Jewish World Review Jan. 5, 2004 / 11 Teves, 5764
Debra J. Saunders
The Law of Unintended Gas Guzzling
There are two problems with the Corporate Average Fuel Economy known as CAFE fuel-efficiency
standards for cars and light trucks.
The first problem, oddly, is that CAFE standards work.
That's what a report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration essentially noted in a report
on recommendations to reform CAFE standards, now 27.5 miles per gallon for automobiles and 20.7 mpg for
light trucks, a category that also includes sports utility vehicles and minivans.
When the standards were developed in the 1970s, Washington rightly wanted to spare commercial
enterprises such as contractors, farmers and businesses that transport goods on flatbed trucks from
standards that made sense for passenger cars but not for commercial vehicles. Detroit later used the light-truck
loophole to develop a different kind of gas-guzzling passenger car the SUV. Fuel efficiency had improved
after CAFE was born. But as SUVs have proliferated, fuel efficiency has dropped; the average miles per gallon
for new cars has fallen to 20.8 mpg, 6 percent below the peak year of 1988.
Consumer groups and environmental activists rightly have been pushing for an end to the SUV loophole.
The Bush administration appears poised to respond, if halfheartedly, with proposed rules released in
On the plus side, the administration has already raised the CAFE standard for light trucks to 22.2 mpg
for 2007 the biggest increase in 20 years. And it's progress that Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta
has proposed making passenger vehicles like the Hummer, Chevy Tahoe and Ford Excursion comply with the
light-truck CAFE standard. (Oddly, they have been exempted because they are so heavy and, hence, gas
On the downside, the NHTSA's proposal included the caveat that the CAFE system favors
"manufacturers with a product mix dominated by small light trucks and disfavors manufacturers with a full line of
light trucks or those with a product mix that is dominated by heavier trucks."
Excuse me, but that's the idea, isn't it? CAFE is supposed to hurt the makers of gas guzzlers to prod
them to produce more fuel-efficient vehicles.
The second problem is more difficult: It's that CAFE standards are a safety concern. According to the
National Academy of Sciences, changes made to comply with CAFE standards may have contributed to 1,300
to 2,600 additional traffic fatalities in 1993.
The Department of Transportation is afraid that if it beefs up CAFE standards, manufacturers will
respond by making light trucks even lighter which could result in more deaths instead of by reducing
oversized SUVs, which actually could save lives. (Fewer monster cars would hit fewer midsize cars.)
So the department is considering classifying trucks into two or more different weight classes with their
own standards. Japan, experts note, has eight such classifications.
Environmentalists are crying foul at the notion. They're right to suspect, as the Sierra Club warned, that
"the proposal would create an incentive for automakers to add weight to their (SUVs and) trucks, qualifying
them for weaker standards."
Besides, if Washington wants Detroit to downsize four-wheel Goliaths, why not set a floor on how
inefficient a passenger car's gas mileage can be? Start, for argument's sake, at 15 mpg, with a requirement to
increase the minimum by 1 mpg each year. It just might push Detroit to manufacture hybrid SUVs.
The NHTSA recommendations showed an understanding that the status quo simply isn't fair. Not that the
report put it as I will, but CAFE has produced two kinds of car buyers suckers and gas guzzlers (consumers
who care about using less gasoline and those who don't). Often, the gas guzzlers enjoy a safety bonus that
makes roads less safe for sedan drivers. The suckers deserve a better deal. America will breathe better for it.
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© 2003, Creators Syndicate