There Ought to Be a Law

By Warren Brown
Sunday, March 18, 2007

Dear Members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee:

I like writing to Congress. It makes me feel empowered, part of something much larger than myself, like a citizen of the United States who actually has a voice in government. So here goes:

On Wednesday, March 14, while you were busy on Capitol Hill with your hearings on global warming and the automobile industry, I was doing what I normally do for a living -- driving other people's cars and trucks.

Hey, it's a good gig. I do what you might call "field research" -- like those trips you take to the real world to gather useful information.

So, I climbed into Ford's big 2008 F-250 FX4 Super Duty pickup truck and cruised along Interstate 95 to see what other motorists were doing while you were demanding that Ford, General Motors, the Chrysler Group of DaimlerChrysler and Toyota start building more fuel-efficient vehicles.

I might've missed it. Maybe it was buried in the news reports. Maybe one or more of you will say something about it after I file this column Wednesday night. But I did not hear, nor do I recall reading anywhere where anyone on your committee suggested that consumers contribute to America's purported pursuit of a less oil-dependent economy.

If I'm wrong, I humbly apologize. As I said, I was driving while you were talking. It's sometimes difficult to drive and listen at the same time, especially on Interstate 95, where traffic was moving at an average speed of 80 miles per hour -- 15 mph higher than that highway's highest legal speed limit.

Because I was in the huge F-250 -- which does not move all that fast, although it is equipped with a gargantuan 6.4-liter, 350-horsepower V-8 diesel engine -- I stayed in the right lane. I was getting blown away. No joke!

There I was in the right lane driving at a steady 60 mph, while cars small and large were whizzing past me at extralegal speeds. It was embarrassing! I was left in the dust by every Toyota Prius gas-electric hybrid car on the road; and there were a lot of them. I was passed by Volkswagen Beetles, little Ford Focus models, big sport-utility vehicles, small sport-utility vehicles, sports cars, ugly cars, pretty cars, limousines. Zoom! Varroom! Whoosh!

I am sure that all of those people, especially the ones in the hybrids, want better fuel economy. I'll bet that many of them are applauding your efforts to make those big car companies get more miles per gallon. But I'm just as certain that most of those motorists would raise holy heck if you suggested that speeding fines be tripled or quadrupled, or that the federal government stick a hefty tax on gasoline to make them at least think twice about wasting so much of the stuff in unnecessarily fast driving.

I took I-95 south into Northern Virginia, where there still appears to be a building boom. Goodness! You should see some of those houses! I'm talking single-family homes -- mansions, palaces, places featuring gigantic atriums that must be heated and cooled but that are good for nothing except making an impression on visitors. It's amazing! But more amazing is that many of those mini-palaces are nowhere near mass transportation, which is why they all have at least two-car garages for vehicles that eventually will find their way to I-95, or some other highway, and waste fuel speeding their occupants between home and work.

Inasmuch as you are collecting automotive industry testimony on global warming, I have a confession to make. I did something awfully stupid, unforgivably wrong, although I beg your forgiveness anyway. I left Virginia and drove the F-250 into the District of Columbia smack-dab in the middle of the evening rush hour. Dumb, dumb, dumb!

But I was not the only motorist in an oversize vehicle stuck in that fuel-wasting traffic jam. There were many sport-utility vehicles and limousines, many of them with government tags. I wonder how many of those vehicles would have been jam-packed there at the end of the workday if the District had congestion pricing -- a fee imposed on cars and trucks moving through urban centers during rush hours. There is such a fee in London. It is effectively reducing traffic congestion and the enormous fuel waste associated with clogged streets.

Yeah, I know what you're going to say. I've just gotten off the phone with Anne, a smart woman, one of my dearest friends. I told her what I was writing. She laughed. "You're not dealing with political reality," she said. "No one who wants to get reelected is going to raise gasoline taxes or do any of those other things you're ranting about. Get real!"

She's right, of course. But, as I said, I write these letters just to feel that I have a voice in government, even if it's not heard, even if no one pays attention.

In that regard, your honors, you and I have much in common. If you raise fuel-economy standards without asking consumers to contribute, without demanding that they do or pay something extra to help reduce our dependence on oil and alleviate the risks of global warming, you'd just be whistling "Dixie" and doing it rather poorly. It would make as much sense as writing a letter to Congress.

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