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Jewish World Review Jan. 5, 2004 / 11 Teves, 5764

Debra J. Saunders

Debra J. Saunders
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Consumer Reports

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 December.

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 guzzling.)

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.)

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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