In part because gasoline is so cheap and plentiful, Americans like to drive big, heavy, powerful trucks.
Because gasoline was neither cheap nor plentiful 25 years ago, American politicians insist that cars must get high gas mileage. The chief way to do that: Cut vehicle weight.
So we have wonderful light, efficient cars on the road, alongside a growing fleet of pickup trucks and big sport-utilities with tall superstructures built atop pickup truck frames.
Now the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is running tests and making a big public issue of the problems that arise when high, weighty trucks collide with low, light cars.
What we have here is a failure to coordinate.
The sport-utility craze caught automakers (and regulators) by surprise. There was some old thinking going on here: Trucks were for WORK, for goodness sake, for carrying ladders and tools and manure. Thus trucks have a lower requirement for corporate average fuel economy than do cars.
But in the last 10 years, Americans flocked to pickups, sport-utilities and minivans as personal-use vehicles. While automakers hustled to increase truck capacity, they didn't stop to ask if a personal-use vehicle might be better built on a different platform from a body-on-frame pickup truck. Those rigid, higher frames sometimes meet those nice, light cars in places that disadvantage the car.
Other than the unintended consequences of CAFE, there's no bad guy here. Automakers are trying to meet the market. There's no way they're going to make trucks less safe. But given time, they can and should make adjustments that will match up the frames of trucks with the strong points of cars. And airbags and better structures should always make cars safer.