Only You Can Improve MPG, or: You're Fat and It's Killing Us


Your car doesn’t get the kind of fuel economy you’d hoped. Many people have that idea in their heads these days, and the anecdotal evidence (at least) seams to support these claims. But (and there’s always a “but”, isn’t there?) what if that’s not true? What if the EPA’s MPG estimates are actually conservative, and there’s some stupid thing you’re doing that’s screwing up your car’s fuel economy? What if it’s you?

You’re fat, is what I’m getting at.

I am, too (it happens).

Lots of people understand that a dramatic rise in America’s rate of obesity has cost Americans billions of dollars in healthcare costs – but most people (fat, trim, or otherwise) typically don’t consider the economic costs of carrying a wide load in your pantaloons. How much does obesity’s impact put on public infrastructure cost? How does it impact America’s GDP? What about the federal deficit?

Consider this: For every additional “average pound” of passenger weight, the United States uses up another 39 million gallons of fuel each year. Based on those figures, Americans consume at least a billion (with a “b”) gallons more gas today than they would have if people were as trim as they were in 1960 (something that’s especially troubling these days, what with the evil Canadians wrecking our kids’ planet with shale oil).

That’s according to a 2006 study on obesity and driving habits, when more than 25% of the population in 21 US states were obese. Today, the number states with a 25% or higher obesity rate is 35. In 12 states of those states, more than a third of the population (33%) is considered obese.

The problem is so bad, that the Federal Transit Administration is actually working to require new city buses to be tested for the impact of heavier riders on steering and braking systems (which will, no doubt, lead to heavier, less fuel-efficient buses). Indeed, similar worries have led to manufacturers making ever bigger and heavier cars, to squish bigger and heavier asses into bigger and heavier seats.

It’s all pretty depressing, actually – but you’ve got the plan by now, I’m sure: Lose weight. Be healthier. Burn less gas. Save the planet. F*** Canada.

I have to go get some tacos now – which may explain why my 110 mpg Metro has only been getting about 90 mpg lately …

Sources: the Atlantic, Reuters.

About the Author

I've been in the auto industry 1997, and write for a number of blogs in the IM network. You can also find me on Twitter, at my Volvo fansite, or chasing my kids around Oak Park, IL.
  • Lee T

    Certainly the actual weight of the riders matters but, I think the auto industry could do a better job of making smaller cars more accommodating to larger drivers. Probably, it’s in their interest to sell that larger car but, as a larger driver, I can’t tell you how many times I could have gotten away being comfortable in a much smaller vehicle but, for and inch here or there.

    As a tall driver with broad shoulders (fat too) getting cramped against the B-pillar is a pretty common limiting factor for me as to whether a car is large enough. Meanwhile I have tons of space to my right. Certainly, dragging my heavy butt around impacts fuel consumption but, the effect would be much less if larger drivers could be better packaged into smaller more aerodynamic cars.

    • I think those are all fair points, but I think too many people use similar complaints to justify driving around a 5000 lb. SUV, rather than (for example) a Mazda 3 vs. a Mazda 2. I remember when the Suzuki Swift ads comparing interior dimensions of that car to Ford Explorers and Mercedes-Benz E cars (the W124 body) showing, objectively, that the car’s interior dimensions were comparable or better.

      That said: if you’re too fat to be comfortable in a mid-size sedan, it’s not the sedan’s fault, and expecting an automaker to cater to that is no more perverse than asking an automaker to build interiors that can be hosed clean in order to capture the bulimic market.

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  • I’m not fat, but I ride a bicycle. Even my motorcycle keeps me slim, with the adrenaline I get from surviving the mean city streets. My car is handy for times like this when I’m recovering from the (rare, but extreme) side effects of aggressive city riding. 😉