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Tweeting Our Way Out of Oil Addiction

February 3rd, 2010

The year was 1987. Ronald Reagan was president, The Simpsons appeared on TV for the first time, and disposable contact lenses became commercially available.  …That was also the year I became a licensed driver.

When I was a teenager, reaching the age of licensedom was the most anticipated and celebrated event in a young man’s life.  No more having your parents shuttle you to meet your friends – or your date – on a Saturday night.  With that little piece of plastic, you could go wherever you wanted, whenever you wanted … as long as it was before dark.  (You had to wait another year for completely unrestricted driving privileges.)

According to a story last week in the Washington Post, the trend of teenagers applying for a driver’s license as soon as the clock strikes “16 years” may be changing.  According to the story, in 1998 nearly 45% of 16-year-olds got their driver’s license.  In 2008, that percentage had dropped to just over 30%.

Why the apparent decline in interest among teens to jump in their car and drive?  Well, according to the Washington Post story, one contributing factor is social networking.  Back in the day, if we wanted to … social network … with our friends, we had to go see them.  In a pinch, we could talk on the phone.  (Three-way calling was cutting-edge technology!)  But then mom would have to use the phone, so we’d have to to hang up – and break the 3-way-calling-chain that had connected all of our friends.

Since then, we’ve seen cell-phones, broadband, and social networking come into existence and become mainstream.  Teens spend countless hours on Facebook, Twitter, and texting (or otherwise instant-messaging) with their friends.  And when they do this, they’re not driving.  (Well, OK, some of them do text-and-drive.  Which is dangerous. And hard.)  In fact, some teens would actually prefer to be chauffeured around by dear old mom and dad simply so they can continue to OMG and LOL with their BFF!

When a friend of mine recently told me he offered his teenage daughter a choice – a new car, or an iphone … and she chose the iphone, I began thinking, “I wonder what the impact that this phenomenon might have on the amount of fuel we use in our cars is, compared to the impact of, say, hybrid vehicles.”  Let’s assume there are about 10-million teenage drivers in the U.S. – a reasonable guess.  Assuming about 2.5-million of these are 16 years old, then the Washington Post article suggests that about 375,000 of these kids who would’ve gotten their licenses 20 years ago now choose not to.  If each of these kids would have otherwise driven 10,000 miles a year at an average of 25 mpg, that’s about 150-million gallons of gasoline per year that we’ve avoided burning.  Conversely, if Facebook didn’t exist and these kids still got their license and all drove 45 mpg Prius’s (without the faulty accelerator), then we’d only save about 67-million gallons of gasoline each year (compared to the 25 mpg baseline).  Wow.

OK, so my assumptions are arguably faulty.  But, they’re based in reality. And the conclusion? Twitter is more than twice as effective as hybrid technology at reducing fuel use in vehicles.

You heard it here first, folks.  But please – don’t retweet it.

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