Increasing Fuel Efficiency Would Raise Road Deaths

Increasing Fuel Efficiency Would Raise Road Deaths

Kazman Op-Ed in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
March 26, 2002

Was the Senate wrong when it decided not to stringently boost fuel-economy standards two weeks ago? Yes, but only if you view human life as being worth less than oil.

That, in large part, was what the Senate fuel-economy debate was all about. It had little to do with environmental shortsightedness, or with caving in to the auto industry or kowtowing to the auto unions. The basic issue was human life -- specifically, the fact that fuel-economy standards kill people by reducing vehicle crashworthiness.

The evidence on this point is substantial. Larger cars are less fuel efficient than smaller, similarly equipped vehicles, but they are also more crashworthy in practically every type of collision. For this reason, there is a well-documented trade-off between fuel efficiency and safety. A 1989 Harvard-Brookings study found that the downsizing effects of CAFE (as the fuel economy program is popularly known) increased occupant deaths by 14 to 27 percent. Last summer, a National Academy of Sciences report estimated CAFE's toll at 1,300 to 2,600 deaths annually. In the words of Dr. Leonard Evans, president of the International Traffic Medicine Association, "CAFE kills, and more stringent CAFE standards will kill even more."

This fact, however, has been consistently pushed aside by proponents of higher CAFE standards. They point to the National Academy's study as supposedly demonstrating that technological advances can give us both higher fuel economy and increased safety. But the report made clear that higher fuel economy without further reductions in safety was only a possibility, not a foregone conclusion. And it did not suggest that the lethal effects of the current standard would be magically cured.

New automotive technologies tend to be risky; the Ford-Firestone fiasco, according to some accounts, was caused in part by Ford's quest for a more fuel-efficient tire. More importantly, even with new technologies there will still be a trade-off between fuel economy and safety, because more mass means both lower miles per gallon and higher safety. According to Evans, claiming that new technology eliminates the safety risk is like arguing that an improved diet can eliminate the risks of smoking. Better diets might make smokers healthier, but lighting up will still carry a risk.

CAFE advocates claimed overwhelming public support. The opinion polls they touted, however, said nothing about CAFE's safety risks. We found, in contrast, that when the public was informed of the National Academy's safety findings, a plurality actually opposed boosting CAFE.

The CAFE provision that the Senate ended up adopting sends the issue back to the Department of Transportation. While it encourages the agency to move toward higher standards, it also explicitly requires it to consider safety. If the agency carries out that task honestly, the public will at least know the human price of higher CAFE standards. From the standpoint of safety, that may not be as good as a world without CAFE standards, but at least we're less likely to be sold a sugar-coated bill of dangerous goods.