Deadly CAFE: A Dishonest Debate Hits The Senate

Deadly CAFE: A Dishonest Debate Hits The Senate

Kazman Op-Ed in National Review Online
March 03, 2002

For weeks, as the debate over federal fuel-economy standards has moved closer to the Senate floor, environmentalists have claimed overwhelming public support for higher standards. They tout polls showing that 60, 80, perhaps even 200 percent of Americans favor laws to boost the mile-per-gallon capabilities of new vehicles. But a poll released by the Competitive Enterprise Institute on February 25 shows that a strong plurality (48 percent) actually opposes such an increase. Why the difference? Our poll claimed that this program, known as CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy), kills people. The other polls didn't. We received many irate e-mails complaining that we had used a distorted, highly biased piece of disinformation aimed at producing precisely the result we wanted. Those complaints would be justified if CAFE's lethal effects were a poorly supported hypothesis. But the evidence on this issue comes from no less a body than the National Academy of Sciences, which issued a report last August finding that CAFE contributes to between 1,300 and 2,600 traffic deaths per year. Given that this program has been in effect for more than two decades, its cumulative toll is staggering. CAFE has this impact on safety because it restricts the production of large cars. Large cars are less fuel efficient than smaller, similarly equipped vehicles, but they are also more crashworthy in practically every type of accident. The first major analysis of this issue came in a 1989 report from researchers at Harvard and the Brookings Institution; since then, a number of other analyses, by government and private researchers, have confirmed the conclusion that CAFE kills. There are dissenters on this point, but they are exactly that. Yet not a single proponent of CAFE admits that it kills anyone. It's not as if they dispute the numbers of deaths, or argue that CAFE's lethal toll is a necessary price to pay for some other objective. Instead, they simply claim that CAFE creates a win-win situation for everyone — consumers, the auto industry, the environment, and, in the wake of 9/11, even national security. Proponents of higher CAFE standards offer three basic arguments for their claim that CAFE is risk-free. The first argument is that new technologies can give us higher fuel economy and more safety, and so therefore there is no trade-off. But try this thought experiment: Imagine a high-tech car with incredibly advanced engines and equally great safety systems. Now add a few additional cubic feet and a few additional pounds to the car, so that it's a little bit bigger and a little heavier. Two things will happen. This high-tech car has become a bit safer, but also a bit less fuel-efficient. That is, you still have a tradeoff between fuel economy and safety. In short, high technology doesn't get you out of the CAFE/safety bind. In the words of Dr. Leonard Evans, president of the International Traffic Medicine Association, this argument is like a tobacco-industry executive saying that smoking doesn't endanger your health, because with everything we now know about diets and exercising, you can smoke and still be as healthy as a non-smoker. It is true that, with current knowledge about keeping fit, smokers can be healthier. But this knowledge can make a nonsmoker even healthier yet. If you smoke, you're going to be taking a risk no matter what. The second argument is based on the steadily declining fatality rate in cars. Since the 1970's, when CAFE was enacted, that death rate has improved even though cars have been downsized. How, then, can CAFE's downsizing effect be making cars less safe when the death rate has been steadily improving? But in fact the vehicle death rate has been improving not just since CAFE was enacted, but for most of the past century. That steady improvement has nothing to do downsizing; in fact, in the absence of downsizing it would have improved even more. By analogy, consider the fact that in 1970 we had zero cases of AIDS, but now we have tens of thousands. Yet longevity in the U.S. today is about ten months greater than it was in 1970. Does that allow us to say that AIDS is not a health threat? The last argument they use is that CAFE cannot be deadly because it's endorsed by such auto safety activists as Ralph Nader, Joan Claybrook, and Clarence Ditlow. In fact, they do endorse higher CAFE standards. But years ago, these very same people stated very forthrightly that larger cars are safer cars. In 1972, for example, Nader and Ditlow published a book called Small on Safety, a critique of the Volkswagen Beetle. Page after page has such statements as: "Small size and light weight impose inherent limitations on the degree of safety that can be built into a vehicle." In January, Joan Claybrook appeared before the Senate Commerce Committee with a diatribe on how the CAFE-safety tradeoff was a myth propagated by industry. But in 1977 she appeared before that same committee and stated, "There are going to be tradeoffs." What happened? Back then, large cars were not politically incorrect. Today they are. For these people, the line all along has been: You want more safety? You need more government. But with CAFE it's exactly the opposite — more regulation means less safety. Their response has been to choose the former over the latter. There is not a single advocate of CAFE who admits that it kills anyone. For this reason, the CAFE debate is fundamentally dishonest. CAFE is often portrayed as a way to keep us out of "blood-for-oil" wars, but at least those wars have clear life-and-death risks. CAFE, on the other hand, is itself a blood-for-oil war, waged on American civilians by proponents who refuse to admit it carries any risks at all. Public knowledge of those risks can change the CAFE debate. In our poll we found that, given a general description of CAFE (with no mention of safety), the program is supported by 61 percent of the public, and opposed by only 22 percent. Once the National Academy's findings were described, however, support dropped to 42 percent, while opposition rose to 39 percent. More importantly, on the issue that's currently in play — whether to make CAFE even more stringent — 48 percent opposed such changes, while only 43 percent supported them. Deregulation is often caricatured as a money-saving maneuver that puts innocent lives at risk. With CAFE, it's exactly the opposite. It's rare for the lethal effects of more regulation to be so well documented and to involve such life-and-death stakes. If the Senate agrees to more stringent fuel-economy standards, we'll have to wonder what, if any, deregulatory battles can still be won.