All Commentary
Sunday, November 1, 1998

Driving America: Your Car, Your Government, Your Choice

A Well-Reasoned Brief on Behalf of the Automobile

John Semmens is an economist with the Laissez-Faire Institute in Chandler, Arizona.

Driving America is a well-reasoned brief on behalf of the automobile. The car is the travel option of choice because it offers a fast, comfortable, convenient, and affordable way of getting where one wants to go. Nevertheless, there are those who would sacrifice this mobility on the environmental altar.

The crisis du jour is “global warming.” The assumption is that the planet is getting warmer than it should be because of the environmentally “unfriendly” activities of humans. The most unfriendly human activity, according to Vice President Al Gore, is driving a car. Even “clean burning” auto engines emit carbon dioxide (CO2). CO2 is a greenhouse gas that helps trap heat from the sun on the planet’s surface. We obviously need some global warming if life is to persist on the earth. The question is how much is enough? Environmentalists who have concluded that any more warming would be too much are seeking to reduce automobile emissions. But James D. Johnston, former General Motors vice president and a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, contends that tightening emissions standards for automobiles is neither a necessary nor a cost-effective means of pursuing environmental goals.

One of the auto-emission programs he challenges is the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) regulation. Initially the CAFE regulation was part of the Carter administration’s energy conservation program. More recently, it has been adapted to an anti-greenhouse-gas agenda. Promoting better fuel efficiency doesn’t sound like a bad idea—unless one considers the safety implications.

The main method by which vehicle manufacturers have complied with CAFE regulations has been to make cars smaller. Fuel has been conserved and emissions reduced. However, there has also been an increased risk to people in the cars. Each mile-per-gallon increase in fuel efficiency is correlated with a 3.9 percent increase in the fatality risk. This is because occupants of small cars are twice as likely to be killed in collisions as the occupants of large cars. Cars with wheelbase lengths of 114 inches or more have a 60 percent lower fatality rate than cars with wheelbases of 95 inches or less. To put this in perspective, the mandated air bag is estimated to reduce occupant fatality risk by 9 percent. Thus, the government’s current proposal to make all cars smaller will likely increase the number of traffic fatalities. If safety is really our top priority, should we be trying to prevent people from buying large vehicles?

Consider the CO2 emissions issue from an order-of-magnitude perspective. Globally there are over 150 billion tons of CO2 emitted per year. Of this total, human sources contribute about 7 billion tons (less than 5 percent). All the cars in the United States contribute about 280 million tons. Consequently, even if every car in America were permanently parked, annual global CO2 emissions would be reduced by less than two-tenths of one percent. Obviously, it is unlikely that anything as drastic as a permanent ban on all auto travel will be enacted. So, the potential magnitude of impact from any politically feasible anti-auto measure would be extremely small.

The fact is, there is not much more room for environmental improvement to be had from efforts to mandate cleaner-burning engines, or restrictions on auto travel. Huge gains have already been achieved. Per-vehicle-mile carbon monoxide emissions are down 96 percent. Hydrocarbon emissions are down 97 percent. Nitrous oxide emissions are down 88 percent since the 1960s.

Rather than mandating new, lower standards, which may be infeasible or extremely costly, we need better enforcement of existing standards. The author reminds us that the worst 7 percent of emitters cause 50 percent of the pollution. Remedying this source of pollution through a mobile emission-testing program would be the most cost-effective way to make a significant reduction in vehicle-caused air pollution.

Johnston makes use of interesting historical statistics to illustrate that when it comes to pollution, the car is a substantial improvement over its predecessor. In 1900, horses in New York City “emitted” over 1,000 tons of manure and 70,000 gallons of urine per day. While these emissions are biodegradable, the health risks were considerably more immediate and pervasive than the risks posed by today’s automobile emissions.

The book is a well-reasoned and carefully documented answer to the critics of the automobile. Its flaws are minor, springing from a “choose the lesser evil philosophy,” which leads the author to support the “Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles,” a government-business endeavor.

Johnston urges those who appreciate the car to take political action on its behalf. Regardless of whether one follows this prescription, he offers a wealth of valuable information and insight for those interested in transportation and the environment.

  • John Semmens is a research fellow at the Independent Institute and research project manager in the Arizona Department of Transportation Research Center.