Editorial: High gas prices really aren’t such a bad thing

It’s easy and oh-so-American to rail against high gasoline prices. And it’s particularly sporting on Vashon, where prices — for the first time in a few years — now top $4 a gallon.

But here’s the thing about high gas prices: Studies have repeatedly shown that it’s about the only thing that gets Americans to do what most of us know is right — get out of our cars and into buses, into carpools or onto bikes.

In fact, one of the leading evangelists for higher gasoline prices is not a left-leaning environmentalist but the man who helms the nation’s largest auto retailer. According to a variety of articles, Mike Jackson, the CEO of AutoNation, advocates a much higher federal tax on gasoline because he believes it’s the only way to force Americans to drive less, to get Detroit to build more fuel-efficient cars and to tackle the crisis of climate change.

“The biggest lie in Americand politics today is to say you care deeply about global warming and advocate for the price of gas to go down,” Jackson told Newsweek, according to an article in 2008. “Those are mutually exclusive concepts.”

Jackson goes on to advocate higher federal, state and local taxes on gas, so that the price per gallon averages around $6 — still far less than the average price in Europe, but enough, he believes, to get us out of our cars. In 2008, when U.S. gas prices were hovering around $4 a gallon, they topped $7.50 in Europe — with more than half of that price from taxes.

This helps explain why new vehicles sold in America average 25 mpg, while European cars average 36 mpg, Jackson maintains. “The dirty little secret,” he told Newsweek, “is that it’s all about the price of the fuel.”

It’s tricky on Vashon, where transit service is spotty and most of us live far from town. And undoubtedly, higher gas prices will prove a serious hardship for some who are already struggling to make ends meet. At the same time, studies and news reports suggest, there’s plenty to appreciate about high gas prices, positives we should consider the next time we fill up:

• Bike sales climb when gas prices top $4 a gallon, according to a 2008 survey of bike store owners.

• People drive more slowly, other studies report.

• The skies clear up; a University of California health-economics professor estimated that 2,200 lives were saved the last time gas prices topped $4 a gallon because of healthier air.

• Four-day workweeks have gone into effect at companies and agencies across the country to try to curb energy costs.

• And with fewer people driving, congestion lessens. Again, in 2008, when gas prices jumped, travel on all roads dropped 2.1 percent in the first four months, according to the Federal Highway Administration.

So sure, grumble a bit, if you must. But remember: High gas prices may be the only force powerful enough to get us Americans to break our long-standing addiction to oil.

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