportunity to recognize savings from driving 55 are significant. "By far, the 55-mile-an-hour speed limit restriction has had the greatest impact."

A Response to Soaring Fuel Prices

The impetus for the county’s fuel conservation measures tracks back to the summer of 2008, when fuel prices were "off the charts," Stanton said. Gasoline was selling for north of $4 per gallon and climbing.

He made seven recommendations to the county manager, three of which were already in place: an idle-awareness program, and downsizing vehicles and their engines. The county "reinvigorated" those programs and added the eco-driving component, speed-limit restriction and monetary incentives in July 2008.

Assistant County Manager Lea Ann Thomas said Stanton "took the ball and ran with it," eventually winning Board of County Commissioners’ approval of the incentive and other conservation programs.

Stanton said overall costs were minimal compared to the savings. In addition to staff time, the county spent about $800 to purchase decals resembling speed limit signs for county vehicles that read "I’m driving … at 55: to save $$ and fuel" — to alert following vehicles.

As the program has progressed, Stanton discovered a money-saving side benefit that he attributes to the slower driving: a reduction in the number and severity of vehicle crashes. In the initiative’s first year, preventable accidents dropped 22 percent, and the severity of accidents declined 35 percent. "You’re driving more slowly; you’re driving, theoretically, more carefully. Consequently, you’re reducing accidents," he said.

"So in addition to fuel savings, we calculated the hard dollar savings in the first year in safety or loss prevention to be about another $280,000."

Thomas said she often served as a "sounding board" for Stanton when he was developing the program. "The bottom line is, from the county manager’s office, we’re very pleased with the success of the program," she said. "All the different steps we’ve taken, I think they’ve all made a difference. We encourage any more ideas."