Eco-Busting SUVs

Lately, it seems, everyone who doesn't drive a sport-utility vehicle complains about them: They are too much vehicle for solo commuters, block the view of traffic, burn too much gas, pollute too much, cost too much, crush smaller cars in a crash, and their owners "never" drive off road.

Then why are Americans buying them in record numbers? They're voting with their pocketbooks for the room, versatility, and strength that have always made big American cars famous. With the price of gasoline near historic lows, there's little or no added operating costs. (Insurance and repair costs for these vehicles can actually be less.)

On the other hand, buyers are turning their backs on the sleek, nimble, and fuel-efficient smaller cars brought to the market by the energy crises of 26 years ago and by the regulations designed to address those crises.

Specifically, the government's Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) regulations require a manufacturer's new cars, all makes and models, to average 27.5 miles per gallon, and light trucks to average 20.7 m.p.g. To meet these fleet averages, automakers sell compacts such as the Chevrolet Cavalier and the Ford Escort at a loss.

The most popular and profitable lines - light trucks (including minivans) - are subject to the lower mileage standard. They now account for 50 percent of new vehicles sold.

With Americans driving more miles than ever, that means more fuel burned, more pollution, and more CO2 greenhouse gas in the atmosphere.

Most large automakers have brought trucks into compliance with car standards for safety and airborne pollutants. But they can't make them burn a lot less gasoline, which means the emissions that contribute to global warming go unchecked.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has proposed making passenger trucks subject to the same strict CAFE standards as cars. But Congress has so far blocked that.

Maybe Congress is right. With CAFE, there's no market incentive for buyers to change their habits. CAFE works like a clown's long, soft balloon: As it squeezes the market for cars, demand pops out somewhere else. Today, it's light trucks. Tomorrow? Well, Ford is hedging its bets with the behemoth Excursion, a passenger truck so heavy it doesn't have to meet even the lower light-truck CAFE standards.

What the public needs is an incentive to prefer smaller cars in larger numbers. That means a more comprehensive energy policy that makes people pay a higher, more realistic price for gasoline - including the cost of the pollution caused by refining and burning it, and even the cost of the suburban sprawl it spawns.

The market would then spur not only greater sales of efficient automobiles, but also development of viable alternatives such as fuel cells, clean-burning non-oil fuels, hybrid-electric vehicles, and public transportation. And the greater tax revenue could fund research and development in these areas.

True, this change won't come easily. Political resistance will be sharp. But the CAFE standards are a failed model. They should give way to a policy that will make market forces serve environmental goals.

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