Driving Irony

Electric Cars and Public Health, Yesterday and Today

Can a government honestly say it’s an advocate for the public’s health while siding with the auto industry against electric cars quotas?

It’s doubtful given the ill effects of smog and pollution from gas guzzling automobiles. Nonetheless, the White House is now supporting the automobile industry in its legal bid to eliminate requirements that auto manufacturers sell electric cars in California.

Here’s irony for you: California is home to some of the nation’s most smog-choked communities. Want more irony? Leaders in Washington have been clamoring about dwindling oil reserves and voted for a war on oil-rich Iraq (Iraq possesses huge areas of promising but unexplored oil potential�food for thought).

So why would the Bush administration side with the automobile industry these days? One need not look further than the President’s chief of staff, Andrew H. Card, Jr. Card was once the chief lobbyist for General Motors. Now that’s a cozy relationship. Throw in the realities of the upcoming presidential election, and the logic for siding with Detroit over the public welfare becomes crystal clear. The Bush administration’s move may have been a hedge to favor Michigan over California politically, at least according to an Oct. 10 article in the New York Times . President Bush was defeated in a much narrower margin in Michigan than in California during the 2000 election. The Times story intimates that Bush is looking to capture Michigan in 2004. Not a bad political move.

It’s too bad that the electoral process supersedes the health concerns of millions of Californians. Sorry, California, you’re going to have to hold your breath.

Under current regulations 10 percent of cars sold in California between 2003 and 2008 must be electric or “zero emission” vehicles (which can also include the recently popular hybrid vehicles that run on gasoline and electricity). The Bush administration’s rationale for wanting to eliminate the quotas is that they would regulate fuel economy standards, which only the federal government should oversee, not the states.

Could it be that the Bush administration is arguing for an increased role for “big government”? And what does California Governor Gray Davis have to say about all this? Davis told the New York Times, “I am disappointed that the federal government would intervene with our efforts to protect air quality.” It wouldn’t be the first time an administration sided with the automobile industry to the public’s detriment.

Before World War II Los Angeles had a very decent mass transit system (as did most big cities). So what happened? The same thing that happened in a lot of places with decent transit systems. In 1939 General Motors, Phillips Petroleum, Standard Oil, and Firestone Tire invested millions in the National City Lines company. After the investment, the company began buying hundreds of streetcar lines nationwide. Streetcar tracks were torn out to make way for gasoline-powered buses. Makers of tires, roadways, and gasoline were overjoyed. No business was more overjoyed than General Motors, since National City Lines chose to buy buses from none other than General Motors.

Was any of this in the interest of public health? Doubtful, given the high amounts of lead that gasoline manufacturers included in their gasoline. Did the government step in with anti-trust legislation to protect efficient transit? Take one look at the Santa Monica freeway in L.A. and you’ll get your answer. Before the onslaught of National City on streetcar lines a struggling worker could ride a pollution free trolley to work for a dime. Afterward that same worker’s choice was to ride a noisy, smoke belching bus or save up enough hard earned cash to buy a car (most likely from General Motors). The rest, as the say, is history. Sure, to just compare this historical situation to the present is an over-simplification. But it speaks volumes to why the White House is siding with the auto industry. The business of America has always been business, not health.

So the next time anyone argues that public health is foremost among the politically beholden�think twice. Once for you, and once for the lungs of your neighbors.