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More on this topic in TRAFFIC SAFETY   by Leonard Evans (published Aug 2004)

   San Francisco

December 9, 2002

We need higher taxes on gas

BY LEONARD EVANS
Special to The Examiner

    WHAT WOULD Jesus Drive?" asks a group of clerics. Perhaps the most straightforward answer is "an ass" -- the word best describing those asking the question.

    But it is no joke to have such a question on the national agenda. It constitutes an unwarranted intrusion of religion into areas that religion should avoid. Are we now going to be asked, "Would Jesus vote Democrat or Republican?" As in the vehicle case, those asking will claim to know the answer.

    The political agenda of clerics raising the headline-making question is to oppose large, heavy vehicles, such as SUVs. They claim Jesus would avoid them because they consume more fuel per mile than small cars, conveniently ignoring that larger vehicles offer better protection in crashes.

    While there is near universal agreement in the technical community that making vehicles lighter increases fatalities, there is no corresponding agreement that increasing the fuel economy of vehicles reduces the total amount of fuel consumed in the nation. Making a vehicle more fuel-economic reduces the cost of traveling each mile. This encourages more driving, less car-pooling and less use of alternative transportation modes. In the long run, it makes longer commuting trips more acceptable.

    Although there is no consensus on whether making vehicles more fuel-economic increases or decreases the total amount of fuel the nation uses, there is universal agreement among economists that increasing the cost of a commodity reduces its consumption.

    Nothing can materially reduce the amount of fuel used in our nation except increasing its costs. Congress can do this by enacting the following simple law. At the end of every month, an additional nickel tax will be added to a gallon of fuel, the monthly increases continuing until we import the last barrel of oil from the Middle East.

    Once such a policy was announced, fuel use would decline immediately -- even before the change came into effect. Innumerable self-motivated adjustments would follow in a gradual, orderly and non-coercive manner.

    Shoppers for new vehicles would immediately attach more importance to fuel economy and look more favorably on the many already-offered vehicles exceeding 40 miles per gallon. The automobile industry would respond to customer preference by offering a wider choice of high fuel-economy models. Our vehicle fleet would slowly evolve in the direction of fleets in Europe, which are more fuel economic than ours because fuel costs more.

    Because the proposed changes are gradual and predictable, disruption would be manageable. If the public understood that the issue was national security, such an approach could be politically acceptable. The tax collected could be kept in a special account and returned to voters to underline that the purpose of the policy was not to raise revenue, but to protect the homeland.

    This proposal can achieve the goal of energy independence, and additionally provide an environmental bonus

     If we lack the resolve to do anything that will work, I believe it is a sham to talk about fuel economy standards. And it is worse to ask whether Jesus would choose a motorcycle rather than a small car because of the motorcycle's greater fuel economy and lower risk of killing other road users.

    Yet our political process still refuses to discuss a tax increase, the only measure that can work.

    We are like a 300-pound patient asking a doctor how to lose weight but insisting that the answer must not mention eating or exercise.

      Leonard Evans is president of Science Serving Society, an organization he formed to continue research and other professional activities after a 33-year career with General Motors.