Guzzlers in Our Midst

As a campaign issue, it's not a sizzler. But the need to raise the fuel efficiency of SUVs, minivans, and most new vehicles on American highways ought to become a hot topic in the coming political year.

Last week, the Bush administration laid out an easy target for its Democratic rivals by proposing a set of complicated standards to nudge the industry toward making vehicles with better fuel economy, while also trying to slow down the increasing weight of larger and larger vehicles, such as the Hummer.

The broad proposals are subject to four months of public comment followed by fine-tuning before implemention. The critical part deserving most scrutiny now is one that would create different fuel-economy rules for vehicles based on weight or size.

Like the current federal standards put in place in the late 1970s, the proposed system could have enough loopholes to let automakers avoid making smarter investments in more-efficient vehicles.

Under the current loopholes that allow SUVs to be labeled light trucks, the nation has the lowest fuel-economy average for new vehicles in 22 years.

The heart of the problem is that most Japanese automakers are better than GM and Ford in fuel efficiency. If Congress or the Bush administration pushes the US industry too hard, it will cost jobs and, perhaps, result in fewer campaign donations to the industry's friends in Washington.

The US industry claims that more-efficient vehicles would be too lightweight to be safe. The administration, and many in Congress, have bought that unproven argument, even as more-innovative companies such as Toyota are proving it wrong.

Nothing could move the United States toward greater energy independence and less reliance on Middle East oil than using the election campaign to stir up public demand for tougher rules on fuel efficiency.

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