- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 21, 2004

California — known for setting the cultural Zeitgeist — also deserves recognition for exporting another dubious product: bad policy. A current example is regulations from California’s Air Resources Board (ARB) to reduce “greenhouse gas emissions” from passenger vehicles by 25 percent.

By ARB’s own admission, the regulations will have no discernible effect on global temperatures, but will wreak havoc on the state’s highways and limit consumers’ freedom to choose vehicles that best serve their needs. Despite the regulation’s problems, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and several other states appear poised to follow California’s lead by imposing similar rules on their residents.

States ready to jump on the California bandwagon need to understand this may make friends with environmental activists, but history shows it also would increase business at trauma centers and morgues by substantially increasing traffic fatalities and serious injuries.

The regulation also would add some of the more useful and safest SUVs and pickup trucks to the endangered species list. It’s a safe bet drivers who use SUVs and pick-up trucks for hauling and towing won’t like losing the vehicles they need. Despite the ongoing anti-SUV mantra, consumers now choose SUVs and other light trucks more often than passenger cars.

As even proponents acknowledge, the only meaningful way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles is by reducing fuel consumption. In turn, decreasing fuel usage requires using substantially more expensive materials and technologies or downsizing vehicles.

Contrary to urban legend, the automobile industry doesn’t have a “hidden technology” to improve fuel economy. Hyper-competitive car companies spend more than $1 billion annually on advertising — much of it devoted to savaging competitors’ products. The first company able to boost fuel efficiency by 25 percent without tradeoffs in cost, utility or safety would do so in a “heartbeat of America.”

Because miracle technology doesn’t exist, a 25 percent reduction in carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions would require vehicles to become roughly 25 percent more fuel efficient by becoming 25 percent less hefty.

But downsizing vehicles has a long and bloody history, as proven by numerous government, university and insurance industry studies. The laws of physics are enforced with brutal clarity when vehicles collide and smaller cars offer less crash protection than larger vehicles.

Researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health and the Brookings Institution estimated vehicle downsizing in the late 1970s and early 1980s increased occupant deaths by between 14 percent and 27 percent. Likewise, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimated downsizing caused 1,300 to 2,600 additional deaths every year. A 2002 National Academy of Sciences study affirmed this. A USA Today analysis using NHTSA and insurance industry data found that, since the 1970s, vehicle downsizing to improve fuel economy has killed more than 50,000 Americans.

In addition to more fatalities, less choice and higher vehicle cost, the California plan likely would produce another unintended consequence: dirtier air.Contrary to proponents who say the regulation is a boon for clean air, higher prices lessen demand, meaning fewer new ultraclean vehicles will replace older, dirtier models. Most of today’s SUVs and other vehicles are 99 percent cleaner than their 1960s counterparts. A 2004 Chevy Suburban, for instance, has stiffer emissions requirements than a 2000 Honda Civic.

In smog-burdened cities, vehicle turnover has been responsible for most of the clean air improvements during the past few decades. American Enterprise Institute scholar Joel Schwartz estimates automobile emissions decrease approximately 10 percent yearly because older vehicles are retired and replaced with cleaner new models. Stalling that progress would be a major step backward.

But most astounding is that neither the ARB nor anyone else can say the proposed regulation will have a genuine global climate effect. Indeed, with carbon dioxide emissions rising sharply in China and other developing nations, the California proposal is akin to using an eyedropper to drain a lake.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger promised to shed California’s image as anti-business, anti-consumer. He should make good on his pledge by making a U-turn on this all-pain, no-gain regulation. This would set a lifesaving example for other states.

Barry W. McCahill is president of SUV Owners of America, a fully independent, nonprofit consumer group dedicated to supporting the rights of SUV owners. SUVOA does not accept contributions from auto companies nor are they members.

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