TCS Daily

Small Is Brutal

By Herbert Inhaber - February 4, 2002 12:00 AM

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recently said that it would not act to generate stricter fuel standards for automobiles and light trucks. This stirred dismay in some environmental circles, but joy for those who want to make up their own mind how to get from Pont A to Point B.

The argument goes back some years, when Congress forbade the NHTSA from even studying the issue of stricter fuel standards. Of course, private agencies and foundations could do so to their hearts content, and they did -- so little harm was done by the ban.

The restriction was lifted about a year ago, and the NHTSA could, if it wished, study the issue. It declined. Rightly so. If and when such an action is taken, it's up to Congress, not an agency. As an agency, its bailiwick is traffic safety, not how many times you stop at a gas station.

Whether or not to require cars and light trucks to have better mileage has been on the nation's plate since the oil crisis of 1973. Those who got Congress to pass the CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) standards argued that CAFE would liberate the U.S. from the oil barons of the Middle East, who had just embargoed us. CAFE would be our way of getting back to them.

What happened? The idea was to decrease dependence on foreign oil, but just the opposite happened. We are now more dependent on foreign oil than in 1972, before the embargo. The total amount of gasoline used by the nation has not deceased by a large fraction as was envisioned by the lawmakers, but has actually risen slightly.

Stanley Jevons, the father of quantitative economics, could have predicted all this. Since he lived in the 19th century, he never saw an automobile, but he noticed that as the relative cost of energy decreased, industry used more of it. The example he gave was the Watt steam engine. Although Watt is credited with its invention, there were predecessors that were much less efficient. When Watt's invention hit the market, the Age of Steam started. Greater efficiency had produced greater use of energy.

As auto engines improved in efficiency, it became ever cheaper to drive. For those who mourned the old behemoths, they could switch to sport utility vehicles, which got almost as good mileage as the Belch-Fire 8s. The three-car family, almost unheard of in 1973, became quite common. Where I live, Las Vegas, new developments often have four-car garages.

Those who advocate higher CAFE standards forget that small cars are available to buyers today, and have been for decades. For the last generation, cars that get twice the average on-road mileage for autos (13 mpg in 1973 and about 22 mpg today) have been in dealers' showrooms. They gather dust, figuratively speaking.

For those who want super-high mileage, they can buy the Toyota Prius. But this is much more expensive than the average small car. You would have to drive it until its wheels fell off before you recover the extra investment by saving gasoline. Most potential buyers can figure this out, at least approximately, and as a result sales are low.

A hidden rider to any law requiring higher mpgs is the death factor. The late British economist E. F. Schumacher coined the phrase "small is beautiful," but when it comes to autos, small can be brutal.

Small cars kill more than big cars. If you were in a collision of a Geo and a Lincoln, where would you rather be? Legislatures sometimes tinker with immutable laws. A state legislature in Indiana once set the mathematical constant pi as equaling 3.14, to make it easier for students. But nobody has yet been able to repeal the potentially deadly laws of physics.

Even if the law tomorrow required cars be no larger than the Ford Focus, the millions of SUVs and minivans on the road would crush them in collisions. Those deaths would have to be chalked up to a shortsighted Congress.

The issue of higher mileage standards is still a live one, as Senator John Kerry's recent speech demonstrates. If he could guarantee less dependence on foreign oil, as the lawmakers in the 1970s predicted, his thoughts might be worth some study. But he can't and won't. The nation was fooled once on this issue, and shame on the Congress of the 1970s. If we fall for it again, shame on us.

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