Obesity and oil consumption
July 4, 2006 7:33 PM   Subscribe

My parents came to visit and my father couldn't fit in our Honda Civic. His girth makes it necessary for him to drive a behemoth in order to be comfortable. This got me thinking: How many barrels of oil do you think the U.S. would save if we cut our obesity rate in half? I can think of a half dozen ways that being thinner would consume less oil. I'm especially curious to know if carrying around heavier people affects the average car's fuel economy in any meaningful way.
posted by Crotalus to Travel & Transportation (16 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
The scientists in this MSNBC story took a stab at this type of calculation, but looked at it at the level of indulging in a single fast-food supersize meal.
posted by handful of rain at 7:39 PM on July 4, 2006

This article provides a starting point to your question, which is a good one, although it relates to your question in terms of airline, rather than car fuel.
posted by ifranzen at 7:41 PM on July 4, 2006

This article suggests that each extra 200 lbs of weight could reduce fuel economy by 1 mile per gallon. I would assume that, if your father cannot fit into a Civic, he must be weigh at least 500 pounds, so he might lower the fuel economy of his 'behemoth' by 1.5 mpg or so? Multiply that by most of the country, and there ya go.
posted by ferociouskitty at 7:49 PM on July 4, 2006

Most people are not 300 pounds overweight. There is no requirement that a "big" car be an SUV. Many minivans and station wagons actually have more interior room than SUVs.
posted by Saucy Intruder at 7:54 PM on July 4, 2006

Maybe there's more than the car angle: how about all that food (healthy or not, good or bad) that was overconsumed? It needed at some point to be produced, processed and shipped...
posted by NewBornHippy at 8:25 PM on July 4, 2006

I'm sure the food takes much more energy to produce then the extra gas used to drive that person around. The truth is, most fat people just eat a LOT.
posted by Paris Hilton at 8:34 PM on July 4, 2006

I drove a small car when I was supersized. I drive a small car now when I'm not so supersized. I don't think every extra overweight person drives large vehicles.
posted by zerokey at 8:45 PM on July 4, 2006

Hit post too soon.
After I shed that nearly 100lbs, my gas mileage improved marginally (I did a semi-scientific study of it).

My car's handling did improve significantly, though.
posted by zerokey at 8:47 PM on July 4, 2006

I drive an 10+ year old Honda Civic, and I can charitably be described as "not small". My husband, who is quite a bit bigger than me, can fit in my Civic, though it's not particularly comfy for him. He drives your basic four door sedan. Based on my personal situation, I'd back ferociouskitty's reasoning that your dad is at least 500 pounds (or is fairly short).

Could losing weight improve gas mileage? Yeah, probably. But changing the obesity rate? No, because the definition of obese is a lot smaller than the size it takes not to fit in a Honda.

Also, having just been at our local fireworks, I can tell you that I saw a parking lot filled with minivans and SUVs. In the 20ish car row in front of us, probably 3/4 of the cars were minivans or SUVs. A much better way to save oil would be to convince people that they don't really need to buy an SUV because they camp once or twice a year or occasionally help a friend move.
posted by booksherpa at 9:13 PM on July 4, 2006

I should clarify. "Couldn't fit" is hyperbole. I should have said that he was sufficiently uncomfortable getting in and out of the Civic that he would never deal with the hassle, and hence he drives an SUV. He has a typical American's tolerance for "hassle" as well as a typical American's concern for global warming and energy conservation.
posted by Crotalus at 9:15 PM on July 4, 2006

Years ago, Roger Ebert was singing the praises of the "new" VW bug. Comfy and easy access. I don't think the size of the car is particularly relevant.
posted by pointilist at 10:45 PM on July 4, 2006

Oddly enough, slimming a widebody populace might increase heating oil consumption. When I was a scrawny young 'un, I would shiver alot in wintertime. Now, not so skinny ... and that blubber is highly efficient insulation.

P.S. It boggles the mind when posters refer casually to a 500-pound man. Not too long ago, such a person would have been Guinness Book fodder.
posted by rob511 at 10:47 PM on July 4, 2006

There was a documentary (of sorts) on Channel 4 here in the UK entitled 'Tax the Fat' which also stated that obese drivers create extra danger because of increased stopping distances in cars. The methods used to prove this were a bit iffy on the science, but also something to bear in mind when discussing motor vehicles and obesity.

Rob511, would the increase in heating oil consumption be nullified by the decrease in the use of airconditioning during the summer months? I know electricity != oil consumption, but there is a connection.
posted by slimepuppy at 2:31 AM on July 5, 2006

How much extra energy is involved in making the fat, maintaining the fat, and transporting the fat are the initial questions I'd ask. All of these components relate obesity to energy consumption in differing degrees.

I did several years of EMT work for a local ambulance service, and many, if not most, of our calls/transports involved highly obese people. This leads me to believe that there are other societal costs involving energy consumption that my three item list missed.

Concentrating on basic transport involving a personal car, however, you really only have the issue accelerating the excess mass of excess ass and climbing hills. Level, steady motion mostly involves pushing air out of the way and weight would have little impact other than slightly increasing the tire area (thus road friction) on the vehicle. Deceleration is a non-issue, except for the mentioned increase in stopping distance. Climbing and accelerating would be more energy consumptive, but I'd be surprised if the net effect would be more than one or two percent ON THE SAME CAR. If fat makes higher mileage vehicles impractical, then a car-to-car evaluation may show a bigger number. I have a Honda Insight (surprise!) and it lists its max payload as 360 pounds. That's me, my wife, the dog, and 60 pounds of groceries. It's less than a few of my friends weigh. So the 'car excluded' effect is possible.

The question could deteriorate into a lot of necessary speculation, and the easy answer is probably 'a little'. But too much fat is bad all around. Apologies to the portly among us, but what's costly for you is costly for others, too, in some degree. We're an overly consumptive, self-absorbed society and being fat is just one of the ways we show this off to the world. One of the others, of course, is having excessively 'fat' cars.

But, what the hell, we deserve it. After all, we're Americans.
posted by FauxScot at 3:44 AM on July 5, 2006

Years ago, Roger Ebert was singing the praises of the "new" VW bug.

He's not the only one. It sounds like the New Beetle is a good choice for larger people, and it certainly uses a lot less gas than an SUV.
posted by klausness at 6:30 AM on July 5, 2006

You might as well ask about making people shorter. We had to move from a Toyota Tercel to a larger car (a Taurus SW was our choice) when our oldest son's legs got too long for him to fold comfortably into the back seat of the compact car. Weight isn't the only consideration when it comes to car size.
posted by lhauser at 11:47 AM on July 5, 2006

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