St. Louis to Chicago: Putting A 55 M.P.H. Drive to the Weekend Road Trip Test

In light of a recent post of mine here about a campaign to lower the speed limit to 55 miles per hour, I saw a weekend getaway as a chance to test the impact of speed-limit driving on fuel economy.

Going from St. Louis to Chicago, then up past Milwaukee before backtracking that route home, my wife and I drove our 2008 Honda Civic, a 5-speed which is rated to get 36 miles per gallon on the highway and 25 mpg in the city (29 mpg combined).

On three gas stops, our mileage figured to 40.25, 39.29 and 39.48 mpg.

That included city driving, traffic stoppages, and miles and miles of construction slow-downs and more stoppages.

Could it be that driving the speed limits, usually 55- and 65-mph on the highways and interstates we used, gave us that boost to get from 36 to 40 miles per gallon?

As I wrote about in that earlier “Driving 55” post, Internet-based responses to the media’s announcement of, and the drive55.org campaign push for, a federally-mandated decrease in speed limit has been rather heated, outright vicious, hateful, profanity-filled and, at times, violent in nature.


Value of a Relaxing Drive

I enjoyed the drive this weekend. For years I’ve been one of those people who figured driving should be done as fast as I can get away with. If the limit is 55, go 68. If it’s 70, go 80. Or whatever.

But driving that way is such a tension-filled experience.

Every car you come up behind is going too slow, you think. Every car coming up behind you seems to be begging for a race and/or is getting in the way of lane changes and passing.

Everyone is an enemy, you figure, because all that matters is that ever-pressing instant of NOW…go go go go go go. For what? What’s gained?

And, being a speed-racer, you’ve got to keep eyes out for law enforcement at all times.

It’s all tension and aggravation. And it’s unnecessary.

Driving this weekend’s trip at the speed limit was relaxing and in-control. Easy reaction times. No one in my way. Cops weren’t worth a second glimpse. My time was still well-spent, listening to music, talking with my wife, eating at restaurants, seeing some countryside and cityside.

Oh, and did I mention, we got 40 miles per gallon? Short of a hybrid, there’s nothing mass-produced that is better on the road right now.

Doing What is In Our Best Interests

As we saw motorcyclist after motorcyclist in Illinois riding sans helmet (in Missouri, helmets are required), I got to thinking about a particular comment I read at another media site online last week.

This person questioned why he, she, or anyone should have to have a law pushing all drivers down to 55 mph. Couldn’t anyone who wanted to drive 55 mph just go ahead and do it now — and get out of his, her and everyone’s way who wants to go 70, 80 or whatever miles per hour?

And it seems that, technically, the answer is “Yes, people can make sensible choices of their own volition without government mandate.”

After all, my wife and I just showed, as I’ve been discussing in this blog post, that people can in fact set cruise control on 55 mph and still get to their destination.

But how many people do hold back, even though it’s safer and, seemingly, more economical?

If motorcyclists know that death is almost certain in the event of a wreck on the highway, then why don’t they take that safety measure of wearing a helmet? It’s in their control, 100 percent. They don’t bother to do it, that simple thing that is decidedly in their own best interests.

We all have vices and do things we know are not in our interests. Smokers smoke. Drinkers get drunk — and some of them drive. We eat unhealthy foods in unhealthy quantities and clog our arteries and hearts.

It’s what we do. That’s our comfortable, convenient life in America.

So, maybe, since healthy choices seem often to be an ill-fitted, if not oxymoronic, idea in the typical American’s lifestyle, just maybe it is reasonable to think a law could be useful in this Drive 55 campaign.

Maybe every now and then we all need some governance. If I don’t need that law for myself, since I am capable and willing to chill out in the driver’s seat, then what I could use is that law to make the many angry, self-absorbed, speeding drivers around me slow down and cool out.

If I drive more responsibly and carefully, it affects you positively. Therefore, if a law makes me drive 55 mph, it’s in your interest.

Maybe more even-tempered driving is not for fuel economy, gas savings, or oil wars. At least not just those reasons.

There’s more to it than that. Maybe it’s about mental and emotional health, community interaction and general attitudes. Maybe if I act in a way that is mindful of you, and you drive in a way that is mindful of me, then we all win, we all score one for the team’s interests?

Ah, yes. Kumbaya.

But if you’re not into that, I would like to mention, in case you hadn’t heard: While driving the speed limit this weekend, my wife and I got 40 miles per gallon.

