Do you like to breath?

I do, too.

Unfortunately, we are approaching what some call "the Ozone season" in Dallas, my home since 1985. The Ozone season, in case you've never heard of it, is the period where the air we breathe is likely to be unhealthy. It can also make you miserable, which is what it does to me and to my wife. It was not like this in 1985.

Bad air isn't a universal problem. In some cities---like Albuquerque (NM), Orlando (FL), Portland (OR), and Seattle (WA)--- it is a non-issue. In others, like Houston, Knoxville (TN), and much of California, air quality is a central problem.

Some areas are improving. Air quality in Los Angeles has improved so much since the early 90's that the city is no longer a model of what no city wants to become. LA air is now better than Houston air, on a par with air in Washington, D.C. and Memphis (TN), and not much worse than Dallas air.

Most of us treat topics like this as issues of public policy, which is a good way to feel powerless. Last month I took another approach.   I asked a simple question. Are we part of the problem or part of the solution?

Answer: We were part of the problem.

So I bought a Toyota Prius, the gas/electric hybrid sedan that's so quiet you feel like a Ninja on wheels.

A month ago I was driving a New Beetle turbo that sucked gasoline at 18 miles to the premium gallon. My wife was driving a Grand Cherokee that got 18 miles per gallon on regular gas. Today, she drives the new Prius at 45 miles per gallon, regular gas, and I drive the aging Grand Cherokee 4 miles to work. By my calculation, our gasoline consumption will drop from nearly 1,300 gallons a year to about 800 gallons a year, a reduction of 500 gallons.

According to a calculator on the Environmental Protection Agency website, the change means we'll put about 6.5 fewer tons of carbon dioxide into the air we breath in Dallas. That's per year. Since the Prius also has high ratings as a Super Ultra Low Emissions Vehicle, we'll be putting less nitrous oxide and other nasty stuff into the air as well.

We didn't do this to be prissy tree huggers. We did it in our highly personal self-interest, to improve the air we breathe.

If you've been thinking about making a switch of this sort here are a few observations:

•           Today, there are only three gas/electric hybrid cars on the U.S. market, the Honda Insight, the Toyota Prius, and the more recently introduced Honda Civic Hybrid.   I've driven all three. Most people will eliminate the Insight because it's more statement than useful vehicle. It seats only two people, has minimal cargo space, and a harsh ride.   The Prius and Civic sedans qualify as functional, go anywhere cars.

•         Analytical types say the payback for fuel economy is too long. I disagree. While you pay a price premium over a non-hybrid Civic or the nearest comparable Toyota, both the Civic Hybrid and the Prius have the incredibly smooth continuous variable transmission. No bumps, ever. They also have a supernatural level of quiet that doesn't exist in any other "economy" car. The Prius, in particular, is absolutely silent when the engine turns off at stoplights. Both sedans have climate control air conditioning. These are attributes of more expensive cars.

•           No, you don't have to recharge the car overnight. That's the answer to the question we're asked most frequently. And, yes, it goes a long way on a tank of gas.   A recent trip to Austin was a real pleasure.

•           Yes, it has enough acceleration. That's the answer to the second most frequently asked question.   It won't lay rubber for a quarter mile. But it will move out briskly for freeway entry. One of the really nice things about the hybrids is that they will, by their nature, transform (and reform) the way you drive.

Websites to visit.

•  To compare and price hybrid cars

•  To learn more about the environmental ratings of different cars

•  To compare two vehicles for fuel consumption and environmental impact

•  To check the change in air quality over the last ten years in major cities

•  To learn how to measure good and bad air quality days

Tuesday: Forget Washington, Make Your Own Energy Policy