As if right on cue, the New York Times is reporting that Americans are buying gas-guzzling vehicles again. Sales of SUVs and pickup trucks are back up to historically high levels, and 75% of people trading in a hybrid or electric vehicle are replacing them with gas-only cars. This is terrible news for the environment and terrible news for public health.
Global warming is one hell of an externality. The standard economic approach to an externality is a tax. The social cost of gasoline has been estimated at $3.80 a gallon.
The current gas tax averages 49¢. So the gas tax should obviously be much higher.
The problem is summed up by a former hybrid owner who just bought a Ford F-150 pickup. “Who doesn’t want to drive around in a big tank,” he said. “When people start to think gas is more affordable, do they really want to pay the premium on the hybrid?”
It isn’t only the climate that’s at stake here. Even if you’re not moved by the public health consequences of global warming (though you should be) increasing demand for heavy vehicles is a terrible blow to road safety.
In a brilliant New Yorker article in 2004, Malcolm Gladwell takes down the myth of the safe SUV. It turns out that not only are SUVs not especially safe for their occupants, they are also the deadliest cars out there for everyone else. In fact, SUVs are 16 times as likely as regular cars to kill someone in a crash. As SUVs become more common, expect a distinct uptick in fatal car crashes.
What’s more, the more gasoline that cars and trucks use, the more ozone they produce, the more particulates and the more C02. Each of these pollutants is associated with asthma, itself one of the leading causes of missed school in the US, and collectively this pollution is known to cause cancer, cardiovascular disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. No question then that the move toward bigger cars is a big loss for public health.
To all the good reasons for raising the gas tax—funding road improvements and transit, combatting global warming, reducing congestion—add public health. Talk of raising the gas tax may give some people indigestion, but it’s good for health.