ESSAY- Real clunker: How we should have treated old cars

With the announcement last week that the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration was delaying the forced crushing or shredding of 690,000 Cash for Clunkers trade-ins from this summer, Winston Churchills oft-quoted comment that You can always count on Americans to do the right thing– after they've tried everything else is again pertinent.

While its debatable whether we will eventually do the right thing, the Consumer Assistance to Recycle and Save program– as Cash4Clunkers was officially called– certainly proves that well try everything else first.

The highly-touted CARS, aimed at getting Americans back to work, did indeed start up 1,100 temporary jobs– for government bureaucrats to process the $3,500-to-$4,500 per-car rebate checks to participating dealers– but did little else in distributing $3 billion in borrowed federal dollars to people who would have bought cars anyway.

Thats the analysis of automotive website,, which announced last month that 565,000 of the CARS sales would have happened by the end of this calendar year without Uncle Sams intrusion into the free market. According to Edmunds, each car sale actually caused by CARS cost taxpayers $24,000 a vehicle. That's more than the average sticker price.

The CARS program did nothing meanwhile for long-term stability in Americas car market. Overall year-to-date 2009 sales are still down over 5 million vehicles from 2007, and monthly sales figures indicate that each Big Three American automaker sold fewer vehicles in November than it did the month President Obama was elected.

With neither the employment rate nor the auto market booming, Cash4Clunkers worked to increase Americas oil dependency and will certainly lead to further worldwide environmental degradation. Why? Because having a new car cajoles people to drive significantly more miles while the new cars hitting the road last summer were only marginally more energy efficient.

According to the University of Michigans Transportation Research Institute, CARS might have improved the average fuel economy of all vehicles purchased by 0.6 mpg in July 2009 and 0.7 mpg in August 2009, but the long-understood rebound effect, which illustrates that fuel-efficient car-buyers overcompensate by driving more, easily wipes out those meager efficiency gains.

And that, of course, increases congestion, which already costs the economy $87.2 billion and 4.2 billion lost hours, according to the Texas Transportation Institute– not to mention burns 2.8 billion additional gallons of imported fuel.

During the summer when Cash4Clunkers was the talk of the nation, buried on the back pages of the few good newspapers left in the country was the lament by junk yards and dealers about having to pour acid through the engine blocks of the best trade-in vehicles theyd seen in years.

Instead of those still-good engines getting second lives as replacement pistons and heads– or as transportation for the working poor– they had to be destroyed within seven days of the rebate to ensure there was no shell game behind Uncle Sams paperwork. Now, the remainders of the cars must be crushed or shredded within 270 days.

Its insane to think that building new vehicles to replace ones that still have working life is environmentally friendly. New plastic, new steel, new computers– and most importantly– new energy goes into the production of new vehicles. Using anything to the outer limit of its life is more environmentally effective than instant obsolescence.

A much better use of Uncle Sams $3 billion would have been paying gas stations to hire teenagers and check each gasoline purchasers tires for proper inflation. With some 80 percent of tires aired below recommendations, each vehicle running on soft tires suffers as much as 3.3 percent less fuel efficiency and emits 1.5 extra tons of additional greenhouse gas annually.

Besides saving fuel and putting juveniles to work, checking inflation would decrease our trade deficit because we wouldnt be sending so many dollars to China to purchase tires worn out before their time.

After having seen the ethanol craze drive worldwide hunger and discovered that carrying natural gas tanks eliminates huge chunks of passenger or cargo space, are we finally ready to consider Churchills comment and actually do the right thing?

And that, as discussed by every economist who studies American environmental and foreign policy issues, is to raise federal gasoline and diesel taxes extensively.

What we would find if we taxed gasoline to a rational level is that Americans will adapt and use their cars intelligently rather than habitually– as has happened in other democracies across the planet.

We would find that high mileage sells and, therefore, manufacturers would provide new gasoline-saving technologies without government subsidies or rebates. Wed at the same time be raising money to build substitutions for driving, like mass transit and hike-and-bike infrastructure.

We would furthermore find more people taking the bus and the subway, therefore decreasing the need for transit subsidies. Light rail would grow without special stimulus funding.

We would find that walking and biking to school actually makes our kids healthy and happy. Wed rediscover our neighbors, and mom-and-pop stores would again spring up on the corner.

We would find less traffic on our highways, trimming our congestion cost of $750 per driver, and greatly decrease the 1,700 million metric tons of CO2 that our tailpipes emit into the atmosphere.

We would find less need to keep carrier task forces in the Persian Gulf and fewer people worldwide would claim that Americas foreign policy is all about blood for oil.

We could actually hold our heads up in Copenhagen while not forcing– as cap and trade will do– more manufacturers and their jobs to move overseas.

Are we ready to do the right thing?
A former journalism teacher at Virginia Union University, Randy Salzman is a researcher who lives in Charlottesville and writes about transportation when his transportation ideas aren't being written about.