It created more than a 10 percent savings on fuel and gas money. Cool, huh?

Related posts:

Gas Hole, a Documentary of the History of Oil Prices and Alternative Energy

High Gas Prices: Empty Tanks Are the New Black in California

World Naked Bike Ride: Is Anything Gained by Protesting Oil Dependency in the Buff?

Image source: drive55.org

  1. Kelli Best-Oliver

    Totally great post!

    How long did it take you to get from STL to CHI? I don’t really drive on long trips-usually my husband does. I think it would take some getting used to, but obviously ca be done.

    Better yet, take the uber-cheap Megabus to Chicago!

  2. mpgomatic

    “Oh, and did I mention, we got 40 miles per gallon? Short of a hybrid, there’s nothing mass-produced that is better on the road right now.”

    Not quite nothing. I’ve beat that number with more than one conventional car, without pulling any funny stunts (aka: drafting)

    Drive sensibly and you can achieve what seems like remarkable mileage … say 50 MPG from a Toyota Yaris. And you don’t even need to drive 55 MPH.


  3. MikeB

    My wife and I recently purchased a Nissan Murano. It’s rated at 17/21 (I believe). My wife has been following some of the more practical hypermiling techniques and realizing an average of 24mpg doing a 50/50 mix of town/highway driving. Needless to say thats A LOT better than the advertised mileage so we were pretty happy. To think we almost wasted money on a Hybrid!

    We recently took a drive to southern Missouri (Branson area). On the way down we drove our typically style of driving (70 in a 65, 80 in a 70). The car (and our own calculations) pinned our mileage at 20mpg. We were very disappointed! So much so that I dediced to try a different technique on the way back. We drove 60mph the entire way back home. As described by Adam, it was a LOT more relaxing. We didn’t participate in the fight for the fast lane. We planted ourselves in the right lane and cruised home. Granted it did take little longer to get home but the car reported 28mpg! We double checked with our own calculations and sure enough the trip computer was spot on.

    This weekend we drove from St. Louis to KC and got a slightly lower 26mpg during that trip. I-70 is loaded with tractor trailers and is a stressful road to travel on normally but cuising at 60mph in the right lane made it much less so.

    Sign me up Adam!

  4. Mark Seall

    Great post. I can totally relate to what you are saying since I’ve recently also found the value in taking it easy – to the extent that these days my wife is actually telling me to speed up instead of slowing down!!

  5. move over

    you can drive as slow as you like – no one has a problem with that. just keep your moth shut when it comes to telling other people how fast to drive, commie

  6. Dwindle

    That’s great when you are on a “weekend drive”, but I have 500 miles of unpaid driving to do for work, and believe me when I say I’d rather not do it. The only reason cars get best gas mileage at 55 is because they are designed to. Engines all have a peak fuel efficiency at a certain RPM, and the transmission is designed to reach that RPM at 55, which is the most commonly driven speed. If I slow down from 75-80 to 55, I am tacking on an extra 45 minutes onto my 12 hour workday, and I simply have no interest in that. Especially seeing as I still get 29 mpg (out of a 1.9l Saturn) that has a peak fuel efficiency rating of 30mpg.

  7. Dwindle

    More to the point, if everyone drove 55 instead of 75, traffic congestion would be more constant and longer lasting. Fast driving gets cars out of the loop before congestion beings, hence saving fuel. People who sit in 3 mph traffic for two hours a day (almost everyone working in Boston) are lucky to see 15 MPG from a Honda Civic.

  8. Robin Shreeves

    I know you’re right, but sometimes when you’ve got two boys in the backseat of the hybrid saying “When are we going to get there? How long till we get there? Are we there yet?” you sometimes say to yourself, “I’ve got a hybrid, darn it, I’m gonna drive a little faster.”

    I’ll try to be better.

  9. i.e.

    The government should not be policing someone’s personal well-being. Period. People choose to drive without a seatbelt or without a helmet, their choice, their life. If a speed range is considered safe, and people can handle their vehicles safely within that range, it is stupid to lower the speed limit range. I don’t care if you choose to drive at the lower level of the speed limit range as long as you stay in the right lane and do not have traffic backing up behind you.
    It was more relaxing for you because it was a decision you decided on before you got in the car. Sounds like you were planning for a leisurely weekend not a jam-packed weekend. You were proving a point, a point that everyone knows, you get better gas mileage at 55 than 75/80. Had you been proven wrong, I can bet that you would not be touting how “relaxing” it was.
    You are right, most people are not going to slow down without the government mandated reduction in speed. Many people do not want to spend more time on the road.

