Steve Chapman

They can also make money by offering products that reduce rather than maximize the buyer's chances of dying in a fiery crash. Just as there are markets for auto style, power, versatility, luxury and sportiness, there is a market for safety.

A lot of advances were not forced on a callous industry by Washington, as Dave McCurdy, president of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers told Waxman's committee.

He reminded members that "automakers have developed many of today's significant safety innovations without a government mandate, including anti-lock brakes, electronic stability control (ESC), adaptive headlights, side airbags and curtains, front passenger safety belt reminder systems and advanced collision avoidance features like lane departure warning, blind spot monitors and adaptive cruise control."

Those improvements are among the reasons that last year, the number of traffic deaths was the lowest since 1954 -- even though there are twice as many drivers, traveling four times as many miles, as there were back then.

If federal regulators have insufficient tools to prevent safety defects, as the legislation presumes, this dramatic improvement must be due to something other than government vigilance. That, in turn, suggests that when it comes to reducing highway bloodshed, we are better off relying on consumer demand and competition among carmakers. It calls for humility on the part of federal officials.

But humility is not the prevailing mood in Washington. Between Toyota's missteps and federal measures to help the industry, politicians are feeling even bossier than usual.

What they are inclined to forget is that mandatory vehicle improvements don't come free. Those black boxes, for example, could cost hundreds or thousands of dollars apiece.

New cars have more safety features than older ones, so someone who trades in an old vehicle is likely to increase her life expectancy. Regulations that raise the price of a new car shut some buyers out of the market. So tougher federal rules may have the perverse effect of leading to more traffic fatalities.

If so, don't expect Congress to hold a hearing.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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