Gas Guzzlers

It's not over. The House approved legislation suspending the 4.3 cents-a-gallon gas tax, but the effort remains bogged down in the Senate. With lawmakers and news stories focused on relieving motorists of soaring prices at the pump, two seemingly unrelated news items were buried on the back pages. Those stories say a lot, however, about American drivers, our habits, and our part in this latest gas "crisis."

Recently, the Ford Motor Company announced its largest offering in sport-utility vehicles: the soon-to-be-released, nine-passenger Ford Expedition. Analysts are predicting that the Expedition and similar new models will be big money-makers, at least in the short term.

Sport utility vehicles are, of course, all the rage - with good reason. They travel through snow and sleet. They climb the highest mountain. They comfortably carry the whole family. They're the station wagons of the '90s. Many people (including those in rural areas, carpoolers, or anyone whose livelihood depends on carrying a lot of stuff from one place to another) clearly buy them for utility.

But they do guzzle gas.

Fuel efficiency grew from about 13 miles per gallon in 1973 to 21 m.p.g. in 1990. After 1990, that progress stopped. One reason: increasing numbers of the heavy, high-riding vehicles. So far, rising gas prices appear to have had little impact on the demand for even the largest sport-utility vehicles and minivans. Automakers say their biggest problem is finding buyers for smaller, more fuel-efficient compacts, which were much in demand after the oil squeezes of the 1970s.

We complain about prices as we fill up at the pump, but we don't seem so miffed that we're willing to economize - becoming a Jeep-and-Saturn family, for example, instead of a two-Jeep household.

We also want to go fast. In 1974, President Nixon imposed a 55-mile-per-hour national speed limit to save gas. Last November, Congress and President Clinton abolished the 21-year-old limit. As a matter of safety and driver needs, speed requirements vary widely between the open spaces, straight roads, and low-population densities of the Western plains and the clogged roads of the two coasts and cities in between.

But on the fuel-consumption front, the effect of higher speeds is clear-cut. According to the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy, driving 75 m.p.h. rather than 55 results in an average 50 percent increase in fuel consumption. Even with more gas-guzzlers on the road, that won't lead to a crisis. But it should serve as a reminder that moderation - in size and speed - is still a good thing.

Americans can't expect carmakers to push the search for fuel-efficient engines if the buying public continues to show little interest.

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