For more than 20 years, the federal government has been steadily shrinking the size of the average American car by raising fuel efficiency standards: Smaller, lighter cars tend to go farther on a gallon of gas. This policy has sparked a lot of angry criticism, much of it relating to auto safety: Smaller, lighter cars also tend to go farther after being hit. Still, officials at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration will soon lobby Congress to raise fuel efficiency standards for cars and light trucks; as before, the fight will turn on whether anyone has a "compelling" need to drive larger but less fuel-efficient cars. (You try fitting four kids in the back seat of a Camry.)
Meanwhile, another wing of the federal government–the Federal Fleet Policy Council, or FedFleet–wants regulators to loosen, not tighten, fuel economy rules. Recently, it asked for a revision to the Federal Property Management Regulations, which govern what cars government agencies can use. "The mandatory provisions affecting sizes of motor vehicles purchased by Federal agencies are, in some instances, hindering the missions of agencies," it wrote. "These regulations were developed in the early 1970s when gasoline was in short supply and motor vehicles were much larger than today's vehicles." FedFleet wants to revise the General Services Administration's rules "to allow more flexibility when choosing the size of vehicle."
According to FedFleet, the neediest drivers are in law enforcement, where agents sometimes get stuck with cars too small for the features of a standard police package. Other government workers often must wedge themselves into subcompacts. Sometimes that isn't a problem; other times the driver is, er, tall. "In most instances, a compact vehicle will serve an agency's needs," says FedFleet. "However, with the continual down sizing of vehicles, more and more activities are finding these vehicles too small, either for the individuals that travel in them or to complete agency missions."
The proposed change won't affect the federal deficit. If an agency wants larger cars, it'll still have to pay for them out of its own budget. Nor would it destroy fuel efficiency. Drivers will still get "the smallest vehicle available to complete the mission," according to the GSA's Mike Moses. The change would simply allow more common sense in distributing public automobiles.
That certainly sounds reasonable–and more than a bit hypocritical. After all, if bureaucrats spending other people's money should have the right to weigh the relative merits of fuel efficiency, road safety, and whatever else they think is important in a vehicle, why shouldn't the rest of us be able to do the same with our own money?