NYTimes.com Article: Average U.S. Car Is Tipping Scales at 4,000 Pounds
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Average U.S. Car Is Tipping Scales at 4,000 Pounds
May 5, 2004
By DANNY HAKIM
DETROIT, May 4 - Detroit was recently ranked as the
nation's most obese city by Men's Fitness magazine. Perhaps
it is no surprise, then, that the Motor City's chief
product is also losing the battle of the bulge.
The average new car or light-duty truck sold in the 2003
model year tipped the scales at 4,021 pounds, breaking the
two-ton barrier for the first time since the mid-1970's,
according to a report released by the Environmental
Protection Agency last week.
The fattening of the nation's automobiles is a principal
reason that average fuel economy has stopped improving and
the nation's consumption of crude oil has been swelling:
all else being equal, moving more weight takes more energy.
Add in the additional pollutants and greenhouse gases
released by burning more fuel, and it is not surprising
that the upsizing trend is condemned by environmental
But ranged against them in an increasingly bitter debate
are industry lobbyists and conservative groups who argue
that girth is good, for crashworthiness and because people
want more space and power, though Honda is a notable
dissenter in the industry.
At the center of the debate is the Bush administration's
proposed rewriting of national fuel economy regulations.
Though work on the plan is still in its early stages, one
important aspect of it could lead automakers to make their
vehicles even heavier on average. Environmentalists are
distressed by the plan, but it has not been embraced by the
auto industry, either.
In recent months, the National Highway Traffic Safety
Administration has been flooded with nearly 50,000 letters
and detailed comments about the plan. Many have come from
organizations with an interest in the outcome - automakers,
lobbyists, environmental and consumer groups - but the
majority have been from individuals, some of them angered
by increasingly tanklike vehicles and others by the claims
of industry lobbying groups that S.U.V.'s will somehow be
regulated out of existence.
And there are other motivations. "One of the things that
triggers asthma is air pollution, and vehicular emissions
are a significant source," said Dr. Ronald Saff, an asthma
specialist in Tallahassee, Fla., concerned about rising
asthma rates. Dr. Saff, 45, wrote a letter asking the
agency "to make S.U.V.'s safer for families and the
But Carroll Boyle, a 65-year-old retired educator from
Manchester, N.H., wrote that tougher regulations "may force
people into vehicles that are smaller, less powerful, and
not as safe as our current options." She added, "In New
Hampshire we have weather that requires an S.U.V. many days
The E.P.A.'s weight statistics show that the average weight
of a 2003 car or light-duty truck, like a pickup, sport
utility, van or minivan, was heavier than in any model year
since 1976, when the average peaked at 4,079 pounds. Just
five years later, after the oil shocks of the 1970's, the
average had fallen by more than 20 percent, to 3,202
pounds. The figures take into account the sales volumes of
Average fuel economy peaked at 22.1 miles to the gallon in
the late 1980's, according to the agency, but has eroded
since then to 20.7 miles for the 2003 model year.
The agency expects the 2004 model year to finish with an
average weight of 4,066 pounds.
New noncommercial vehicles are actually even heavier than
the statistics show, because the largest vehicles sold to
consumers, including Hummers and Ford Excursions, are not
classed as light-duty, so they are not covered by fuel
economy rules or counted in average weight calculations.
They are also exempt from many safety standards and
Government studies say these giant vehicles are increasing
the overall number of deaths in accidents, mainly because
of the threat they pose to people in cars they hit in
collisions. The administration's plan does suggest that
manufacturers be pressed to slim down the heaviest of the
heavyweights, like the Hummer.
Though new vehicles are back to weighing what they did in
the 1970's, they are obviously very different in shape, in
part because of the fuel economy rules introduced then.
Automakers must meet average mileage targets, now set at
20.7 miles to the gallon for light-duty trucks and 27.5 for
passenger cars. By scrapping station wagons and large
sedans in favor of minivans and S.U.V.'s, manufacturers
have greatly increased the share of their total sales
subject to the lower truck standard, and they have fought
to preserve the two-tier system.
Federal regulators say safety has suffered as a result,
both because S.U.V.'s and larger pickup trucks are more
prone to roll over than cars are, and because they do more
serious damage to vehicles they hit.
Traffic deaths in the United States rose to 43,220 last
year, the most since 1990. Before the S.U.V. boom, the
country had the world's lowest highway death rate, taking
miles driven into account, but it now ranks behind at least
eight other developed nations, including Canada, Australia,
Britain and Sweden. Lower rates of seat belt use and other
factors play a part, but much of the difference stems from
the composition of the national vehicle fleet, researchers
The Bush administration contends that most sport utilities
should be given room to grow in any new fuel economy
system, citing a government study that said lightening any
but the largest vehicles would do more harm than good.
Thus, one of the administration's leading proposals is to
divide the light-duty truck category into classes, with
more stringent requirements for heavyweights.
Most major automakers have reacted cautiously, especially
to the idea of broadening the system to cover the largest
"Studies show that making vehicles lighter has an adverse
effect on safety," said Eron Shosteck, a spokesman for the
Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which lobbies on
behalf of General Motors, Ford Motor, DaimlerChrysler,
Toyota and others. "If all vehicles were made heavier, it
would have a positive impact on safety," Mr. Shosteck said.
But Honda, which makes some of the most fuel-efficient
vehicles, said its own research found that dimensions,
design and materials often made more difference than
weight. Honda cited government statistics showing that
midsize cars have lower death rates than sport utilities,
and that smaller S.U.V.'s do better than midsize S.U.V.'s.
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