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The Force of Habit

To the Editor:

I’m writing this in response to Carl Pope’s “Gas Backward” [Opinion, March 28]. Unfortunately, he has joined the swelling ranks of those who would rather champion an issue than work on a real solution to the problem.

Mr. Pope’s beef is with the proposition of higher CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) standards, even though he didn’t particularly state it. CAFE standards hold auto manufacturers to keep the average fuel economy of all vehicles sold above a certain number. The really hotly debated issue lately has not been the hike in the average standard, but whether or not to include light trucks and SUVs in the same category as passenger cars, which have different, higher standards.

The reason many advocates state that we will all be driving unsafe subcompacts is because safety features and size both add weight to a vehicle, which reduces fuel economy. Once you add the safety cage, engineered crumple zones, six airbags, and more rigid structuring, you’re looking at anywhere between 200-800 pounds of extra material. In addition, features that we’ve come to expect in a vehicle—air conditioning, power windows, locks, seats, heated seats and mirrors, and a host of other doodads—not only make our commutes more comfortable but add even more weight, and in some cases (such as with air conditioning) directly impact fuel consumption. Lighten the load by removing safety and amenities, and you can reduce consumption.

But will this reduction in vehicle safety and quality really happen if standards are increased? We’ve seen a glimpse of the future today: Honda’s Insight hybrid vehicle, while achieving extremely high fuel-economy figures, is a small, light, two-seater with very little in the way of amenities. It rides on loud, low-rolling-resistance tires, and doesn’t fare all that well in standard safety tests. It can carry precious little cargo and only two people (more on the importance of that later). But it hits impressive figures that makes Honda look good, makes hybrid technology look good, and sets a great example of the possibilities in the future.

The Insight, in fact, takes advantage of many of the fuel-sipping suggestions that Mr. Pope himself presents. But let’s look at those more closely. He mentions better transmissions; how specifically should they be better? Manufacturers already cheat consumers by installing exceptionally tall fifth or extra sixth gears to bump highway fuel economy, particularly in sports cars with large engines. Manual transmissions, which are the most fuel-frugal when used properly, are among the minority in today’s vehicles by consumer choice. Ask the driver of the next car with an automatic transmission why they chose it, and the answer will usually be “I don’t know how to drive stick,” or “convenience.” If you want a “better” transmission, convince people to buy standard.

He mentions more efficient tires. These would be like the tires on the Insight, which offer less friction to the road so it’s easier to move the car. But these tires are loud, introducing a much higher degree of road noise into the cockpit of the vehicle, something that is totally unacceptable to the average consumer. He mentions aerodynamics, specifically, streamlined front ends. However, vehicles that have blocky front ends, like trucks and SUVs, necessarily have them because they have bigger engines.

So, if we attempt to drastically increase the fuel economy of our vehicles, will we end up with small unsafe cars, or trucks with puny engines that can’t do the job? Maybe, but it doesn’t really matter. The real problem here is pollution, not the issue of emissions. You can incrementally raise emissions all you want, and it will have little effect because to really reduce pollution you need to change the driving habits and desires of the public. You need to convince people that using the less convenient manual transmission is a better choice. You need to convince people that they don’t need all those extra, weighty amenities. You need to convince people that what they really need is a minivan or station wagon instead of an SUV. You need to convince people that driving habits have a far greater impact than any fuel economy numbers ever will.

Bennett Campbell
East Greenbush


In a recent story on women’s childbirth options in Saratoga County [Newsfront, April 11], Saratoga Hospital was incorrectly identified as an institution that believes vaginal births after cesarean section are “too risky.” Saratoga Obstetrics—not the hospital—is the organization that indicated that the procedure is “more of a risk” than it wants to take on.

In another story on the Rensselaer County political corruption trial [Newsfront, April 18], it was incorrectly noted that North Greenbush Democratic chairman James Germano’s grandson was given a job with New York state two months before the beginning of the current trial. It was Germano’s son Anthony who was given the job with the state Department of Safety and Health; he received the job in Sept. 2000, two months before the commencement of a grand jury hearing in which James Germano was indicted.

Metroland welcomes typed, double-spaced letters (computer printouts OK), addressed to the editor. Or you may e-mail them to: Metroland reserves the right to edit letters for length; 300 words is the preferred maximum. You must include your name, address and day and evening telephone numbers. We will not publish letters that cannot be verified, nor those that are illegible, irresponsible or factually inaccurate.

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