Ontario's first carpool lanes opened earlier this week, just in time for the winter driving crunch. The new High Occupancy Vehicles (HOV) lanes are reserved for cars with two or more passengers, as well as buses, emergency vehicles and trucks under 6.5 metres in length. Motorists who get caught driving alone in the HOV lanes will be subject to a fine ranging from $ 60 to $ 500 and three demerit points.  The HOV lanes are restricted to the 14-kilometre stretch on the southbound 404 that runs between Highway 407 and Highway 401, and the 14-kilometre stretch of Highway 403 that links Highways 407 and 401. Using these 14-kilometre stretches is expected to cut the average commuting time by 11 to 19 minutes.


If the HOV lanes are as successful in the GTA as they have been in several U.S. jurisdictions, it's expected that the province will continue to expand the lanes to other 400-series highways. The more they expand the HOV lanes, the more likely they are to get the attention of the 85 percent of people who choose to drive alone.


While the goal of the HOV lanes is essentially to relieve traffic congestion, they should also help reduce gas consumption, at least in the HOV lanes. More passengers in fewer cars mean fewer cars on the road. For those cars in the HOV lanes, it's also means less idling and better fuel consumption. It would be interesting to know if the additional idling and congestion in the non-HOV lanes wipes out any of these environmental gains.


For the rest of us who are stuck on non-HOV highways and city streets, there are number of things we can do to reduce our fuel consumption and improve winter driving safety.


Make sure that your windshield wipers are in good working order, and that you have topped up your washer fluid. Check that your tires are properly inflated. Driving on underinflated tires not only makes it more difficult to handle your vehicle in slippery or icy conditions, it can also increase your fuel intake by 4 percent. As an additional incentive, under inflated tires wear out much faster than properly inflated tires.


Idling your car in the winter isnŐt just bad for the environment; it can be very hard on your carŐs engine. Incomplete combustion means that fuel residues can condense on cylinder walls, contaminate engine oil and clog spark plugs. The best way to warm your car up is to drive it. With computer controlled, fuel-injected engines, you need no more than 30 seconds of idling before driving away. Your car's wheel bearings, steering, suspension, transmission and tires only warm up when your car is moving.


Unnecessary car idling isnŐt just about personal preference. Natural Resources CanadaŐs Office of Energy Efficiency (OEE) has identified idling as a significant contributor to global warming. In total, 4 percent of the fuel that we burn in our cars is consumed by idling.  According to the OEE, if every driver of a light-duty vehicle reduced their idling by five minutes every day of the year, it would prevent two million tones of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere. The OEE estimates that this would be the same as removing 350,000 cars from the road.


Ten seconds of idling can use more fuel than turning off your engine and re-starting it. If youŐre going to be stopped for more than 10 seconds ~ except in traffic ~ turn off your car. This includes things like drive-thrus, car washes and waiting to pick someone up ~ especially children after school, where exhaust fumes can be particularly damaging to young lungs.


The key to safer winter driving is to slow down whenever conditions are not ideal. This not only reduces the risk of having an accident, it can dramatically cut your fuel consumption. Cutting your speed from 112/km/h to 80 km/h can reduce your fuel consumption by 30 percent and also cut nitrogen oxide emissions ~ a key component in smog.


Finally, if the weather outside is frightful, unless your trip is urgent (i.e. life or death, or imminent collapse of the total Canadian economy) stay home. Please note: a sale at the mall does not constitute an emergency. Many employers have recognized that telecommuting can actually improve productivity and encourage their employees to work from home when it's convenient.




For more information about Ontario's new car pool lanes, or for more winter driving safety tips, visit theMinistry of Transportation.


Canada's Office of Energy Efficiency is a great resource and provides information on everything from anti-idling campaigns to how to save energy at home and at work.