24 December 2003
Doing a slow burn
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is seeking public comment on revising the Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards. The most obvious comment, I think, is "What does fuel economy have to do with traffic safety?" Apart from the obvious laws-of-physics considerations all else being equal, the heavier vehicle, while it uses more fuel, tends to come out better in a crash the answer would seem to be "Not much."
The real problem for the government here is that they can't very well come out in favor of greater vehicle weight, because the Greener Than Thou folks who begrudge any use of fuel that doesn't strike their fancy will pitch the hissiest of fits, and if NHTSA should choose to embrace economy above all else, there will be hell to pay from the auto industry, which fears consumer rejection if they simplify and add lightness, and from the insurance industry, which fears anything that might cost them a dollar somewhere down the road.
The answer is hidden in their request for comments, but they don't really recognize it as an answer:
[W]e intend to preserve the ability of consumers to obtain vehicles that meet their needs, while providing competitive equity among vehicle manufacturers, improving vehicle safety, and enhancing fuel economy.
The simplest way to do this is to dump the entire concept of CAFE, which so far has produced far more pages of regulation than gallons of gas. If it is necessary to, um, persuade consumers to buy fuel-efficient vehicles, a proposition rather difficult to defend without falling back on "Because we said so," the most direct approach is to increase the tax on fuel. This puts the decision into the hands of the individual, where it rightfully belongs. If J. Random Driver still wants a Ford Excrescence or whatever that will cost him $100 every fillup, that should be his issue not yours, not mine, not Washington's, and not the Sierra Club's.