- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 20, 2002

About the last thing the American consumer needs right now is more expensive transportation. Yet, some advocates want the Senate to impose higher transportation costs in order to “conserve fuel,” which they regard, with almost religious fervor, as the highest of all possible values. These folks would like the Senate to force-feed the American public hyper-efficient cars and trucks, even if that means these vehicles will be more expensive and less safe. The means of accomplishing this? An increase in federal fuel economy standards, known in the argot of bureaucratese as Corporate Average Fuel Economy, or CAFE.

In a nutshell, the fuel-economy crowd is pushing for a bump in the current CAFE standard for passenger cars from 27.5 miles per gallon (mpg) to as much as 40 mpg. For SUVs, pick-ups and minivans which are included in a regulatory category called “light trucks” they want a boost from the current 20.7 mpg to nearly 30 mpg. Such gains are quite possible as a technical and engineering matter but they would require significant reductions in vehicle size and weight (and thus occupant safety), or the incorporation of elaborate new technology that could add hundreds, or perhaps even thousands, of dollars to the price of each new vehicle sold. The likely practical effect of such higher CAFE standards would be to effectively outlaw most current mid-size and larger trucks and SUVs. These vehicles would become uneconomical to produce and sell, while passenger cars would be rendered appreciably smaller and less able to protect occupants in the event of an accident. (There is ample and incontrovertible evidence that downsizing costs several thousand lives each year, in fact.)

The question is or should be whose priorities ought to prevail? There are currently (and have been for years) several compact-sized models that achieve the kind of fuel economy revered by advocates of higher CAFE standards. People are free to buy these vehicles if they wish. But many Americans elect to purchase larger vehicles instead, because they value performance, functionality and safety more than they do an extra couple of mpg. They’re quite willing to pay higher fuel bills in return for these benefits, too.

Why should these Americans be denied the opportunity to choose the types of vehicles that meet their needs all in order to satisfy the quasi-religious fixation that some bureaucrats and fringe special-interest nogoodniks have with stretching a gallon of gas as far as it can be made to go? Frugality is admirable but forcing people to be frugal, particularly when doing so leads to greater risk (in the form of lighter, less safe vehicles) and burdensome economic costs, is simply unacceptable. The Senate should resist the “opportunity” to fiddle with CAFE standards and leave things be.

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