Swedish drivers face test of eco-credentials
STOCKHOLM (Reuters) - Swedish driving instructor Lars Rembjer has two words of advice for his pupils, the first in the world to have to prove they can be kind to the environment to get their licenses: think ahead.
Those words apply to the road, the potential consequences of climate change and the roughly 10 percent in savings on fuel achievable with simple care behind the wheel.
Sweden, the homeland of carmakers Volvo and Saab, began demanding ecodriving skills from those applying for a car license at the end of 2007. Truck and motorcycle drivers will face a similarly toughened test come April 1.
After five years of teaching environmentally friendly driving techniques at his Stockholm motor school, Rembjer was ready for this, as were his students.
His first ecodriving lesson is that the thinking ahead starts before the engine does.
"One doesn't have to start the engine immediately but (should) finish all the preparations first: Put a gear in, release the handbrake and perhaps have a look around you. Then you start the engine," Rembjer said as he guided a student through the early stages of a lesson in a biofuel Volvo.
Advance planning is also key once a driver hits the road.
Sweden, which has the most fuel-thirsty cars in the European Union, will announce its carbon dioxide reduction targets this autumn, environment ministry spokesman Tomas Uddin said.
Ecodriving may help slow a steady rise in carbon dioxide emissions from transport, which the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency says have been rising on the back of an advancing economy, despite a fall in overall output.
Rembjer's fuel-saving equation is simple: use the engine to slow the vehicle before hitting the brakes, drive in as high a gear as possible, try to avoid aggressive acceleration from a standing start and only overtake when necessary.
Countries all over Europe are showing an interest in following Sweden into this new world, according to Per-Olof Nilsson, an official at the Swedish Road Administration (Vagverket in Swedish), which devised the new driving test.
He said this is especially true of Netherlands and Finland, where ecodriving instruction was born more than 10 years ago.
"We're frontrunners," Nilsson said of Sweden's new test.
"It's much discussed all through Europe. We've taken part in several workshops all over (Europe) where we have discussed these questions, especially what is the best way to test this question and also the best way of teaching it."
He said ecodriving also has generated significant interest among transport companies, with many major firms already offering fuel-saving driving tips to their drivers.
"They can save lots of money by reducing emissions and we get a better environment at the same time," Nilsson said.
Rembjer, a driving instructor for 20 years, also cited compelling economic arguments for ecodriving.
"Ecodriving is the future because there are only winners. The environment benefits and your wallet benefits," he said.
"We have ecodriving courses for companies who send all their staff to us and save money. They see that it pays off. They see that in a year's time they have recovered the cost for the course and that they're starting to make money."
In five years teaching the method, Rembjer has met no opposition or reluctance from students, although other instructors and some parents have raised objections.
He said the parents usually come around once they hear about the benefits: about a tenth of those who had called to complain ended up taking an ecodriving course themselves.
Nilsson said given the Swedish Road Administration's portfolio of responsibilities, the addition of environmentally friendly driving made sense.
Student Sofia Lundstrom, 18, said Rembjer's tuition has made ecodriving natural for her.
"I've driven this way all the time so I don't really feel the difference," she said after a lesson.
Lundstrom said she was happy ecodriving had been added to the driving test since she is worried about the environment. Nor was she daunted about being scrutinized on her skills.
"It's deeply ingrained. For example, when I am with my parents and they drive, I ... tell them what they're doing wrong -- 'Now you're ruining the environment'," she said.
(Reporting by Ilze Filks, writing by Sarah Edmonds; Editing by Charles Dick)
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