Chubby drivers and plump passengers add to the fuel crisis in more ways than one. A fat nation needs more gas in the tank, according to research released yesterday.
"The key finding is that almost a billion gallons of fuel are consumed each year because of the average weight gain of people living in the U.S. since 1960," said Sheldon Jacobson, a computer scientist at the University of Illinois who crunched the numbers to show obesity is expensive on the roadways, and it's going to get worse.
We may be hungry, but we're also impatient.
"If our nation gets lighter -- and healthier -- one of the side benefits is that we will simply use less fuel," said Mr. Jacobson, adding that although Americans continue to gain weight, they are also driving more aggressively, which in turn uses more fuel.
He compared national health data and passenger-car fuel consumption from 1960 to 2003 to find that because of a heftier population, we use 983 million gallons of gas more each year than we did in the slimmer '60s. That amount could fill 1.7 million gas tanks.
It also translates to an extra $7.7 million a day, or $2.8 billion a year for consumers -- serious money, Mr. Jacobson says, considering that much of our fuel comes from foreign sources. A further finding of note: His analysis showed that every extra pound of human body weight in a vehicle equals an additional 39 million gallons of extra gasoline use collectively in a year.
"We felt that beyond public health, being overweight has many other socioeconomic factors," Mr. Jacobson said.
Indeed. Close to 66 percent of Americans are considered overweight by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, racking up $91 billion in health care costs to treat the condition. But obesity has become a force to be reckoned with as well.
The Ford Motor Co. announced last month that it would recalibrate engineering standards to accommodate fatter drivers, using updated design mannequins with bigger bellies and wider hips beginning next year. Savvy fashion designers already have tweaked women's sizing to flatter today's generous figures, replacing the Department of Agriculture guidelines established in the 1940s.
Plus-size thinking has also arrived among furniture manufacturers, not to mention medical suppliers who must provide sturdier X-ray tables, ambulances and longer needles to accommodate an ample population.
Beefier passengers cause airlines to spend $275 million a year for extra fuel to get them aloft, prompting some airlines to charge fatter fliers extra fees. While environmentalists cringed to discover the increased fuel use sent an extra 4 million tons of carbon dioxide into the air, the Federal Aviation Administration revised its passenger weight standards in 2004, for the first time in 66 years.
Fact-finding can turn to fault-finding, though. A 2003 study by the National Center for Smart Growth blamed obesity on urban sprawl and the commuting lifestyle. Research released last year by Oregon State University found that obese folks personally preferred a car-centered existence, concluding that "overweight people tend to choose suburban life."