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Driving over the brink


EVEN President Bush -- hardly Mr. Conservation -- has proclaimed a national energy crisis and is making gestures toward the idea that we ought to stop squandering natural resources.

But Americans still don't get it. They're showing little inclination to cut down on their driving and fuel consumption.

Higher gas pump prices may be the only impetus to make us adopt thriftier habits.

The number of miles driven since the 1970s has doubled. And the fuel economy of 2001 model vehicles sold in the U.S. is the worst in two decades -- with the surging popularity of heavier, gas-guzzling trucks, vans and SUVs.

The light-truck sector now accounts for nearly half of all U.S. passenger vehicles sold (and more than 40 percent of vehicles on the road). They average less than 21 miles a gallon. Buyer preference for bigger, bulkier, heavier vehicles has offset creeping, marginal increases in average fuel economy for new cars: 28.7 miles a gallon this year.

Automakers say they're selling what the customer wants. Critics charge the industry with heavy promotion of the fuel-wasters, which have a bigger profit margin.

Regardless, there's a simple, direct way to force manufacturers to make larger vehicles more fuel efficient.

That's to eliminate the SUV loophole in the federal fuel-economy law, which would force these vehicles to get at least 27.5 mpg, like other cars.

Eliminating this exemption would save about 1 million barrels of oil a day. That's worth, say, an irreplaceable wildlife refuge or two.

Technology exists to make serious improvements in SUV mileage, such as shifting to lighter car-like frames, new-generation transmissions and even diesel engines (30 percent more fuel-efficient).

Government can persuade manufacturers to put more of that technology to good use, if lawmakers close the fuel-effic- iency loophole that's big enough to drive a not-so-light truck through.

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