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Office of Energy Efficiency Links


Business: Transportation

Report: Driver Behaviour Affecting Fuel Consumption – April 1998

What We Did

In early 1998, the OEE commissioned a nationwide study on engine idling and tire pressure checks by Canadian drivers, with the goal of understanding their driving behaviour in general and their engine-idling behaviour in particular. Preparatory work included:

  • developing rough estimates of "preventable" idling

  • learning what motivated Canadian drivers to idle their engines

  • developing a profile of those drivers

  • examining the perceptions, beliefs, assumptions and attitudes that influenced their idling

In this study, the OEE also explored behaviour related to checking tire pressure and factors that influence the frequency of tire-pressure checks.

This research was used, in part, to assess the potential for fuel efficiency improvements and to develop ideas for a communications strategy that would advise Canadian drivers about the relationship between fuel efficiency, engine idling, tire pressure and the environment.

Who We Talked To

The study consisted of a telephone survey followed by meetings with eight discussion groups.

The telephone survey

The telephone survey, conducted in February 1998 in English and French, asked 1503 drivers from across Canada a range of questions about their driving behaviour and attitudes and their opinions and attitudes on fuel efficiency. Topics included:

  • how often and how far they drove

  • factors they considered when purchasing a vehicle

  • how much they knew or what they thought about fuel-efficient driving and vehicle maintenance

  • their age, household make-up, occupation, education, income, language and location

This information was used to organize the data into demographic and behavioural subgroups, so that our sample of Canadian drivers would be accurate and representative.

The 1998 survey was a follow-up to a benchmark study conducted in November and December 1994, in which the OEE interviewed a random sample of more than 1200 Canadian households on the same topics.

As in 1994, the OEE spoke with approximately 300 drivers from each of five regions in 1998: Atlantic Canada, Québec, Ontario, the Prairies and British Columbia. Respondents were selected at random, with the sample in each region including 100 households from a rural area (with a population of less than 1000) and 200 households from an urban centre (with a population of 1000 or more). In 1998, however, 300 interviews were added in the West so that data for British Columbia and the Prairies could be compared separately. Questions were also added to learn about attitudes and behaviour related to engine idling and tire pressure checks.

The research results outlined here relate only to vehicle idling and tire pressure. A separate report on the February 1998 Survey of Drivers' Attitudes, Awareness and Behaviour presents the results of all topics covered in the survey and compares these results with the 1994 benchmark survey.

The focus groups

The second phase of this study involved speaking to 79 Canadian drivers in group settings across Canada. Eight focus groups were conducted (three in rural locations and five in urban centres) in Wolfville, Halifax, Sherbrooke, Montréal, Toronto, Calgary, Red Deer and Vancouver. These sessions, involving from eight to ten participants per group, were used to:

  • track driver behaviour related to engine idling

  • identify any perceptions, beliefs and attitudes that may impede progress in this area

  • gain a better understanding of behaviour and attitudes related to tire pressure checks

  • glean information to help develop a communications strategy and plan

All respondents held a valid provincial driver's licence and lived in a household that owned or leased a car, light truck or van (including minivans and four-wheel drive road vehicles). Those who held a valid driver's licence but who did not drive at the time of the survey were excluded, as were drivers with learner's permits, temporary licences, expired and suspended licences, or who used their vehicles only for business or drove only motorcycles and recreational vehicles.

Participants in the second phase of the study typically drove four or more days per week, were "very" or "somewhat" involved in the maintenance of the car they drove most frequently, and had idled their vehicle in a minimum of two different situations (e.g., running an errand or warming up a vehicle) in the 12 months preceding their participation in the group. Half of the participants had checked their tire pressure 12 or fewer times and half had done so six or fewer times in the 12 months preceding the study.

All participants in the focus groups were between the ages of 20 and 54; most were between 25 and 44. They came from a range of households, but most were from households with children. There were an equal number of male and female participants.

What We Learned

A snapshot

  • Focus group participants generally agreed that awareness and education could encourage drivers to reduce engine idling time and to check their tire pressure regularly and frequently. At the time of the study, however, there was little awareness of the impact of idling and improperly inflated tires on fuel consumption. Indeed, it was obvious during the sessions that there was little awareness of several facts related to idling and tire pressure, including the length of time required to warm up a car and the effects of engine idling and poorly inflated tires on the environment.