  10. Adam Williams

    @ Robin — Great input about balancing ideals with the reality of having kids! I don’t have any, and so that didn’t occur to me before.

    @ “move over” — Thanks for your insightful, intelligent, well thought out rebuttal. If only my “moth” had the power of forcing anyone to do anything, rather than merely communicating view points.

    @ “move over” and “i.e.” — Whether you (or I) like it or not, the government does police well-being, for the well-being of the majority. People selectively remember/forget that, it seems.

    To think my discussion — not even advocation for, really — of the imposition of a law equals communism is to be woefully ignorant of reality.

    It’s government that provides some protection for all of us against the wrongs of other individuals and groups.

    Because of government looking out for your well-being, no one has the right to rob, assault or murder you. Companies are forced to comply with safety and health regulations so we are not eating or otherwise using products with unknown contents and unknown dangers.

    Laws applied by government for the well-being of us collectively are everywhere, everyday. To get riled about this one idea as if it robs you of your freedom is pretty ridiculous.

    Do we not all ignore the speed limit anyway? So keep doing what you’re doing.

    People always have a choice to be stupid, to act like a foolish, ignorant teenager who rebels against every sensible thing as if it were a personal attack.

    And to think my relaxation on the road came from the fact I chose the speed I drove is likewise missing the point. If you drive at 80 mph, you are choosing to do so. But are you relaxed as you do that — and cope with all of the consequences it creates?

    My relaxation came from the realization that it’s counterproductive, emotionally, to press every second as hard as I can. Instead I chose to recognize I will reach my destination regardless if it’s 15 minutes sooner or later than I could if I forced the issue.

    I don’t need to sweat the little details that open up big tension. So I chose not to, and it happened to be good for my wallet, my car and the environment.

    None of that is an affront to anyone, so on with our lives.

  11. Adam Williams

    further reality for thought…to simplify the point even more of how governance is ever-present in our lives…

    traffic lights tell you when to go, when not to go. one-way street signs tell you, for the well-being of traffic flow and safety and common understanding, not to go in certain directions on certain streets. those little yellow lines when painted solid on the highway tell you not to cross over them to pass another car — for the well-being of all drivers involved.

    sure, you can disobey all of those restrictions. if you do, you may suffer consequences — ticket, fine, accident, injury, death, whatever may happen.

    to act as if our lives have been — and still are — utterly devoid of governance until the idea of reverting back to 55 mph driving threatened to destroy your freedom is absurd.

    i continue to wonder, what if people who get so bent out of shape over a simple discussion online about driving 55 mph channeled some of that fiery passion into world issues that actually matter?

  12. Mark

    “The only reason cars get best gas mileage at 55 is because they are designed to. Engines all have a peak fuel efficiency at a certain RPM, and the transmission is designed to reach that RPM at 55, which is the most commonly driven speed.”

    True, and the ignition / fuel map of most cars is designed to give the best efficiency at certain speeds so that manufacturers can claim good efficiency in the showroom.

    But, energy loss due to drag increases at the square of speed. This means that the speed you travel has the biggest bearing of all on fuel consumption.

  13. Concetta


    I recently did a trip from Detroit to Chicago and achieved similarly high results on the mileage on my Hyundai Accent.

    In Illinois and Indiana, the motorists were fine with me going 55, and I had no qualms about doing it.

    In Michigan, however, where the speed limit is 70 – well, I alternated between going the speed limit and 55 because each time I went down to 55, people would honk, come dangerously close to my car, give me the finger, and yell things (not that I could hear them, but I could see the dangerous look as they rolled down the window and shook violently).

    That’s my only worry.

    To Dwindle, I forget where I read it, but there was a study in which they proved in England that traffic congestion was worse when driving faster because the alternating waves of speed altered the space between vehicles. Not to mention that most people are not as responsive when they drive faster and tend to cause more accidents.

    And to i.e., my weekend was a packed schedule and I still made it within the timeline predicted by Google Maps. No need to speed that much.

    I think the attitude on speed varies with age. Most people my age (20s) are all about the speed, but go up to people in their (40s) and their attitude will be vastly different.

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