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Sen. Katie Sieben of Cottage Grove glances to the right as she leaves the Minnesota Capitol Tuesday for a short lesson in environmentally friendly driving. Don Davis/Minn. State Capitol Bureau

Learning eco-friendly driving

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ST. PAUL - Katie Sieben sat behind the wheel of a shiny new car, looking ahead to a traffic light.

"So I'm going to accelerate going up to the light?" she asked Todd Cook, teaching the Minnesota state senator about environmentally friendly driving.

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"Shoot," Sieben, DFL-Cottage Grove, said before Cook could respond.

The light was yellow well before she hit the intersection, but she made it through before seeing red. Barely.

Then, as Sieben turned her Ford Fusion onto the interstate, Cook coaxed her to gradually accelerate, not pushing the gas pedal to the floor like most drivers who are merging onto a busy multi-lane highway.

Cook works for ProFormance, a Phoenix, Ariz., company that teamed with Ford Motor Co. to promote ecodriving, techniques designed to save gasoline. If every American driver used the techniques, federal estimates show 22 billion gallons of gasoline could be saved a year.

ProFormance's owner, Drew DeGrassi, said a recent study showed many drivers can improve gasoline mileage nearly 25 percent by doing things like Cook was teaching Sieben: drive smoothly, with no jerks; stop as seldom as possible, slowing down well in advance of red lights so the vehicle can keep going; and generally keeping the engine's revolutions per minute below 2,000.

Cook emphasized planning ahead as the best way to save gasoline.

For instance, two vehicles were at a stop sign Sieben was approaching. Cook suggested that she slow down enough that they would already be past the sign when she arrived. That way, he said, the Fusion only would need to stop once, and more importantly only need to start once.

DeGrassi brought several of his instructors to St. Paul Tuesday, where he joined with Minneapolis Democrats Sen. Scott Dibble and Rep. Frank Hornstein, who promoted a bill they plan to introduce in 2010 to require Minnesota driver's education classes to include ecodriving techniques.

"As a new generation of teenagers learn how to drive, it's important to teach driving skills they can use to drive safely, responsibly and efficiently throughout their lives." Hornstein said.

Some legislators took brief lessons in how to drive in an environmentally friendly way.

Rep. Michael Beard, R-Shakopee, said the tour around St. Paul city streets reminded him of what he learned years ago.

Sieben said she will work harder to accelerate smoothly and keep the tachometer showing RPM numbers of 2,000 or less.

Cook said too many drivers run engines too fast. He taught Beard and Sieben how to accelerate gradually from a stop, then let up on the gas pedal in their automatic-transmission car. That allows the transmission to shift into a higher, more fuel efficient, gear, he explained.

Sieben and Beard were competing to see who could get the best mileage on the 20-minute course.

Beard drove smoothly, with few problems, recording 22.8 miles per gallon.

Soon after the quiet Sieben got behind the wheel, a vehicle pulled in front of her, forcing her to stop in mid-block just ahead of a stop light. Problems continued, with line ups at stop signs and then almost getting stopped by a traffic light.

"If they cop pulls your over, do you turn the car off?" Beard joked after Sieben squeezed through the yellow light.

But despite her problems, she got the last laugh. Her mileage was 22.9, a 10th better than Beard turned in.

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Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.
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