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We’re close to an energy crisis, or ‘Obama is pro-inflation!’

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What energy crisis?” I asked in my March 2006 editorial. At the time, gas prices were hovering around a then-unheard of $2.25 a gallon, and so-called “energy problems” were threatening to destroy our way of life.

That didn’t happen, at least in 2006. By the end of the year, annual vehicle miles driven in the United States were up nearly 25 billion miles compared to 2005. Domestic tire shipments were down, but they rebounded in 2007.

Through June of this year, however, gas is more than a dollar a gallon higher, and vehicle miles driven year-to-year are down 42 billion miles. If this trend continues, miles driven will be down nearly 4% in 2008 compared to 2007.

That, two years later, is a sign of an impending energy crisis. Since “crisis” conjures up pretty strong words like “catastrophe” or “emergency,” I am slow to say it is upon us. People haven’t stopped driving, they are just changing their driving habits.

Maybe to those of you suffering first-half business letdowns it may seem like a crisis. But experiencing a decrease in sales and losing money are not the same thing.

So, with an energy crisis looming, what can we do to help out? The best way is the simplest: Advise your customers about proper tire inflation.

Presidential candidate Barack Obama did. He recently brought the importance of proper tire inflation into the national spotlight by comparing it to drilling for oil.

According to Obama, if everybody just inflated their tires and got regular tune-ups, “We could save all the oil that they’re talking about getting (from) drilling.” That, of course, makes Obama pro-inflation! (That is comedian Stephen Colbert’s line, not mine, unfortunately.)

Obama’s statement alone had a chance to boost the “Be Smart, Play Your PART (for Pressure, Alignment, Rotation and Tread) consumer education program sponsored by the Rubber Manufacturers Association (RMA).

His comments received plenty of media attention, especially when the other presidential hopeful, John McCain, offered “Obama Energy Plan” tire pressure gauges for a minimum $25 donation to his campaign.

But was it true? Can the gallons of gasoline saved driving on properly inflated tires compare to the money saved drilling for oil on and off our home shores? If so, just think of the public relations opportunity for our industry.

Conservatively (in order to give Obama the benefit of the doubt), supplementary drilling in the U.S. eventually will bring in 1 million barrels of crude oil a day. The Energy Information Administration says one barrel will yield close to 19.6 gallons of gasoline. So the drilling to which Obama is referring will result in an additional 19.6 million gallons of gasoline a day.

Proper tire inflation can improve gas mileage up to 3.3%, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (www.fueleconomy.gov).

The Alliance to Save Energy, a non-profit group created to promote energy efficiency, estimates a percentage of about 3% translates into a 20 gallon-a-year savings per car.
Applied to the estimated 260 million registered highway vehicles in the U.S., proper tire inflation could save vehicle owners up to 5.2 billion gallons of gas a year, or 14.2 million gallons a day. Take into account his tune-up requirement, and Obama’s statement doesn’t seem so far-fetched.

Whether an exaggeration or not, Obama’s comparison leads to a clear and factual point: Proper tire inflation will save fuel.

Unfortunately, checking tire inflation is not a practice the public has embraced.

More than 80% of American motorists don’t properly check their tire inflation pressure, which explains part of the reasoning behind the RMA’s eight-year-old “Be Smart” campaign.

It doesn’t explain why the RMA, or any other automotive industry association for that matter, didn’t quickly follow up on Obama’s comment with at least some of the information I have included in this editorial. What a golden opportunity missed.

(Maybe it isn’t too late. McCain is still offering those tire pressure gauges online.)

Hopefully two years from now, I won’t be paying more than $4 a gallon for gas, and writing about how we are, indeed, in the midst of an energy crisis.    ■

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