- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 22, 2001

This just in: Lawmakers in Washington, the city that gave us low-flow toilets, a mandatory drinking age and a national speed limit for our highways, want to mandate even higher fuel economy standards for cars and light trucks.

Now, such a proposal may sound good. After all, anything that can save a few bucks at the gas pump should be encouraged, right? And if it helps us pollute less and cut our dependence on foreign oil, so much the better.

What's not to like?

Plenty. Take a look under the hood, and you'll see why the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) program which mandates that cars average 27.5 miles per gallon and light trucks (pick-ups, minivans, SUVs) average 20.7 mpg should be abolished.

Start with the fact that it has done nothing to curb our reliance on foreign oil. The program was launched in 1975 as America attempted to grapple with the 1973 oil embargo imposed by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. Since then, we've gone from importing 30 percent of our oil in 1973 to importing 52 percent today.

Why? Primarily because the move to more fuel-efficient vehicles has encouraged Americans to drive more than they used to. In fact, we drive twice as many miles today as we did 30 years ago, more than offsetting any gains realized through improved mpg ratings.

It's an old phenomenon: Make something more efficient, and people use it more. For example, in 19th-century England, coal consumption fell by a third in the first few months after James Watt's new, efficient steam engine began to replace older, more energy-hungry machines. But over the next 30 years, coal use increased tenfold as consumers discovered Watt's engine was cheaper and easier to run.

The CAFE program doesn't score any better on the environment. For one thing, fuel efficient cars don't necessarily produce fewer harmful emissions. Under CAFE, a three-cylinder Chevy Metro can emit as much exhaust as a Lincoln Town Car. For another, manufacturing the plastics and other compounds used in place of steel to make cars lighter creates its own set of pollution headaches. And even if the fuel economy standards went up 40 percent, it would cut emissions of greenhouse gases by less than half of 1 percent.

Then there's the matter of money. To avoid stiff penalties for violating the CAFE standards, automakers have resorted to promoting smaller cars and increasing the price of larger cars. The standards, in effect, act as a tax on larger, safer cars that is used to subsidize sales of smaller, less safe cars that get more miles to the gallon.

In fact, the entire CAFE regime, the technological advances required to meet the fuel economy standards, the fines and other costs significantly raises the cost of new vehicles. This encourages drivers to hold on to their older, less-efficient, more-polluting cars, rather than buy new ones hardly a goal of the policy.

It's also not a goal of the policy to make vehicles more dangerous, but it has done precisely that. To meet the CAFE requirements, automakers have cut the weight of vehicles by nearly 25 percent since 1975. This despite research that shows lighter SUVs roll over more easily than heavier ones and that heavier cars fare better than light cars in guardrail crashes.

A study done by USA Today, using data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, found that through 1998, weight and size reductions undertaken by auto makers to meet CAFE standards had resulted in 46,000 deaths. That's the population of Pocatello, Idaho, wiped out by misguided government regulations.

So what have we learned in a quarter-century of CAFE standards? That they don't conserve fuel or reduce pollution, they cost consumers money, and they leave us with more dangerous cars. And now Congress wants to make the standards more rigorous?

What lawmakers ought to be doing is listening to American drivers. In a survey conducted last year by Maritz Inc., a St. Louis, Mo.-based marketing research firm, consumers were asked to rank what they look for in a new car.

Fuel economy came in 25th out of 26 attributes (below "interior styling" at 22nd).

What finished near the top? Cost and safety.

Charli Coon is an energy policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation.

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