- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 30, 2000

The ongoing debate over federal fuel efficiency standards revived again thanks to a new General Accounting Office study demanded by Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona is a case study in unwarranted, unwise interference with market mechanisms by government.

The federal fuel efficiency standards known inside the Beltway as Corporate Average Fuel Economy, or CAFE, requirements have been around for 25 years, and though they have failed wretchedly at lowering U.S. dependence on imported oil, they continue to distort the new car marketplace and foist on the public smaller, more complex and expensive vehicles.

The car-buying public has, in the main, responded to this pressure by buying larger cars and SUVs. This really annoys the environmental fringe groups and anti-car political extremists who continue to insist that Americans should drive less and drive smaller cars. They have been pressing for higher CAFE standards for several years, so far to no avail. If their wildest wish came true, they'd get an increase in passenger car standards from the current 27.5 miles per gallon (mpg) to 40 mpg and an increase in "light truck" standards from 20.5 mpg to almost 30 mpg.

It is of course quite possible, from a technical point of view, to meet these higher standards. But to do so requires either much smaller, lighter vehicles across the board with smaller, less powerful engines or the adoption of yet more complex technology that would add hundreds, perhaps even thousands, to the sticker price of a new car or truck. The GAO study commissioned by Mr. McCain takes the latter view arriving at the conclusion that, given sufficient time, new technologies can be employed to raise fuel efficiency without necessarily resorting to smaller, lighter, and therefore less crashworthy, cars and trucks.

But it's hard to see how the public benefits from having either less safe or more expensive cars forced down their throats. As the automakers like to point out, cars that get 40 mpg (or better) are already available and have been for years it's just that most people don't want to buy them. Most people appear to be quite willing to suffer higher gas bills in return for more room, greater safety and superior performance. Why should these entirely legitimate desires be trumped by the wishes of government bureaucrats and a relative handful of professional political agitators?

It's a question that conservatives such as Mr. McCain might ask themselves before endorsing any further CAFE-inspired distortions of the marketplace.

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