New fuel standards unnecessary

Once again, the government has issued what it claims is a “win-win” fuel economy mandate— yes, it will raise the prices of new SUVs and vans by forcing their redesign, but the resulting gas savings will pay for those higher prices in only a few short years. But if that's really true, then why do we need a law to force these new vehicle designs on us?

After all, it's not as if we've been ignorant of gasoline price trends in recent months. The post-Katrina price hikes receded for a while, but prices have been rising again in recent weeks, and it's hard to escape predictions of still-higher prices in the future.

But the public has clearly responded, changing its new-car buying habits to the point where several carmakers are in deep financial distress. Now, as in the past, rising gas prices are leading to more fuel-efficient vehicles. Politicians may love to appear proactive, but this is a problem that solves itself.

The CAFE increases are being decried by environmentalists as too little, too late. Their stance is curious. For years, they've charged that Americans drive too much. Higher fuel economy standards, however, might well make us drive even more. If your new SUV gets five more miles per gallon than your old one, then driving has gotten cheaper and you're apt to do more of it.

There is one good thing about the new CAFE program — it may no longer be as lethal as it once was. Previous CAFE standards encouraged the production of small, lighter cars. This improved fuel economy, but it also reduced crashworthiness. According to a 2002 National Academy of Sciences report, CAFE contributed to about 2,000 traffic fatalities per year.

The new CAFE program has been reformed to reduce this downsizing incentive by introducing an MPG standard tied to vehicle size. Larger vehicles will no longer have to meet the same across-the-board standard as small ones. As a result, consumer choices won't be as restricted.

But CAFE is still, at heart, a lethal program. Those who push for higher standards should acknowledge that. Until they do, the debate over fuel economy regulation is a dishonest one.