A Crashing Failure: The Stupid Tragedy of CAFE

A Crashing Failure: The Stupid Tragedy of CAFE

September 17, 2001

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If the National Academy of Sciences discovered that a certain chemical was killing several dozen people a year, congressmen would rush to ban the substance. But in late July, the Academy found that a federal policy was causing thousands of deaths-and now congressmen are scrambling not to end the policy, but to expand it.The deadly policy in question is the federal government's new-car fuel-economy program, enacted in 1975 to reduce our dependence on foreign oil. Popularly known as CAFE (corporate average fuel economy), it requires the Transportation Department to set mile-per-gallon standards. The passenger-car standard is currently 27.5 mpg, while the light-truck standard, which covers SUVs, is 20.7 mpg. A Republican proposal to make the standards slightly more stringent passed the House on August 1, and the Democratic Senate may push for a far greater expansion after Labor Day.The real question is why anyone wants to expand CAFE at all. Two days before the House debate, a panel of the National Academy of Sciences issued a long-awaited report, which concluded that CAFE had contributed to between 1,300 and 2,600 traffic deaths in a single year, as well as ten times that many serious injuries. Since CAFE has been in full force for over a decade, its cumulative human toll is probably in the tens of thousands. By making cars smaller, CAFE has made them more dangerous. Larger, heavier cars are less fuel-efficient than similarly equipped smaller, lighter cars, but they're also safer. Research demonstrates that this holds true in practically every type of accident. Larger cars have more mass to absorb crash forces, and more interior space in which their occupants can "ride down" a collision before striking a dashboard or side pillar. For this reason, the smallest cars have "occupant death rates" more than twice as great as those of large cars.Critics of CAFE have been raising this issue for years. A 1989 Brookings-Harvard study estimated that CAFE caused a 14 to 27 percent increase in occupant fatalities-an annual toll of 2,200 to 3,900 deaths. A 1999 USA Today analysis concluded that, over its lifetime, CAFE had resulted in 46,000 fatalities. These findings are in the same ballpark as those of the Academy. CAFE's advocates, however, have uniformly claimed that CAFE isn't a factor in any deaths at all. A Sierra Club brochure epitomizes this view, asking: "Can we improve fuel economy without sacrificing safety?" Its answer: "Absolutely. Long time safety advocates such as the Center for Auto Safety and Ralph Nader support increasing CAFE to 45 mpg and point out that we can do so safely."But Nader took a very different view back when large cars weren't as politically incorrect as they are now. In a 1989 interview on what type of car he'd buy, Nader said, "Well, larger cars are safer-there is more bulk to protect the occupant. But they are less fuel-efficient." Asked which cars are least safe, Nader replied: "The tiny ones." Clarence Ditlow's Center for Auto Safety took the same position. In 1972 it published a detailed critique of the Beetle, entitled Small on Safety-The Designed-in Dangers of the Volkswagen. Page after page explained how "small size and light weight impose inherent limitations" on safety. For example, the Beetle's compactness meant that "there is little space between the occupant and the windshield" and that "the gas tank is necessarily closer to the occupant than in larger cars."Today, both Nader and Ditlow advocate higher CAFE standards.The federal government, too, has ignored CAFE's safety record. CAFE is run by the Transportation Department's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration: You'd think an agency whose middle name is safety would be especially vigilant about CAFE's risks, but NHTSA has found those risks too embarrassing to confront. For over a decade, its basic position has been that CAFE is harmless.The Competitive Enterprise Institute and Consumer Alert challenged that position in court. In 1992, a federal appeals panel ruled against the agency, harshly declaring that NHTSA had illegally "fudged" its analysis through a combination of "statistical legerdemain" and "bureaucratic mumbo jumbo." It concluded that "consumers who do not want to be priced out of the market for larger, safer cars, deserve better from their government."Three years later, after devising a new rationale for CAFE's innocence, NHTSA was upheld by another panel of judges. But that court still noted NHTSA's "failure to adequately respond" to the size-safety issue. Given the substantial judicial deference agencies generally receive, this comment indicated there was still something fishy about NHTSA's position.Even when the consumer-safety establishment discovers clear evidence that fuel economy is undermining safety, the politics of energy conservation trump the truth. Last April, Joan Claybrook's advocacy group, Public Citizen, released a new report on the Ford-Firestone tire fiasco, tracing the problem to Ford's attempt to boost the fuel economy of its Explorer SUV. According to the report, Ford first requested that the tire's recommended inflation pressure be lowered to reduce rollover risk. That, however, raised its rolling resistance and worsened the Explorer's miles-per-gallon capability. To compensate, Ford asked for a lighter tire. Disaster ensued.Public Citizen's report did not, however, prompt any rethinking of CAFE: One week later, Sen. Dianne Feinstein sponsored a bill to raise SUV fuel-economy standards across the board.Ironically, the popularity of SUVs is itself being used as an argument for higher CAFE standards. Higher standards, we are told, would lead to downsized SUVs, and fewer fatal mismatches in which subcompacts are demolished by invulnerable road monsters. But these grisly collisions are hardly typical of traffic accidents: The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety reports that fewer than 5 percent of small-car-occupant deaths occur in collisions with SUVs. In the Institute's view, "the high risks of occupants in light (and small) cars have more to do with the vulnerability of their own vehicles than with the aggressivity of other vehicles." If we're going to adjust the vehicle mix to improve safety, according to Institute senior vice president Adrian Lund, what we should be doing is "getting rid of the lightest cars on the road." CAFE, of course, is one of the main reasons these light cars exist in the first place.CAFE's proponents argue that new technologies can raise fuel economy without further reducing the size of cars. They may be right, but CAFE will continue to constrain car weight regardless: No matter what fuel-saving technologies we put into the car of the future, adding weight to that car will both lower its fuel efficiency and increase its safety. The trade-off between these two factors will always remain. Dr. Leonard Evans, a renowned safety researcher and president of the International Traffic Medicine Association, says the CAFE proponents' argument is like "a tobacco executive claiming that smoking isn't risky because exercise and good diet can make smokers healthier."Pro-CAFE-ers cite polls that supposedly demonstrate overwhelming public support for higher standards, but those polls don't mention the safety issue and the public itself knows little about it. The Competitive Enterprise Institute's polling, on the other hand, indicates that once the public learns of CAFE's actual death toll, only 19 percent still favor it.In 1990, on the eve of the Gulf War, a coalition of CAFE advocates-including Ben & Jerry's and Paul Newman-ran full-page newspaper ads claiming that a 3-mpg increase in the standards would make war unnecessary. "The price of gasoline," they intoned, "should never be a reason to send our sons and daughters off to die in a foreign war." That is correct, but at least in the Gulf War we knew that lives were being put at risk. CAFE advocates, on the other hand, have never admitted that their policy poses any risks whatsoever. The sad truth is that when it comes to blood-for-oil campaigns, CAFE ranks with the worst of them.

 

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