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All Americans naturally want safer cars, increased fuel economy and cleaner air.

From its first days, the Bush administration has demonstrated concern for fuel conservation. Transportation Secretary Sam Skinner raised the model year 1990 fuel economy standard to 27.5 mpg.The Energy Department and the Transportation Department are in the process of developing a national strategy to reduce transportation energy consumption while at the same time increasing vehicle energy efficiency. This is an important undertaking because saving energy to reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil is vital.

The administration strongly opposes the Bryan bill, not because it increases motor vehicle fuel economy but because it would decrease highway safety, harm U.S. competitiveness, impose unnecessarily high costs on new car and truck buyers, fail to address the current oil supply disruption, and not be an appropriate response to environmental concerns.

As administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, one of my jobs is to promote increased fuel economy. But my most important job is to save lives and prevent injuries on our nation's highways, roads and streets.

I recognize there is a fundamental ethical question that cannot be avoided without serious consequences: When does fuel conservation become more important than saving lives?

The facts are that only half of the motor vehicle fuel economy gains of the recent past came from improved technology. The other half came from stripping about a thousand pounds of weight from cars, known as downsizing.

We know that less weight means less energy is needed to move the car. But we also know that downsizing results in more than 1,340 fatalities and 6,300 injuries annually.

This is not to say that small cars are categorically unsafe, but downsizing has had a price; there were people who would be alive today if in our zeal to save gas, cars had not been so stripped of weight.

Can efforts to prevent injuries and save lives on our highways join hands with saving fuel? Yes. These two very worthy goals can and should complement each other.

The American people need to know the truth. They should be told that, in the future, a drastic fuel economy increase to a fleet average of 40 mpg can be achieved only through additional, significant downsizing. This will result in unnecessary and increased deaths and injuries.

In addition, proponents of the 40 mpg fleet average seem to be saying that this increase should be legislated regardless of:

- American lifestyles.

- Physical needs.

- Of the additional deaths and injuries it may cause.

- Of the economic impact on auto workers and manufacturers.

Does this make any sense? Not to the majority of Americans who are sensible people and want sensible solutions. They want good fuel economy but they know what happens when you achieve it by taking sheet metal away from their cars. And they don't want Washington telling them they can only buy cars that are too small for their families or business needs.

The greatest irony is that extremely fuel-efficient small cars are available right now. Fifteen models currently meet the 40 mpg level. But consumer demand for these vehicles is limited - they don't sell well because they are not right for everyone.

The lack of consumer interest in these cars constitutes a "no" vote on the drastically higher fleet standards proposed.

There is irony as well in the position taken by some, who for so long have demanded safer vehicles. They have switched sides to unconscionably champion extreme fuel economy increases that they know will result in unnecessary deaths and injuries.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration takes seriously its obligation to set fuel economy standards, but we strongly believe that in the process we must consider the effects on safety.