  • Participants stressed that the OEE's efforts to encourage fuel-efficient behaviour had to be sustained over the long term and that a "one-time splash will have little or no impact." They expressed strong support for developing partnerships with gas stations, garages, tire manufacturers, driving schools and licence bureaus to promote the OEE's messages about idling and tire pressure.

What we learned about engine idling behaviour

  • The most common idling situations included:

    • warming up a vehicle
    • stopping in a fast-food drive-through lane
    • waiting for or picking up someone
    • stopping to talk and running an errand

  • The total time spent idling is highest for warming up a vehicle, running an errand and waiting in the drive-through lane of a fast-food restaurant.

  • The main reasons drivers idled their engines included:

    • personal comfort (e.g., staying warm in the winter)
    • a short wait (the idling time was not long enough to make it worthwhile to turn the engine off)
    • safety (e.g., to defrost or defog car windows)
    • the need to travel as part of a line or queue (e.g., in a drive-through lane or car wash)
    • simply idling the engine without thinking about it
    • idling was perceived to be better for the engine
    • stopping temporarily in an illegal parking space and wanting to be ready to move

  • Most participants did not mention concern for their vehicle's starter as a primary reason for idling their engine.

  • Participants had little knowledge about how long it actually takes to warm up a car. There was also general agreement that there is a point at which it is more fuel-efficient to leave a car running than to turn it off and on again. However, few drivers knew that the threshold is as low as 30 seconds and were visibly surprised to learn this during the sessions.

  • Participants generally idled their vehicles significantly less in the summer months.

  • Reasons for engine idling differ depending on the situation. It would be easier to reduce idling in some situations – especially those that drivers can control, such as the line-up for a car wash – than in others. Participants indicated that they would be most likely to change their engine-idling behaviour when:

    • picking up or dropping off someone
    • running errands
    • stopping at fast-food drive-through lanes
    • warming up the car

  • The 1998 survey suggested that engine idlers who showed the greatest environmental sensitivity were more likely to:

    • be women
    • be members of the professional or business occupational group
    • be between the ages of 45 and 54
    • have higher levels of education
    • have annual household incomes of more than $65,000
    • live in British Columbia

Suggestions for a campaign to discourage engine idling

  • Participants said that the low annual savings that might result from reduced idling would not be enough to motivate them to idle less. They suggested that the protection of the environment should be the chief motivator.

  • Participants agreed that the most effective campaigns would target drivers in situations where they are likely to idle their engine. This would make the message relevant and powerful. Highway service centres were repeatedly mentioned as a site to target drivers. Other suggestions included placing signs at waiting areas near government or public buildings such as schools and hospitals, and in other spaces where drivers were likely to leave their engines running while waiting.

Tire pressure checks

  • Between 1994 and 1998, the number of respondents who had checked the tire pressure of their most frequently used vehicle in the month preceding the survey dropped by six percent. In 1998, 67 percent of respondents checked their tire pressure six or fewer times each year. Of these, 35 percent checked tire pressure three or fewer times, and less than a third of the respondents checked their tire pressure 10 or more times in the year preceding the survey.

  • Most respondents did not know the correct pressure for their tires and did not perceive tire checks to be part of routine vehicle maintenance. Instead, the most frequently cited reason for tire checks was a soft tire.

  • The typical driver who was likely to check tire pressure 10 or more times per year tended to be male, aged between 45 and 50, belonging to a household comprising four or more persons, working as a technician or a tradesperson and driving a car that was not under warranty.

  • The main motivators for performing tire pressure checks were to:

    • reduce wear and tear on the tires
    • enhance tire performance, and thus driving and travel comfort
    • ensure safety

  • Only a few participants checked tire pressure in order to achieve better gas mileage.

Suggestions for a campaign to encourage tire pressure checks

  • Participants recommended that the OEE work with staff at venues such as gas stations and garages to promote awareness of proper tire pressure and the importance of tire pressure checks. Participants also recommended that promotional messages:

    • be direct and brief
    • emphasize immediate and personal benefits to the driver
    • highlight the effect of properly inflated tires on safety
    • highlight the costs of wear and tear on tires and increased fuel consumption resulting from improper inflation
    • emphasize the low cost and minimal inconvenience of checking tire pressure

  • Participants also suggested that messages related to the environment and health could be used as background context but should not dilute the core messages.

Obtain a printable copy of this report (Zipped PDF file)