Did you know that vehicle exhaust is responsible for 50 percent of the air pollution in the Salt Lake Valley year-round? The brown haze during winter inversions, the "yellow" and "red" air alerts during the hot days of summer — we are part of the problem every time we drive alone, which also means that each one of us is part of the solution, year-round.

Salt Lake Valley drivers eliminated more than 1 million miles and 1.7 million pounds of emissions during six weeks in June and July this summer. Not only that, they reduced energy consumption, saved money, decreased traffic congestion, made new friends and got exercise.

What motivated them to do all these seemingly impossible things and have fun while doing it?

They responded to the Clear the Air Challenge issued by Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker, Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon, Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. and a 20-organization Partners Team, asking those who drive in the Salt Lake Valley to "drive down your miles." For six weeks, drivers reduced their car trips by carpooling, using transit, working from home, walking or biking. Others drove smarter by trip chaining — running errands while already out rather than taking extra trips.

The six-week challenge may be over, but the need to "think more about driving less" and "driving smarter" never ends. The individuals who participated in this year's Clear the Air Challenge and saved more than one million miles have developed new driving habits. We can all develop new habits, with or without a challenge. The challenge Web site (www.CleartheAirChallenge.org) continues to be available with information about TravelWise alternative transportation options and daily trip diaries to keep track of your Drive Less accomplishments.

As we change our habits, we improve the air and our quality of life. I'm part of a vulnerable population adversely affected by the air in our valley. I have a minor heart condition that generally doesn't affect me until the air is bad. And then, I lie on the couch dizzy all day after exercising outside. High ozone levels (our summer air pollution) can cause coughing, throat irritation, chest pains and general respiratory system irritation. High particulates (our winter air pollution) accumulate in the respiratory system and can aggravate conditions such as asthma. Of course, I'm not the only one who will benefit from cleaner air; each of us can improve our quality of life by exercising more and taking advantage of opportunities to share time with others in our community through carpooling and mass transit.

I'm looking forward to a future where the only thing keeping me from exercising outdoors is the summer heat or winter snow. If those of us who participated in the Clear the Air Challenge were able to save 1 million miles and 1.7 million pounds of emissions, imagine how clear our air would be if each of us made the commitment to "drive down" our miles every day of the year.

Michele Straube is a mediator/facilitator with Salt Lake Solutions, Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker's collaborative government initiative.