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Jewish World Review Jan. 22, 2002 / 9 Shevat, 5762

Betsy Hart

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Consumer Reports

Sacrificing lives for fuel efficiency -- THREE thousand Americans lost their lives on Sept. 11 as a result of a terrorist assault, and America has rightly gone to war over it.

But one U.S. government policy has directly caused tens of thousands of American deaths in the last 25 years. The policy was not designed to attack American civilians, of course, but they've died just the same - so is it time for a fight?

Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards sound innocent enough. They have to do with federal standards requiring higher fuel efficiency for cars, trucks, vans and so on. But tougher standards mean lighter and demonstrably less safe vehicles, which is why CAFE and its backers already threaten my four young kids. Worse, right now CAFE advocates are trying to put my children at even greater risk.

That's because when Congress returns next week Senate Majority Leader and Democrat Tom Daschle will move to quickly take up the issue of raising CAFE standards. He and his allies particularly want to target so-called "light trucks," meaning sport-utility vehicles (SUVs), pick-up trucks and mini-vans, which have always had less draconian CAFE standards attached to them. But now CAFE backers want to force these vehicles to meet dramatically higher fuel efficiency standards - as high as that of passenger cars in only four years if they get their way.

And that means that light trucks, including large vans and SUVs which have the lowest fatality rates of all passenger vehicles, would have to become much lighter and far less safe.

By 1993 CAFE standards, introduced in 1975 with the unrealized hope of lowering our dependence on foreign oil, were killing between 1,300 and 2,600 people a year who would have survived collisions in heavier vehicles, according to a recent study by the National Academy of Sciences. A Harvard study says that figure is between 2,200 and 3,900. USA Today puts the total at 46,000 Americans killed as a result of do-gooder lawmakers and their CAFE regulations.

And now those same do-gooders want to take even more lives.

But one of the reasons that heavier, safer mini-vans and SUVs have become so popular is precisely because of CAFE standards. It's CAFE that all but got rid of the station wagon, a "car" which was subject to draconian fuel-efficiency standards. But guess what? America's families weren't about to start taking their trips to the Grand Canyon on bicycles or driving to soccer games in moon unit cars that looked like they'd crumple like tin cans - and often did. So the minivan, SUV and various hybrids, which were allowed a heavier weight and a lower fuel efficiency standard because of their classification as a "light truck," were born.

They've become so wildly popular that last year for the first time light trucks outsold passenger cars in the United States. (The ultimate test: Two years ago I bought my first minivan, after declaring, in writing, that I would never ever do such a thing.) "Big" families like mine particularly love the roomy, comfortable minivan, and anyway they meet their own kind of fuel-efficiency standard - carpools. Besides, have you ever tried to put three car seats, which my family needs, in the backseat of a typical sedan? (Let's not forget that the front passenger seat is off limits to little riders because of the airbag.) And consider this: New CAFE standards for light trucks could raise the average sticker price by as much as $2,500 per vehicle. Which means many a hard-working family is going to have to keep their older cars around longer, perhaps long after it's safe to do so.

Meanwhile, super fuel-efficient super-light and electric cars are almost unsellable, even with steep discounts and subsidies. (Honda has lost some $80 million on the 8,000 or so such cars it's shipped to the United States.) Apparently even government can't mandate that Americans start liking these little things. But none of that matters to the do-gooders. They want us less dependent on foreign oil (which is a dubious proposition to begin with given that profit, not politics, has always motivated OPEC, even, and contrary to popular understanding, back in the embargo days of 1973). Nevertheless, instead of encouraging innovation when it comes to new forms of fuel, allowing more drilling say in oil-rich Alaska, or simply letting market prices dictate fuel use and conservation, the do-gooders are on the scene trying to cram their unsafe cars into the garages of unwilling American families.

Well this is one mom who thinks yes - it's time for a fight.

JWR contributor Betsy Hart, a frequent commentator on CNN and the Fox News Channel, can be reached by clicking here.


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