Testimony Before The House Subcommittee On Transportation in 2000

Testimony Before The House Subcommittee On Transportation in 2000

February 09, 2000

TESTIMONY OF SAM KAZMAN,ON BEHALF OF THE COMPETITIVE ENTERPRISE INSTITUTEAND CONSUMER ALERTBEFORE THE HOUSE COMMITTEE ON APPROPRIATIONS,SUBCOMMITTEE ON TRANSPORTATION AND RELATED AGENCIESAPPROPRIATIONS, REGARDING FUNDING FOR THE NATIONAL HIGHWAYTRAFFIC SAFETY ADMINISTRATION'S NEW-CAR FUEL ECONOMY PROGRAM

February 10, 2000

SUMMARY

There is clear evidence that CAFE reduces vehicle crashworthiness.  During the quarter century of this program's existence, however, NHTSA has utterly failed to address these safety effects.  Now, as CAFE becomes a major issue in the global warming debate, proponents of more stringent CAFE standards are similarly claiming that such standards would require no safety trade-off.  Until NHTSA fairly assesses the safety effects of its current CAFE standards, it should not receive funding to make those standards even deadlier.

 

INTRODUCTION

On behalf of CEI and Consumer Alert, I wish to thank the Subcommittee for this opportunity to testify.  CEI is a nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing private solutions to regulatory issues, in areas ranging from environmental protection to health and safety.  One of its main objectives is to analyze and publicize the often hidden costs of government regulation, an issue that is particularly relevant to CAFE.  Consumer Alert is a nonprofit membership organization devoted to protecting and expanding consumer choice in the marketplace.  Both CEI and Consumer Alert have been involved in the CAFE issue for over a decade, with activities ranging from policy analysis to public advocacy to litigation.

I. THERE IS OVERWHELMING EVIDENCE THAT CAFE’S DOWNSIZING EFFECT ON CARS HAS INCREASED TRAFFIC FATALITIES, AND THAT NHTSA HAS FAILED TO ADEQUATELY ASSESS THIS ISSUE

 

In our testimony to this Subcommittee last year (Attachment A hereto), we described the huge body of evidence regarding both CAFE’s adverse safety effects and NHTSA’s continued failure to adequately assess those effects.  This evidence falls into three major categories:

 

1)      An extensive body of  independent traffic safety research demonstrates the positive correlation between crashworthiness and vehicle size and weight in all crash modes;

 

2)      NHTSA’s own studies confirm the size/safety relationship.  At the same time, NHTSA has repeatedly emphasized CAFE’s downsizing effect to both Congress and the public. However, when it comes to acknowledging the safety consequences of this downsizing, NHTSA has engaged in the worst sort of bureaucratic obfuscation;

 

3)      Two separate federal appellate decisions expressed dissatisfaction with NHTSA’s treatment of the CAFE-safety issue.  In 1992, in the case of CEI and Consumer Alert v. NHTSA, 956 F.2d 321 (D.C. Cir. 1992), the court held that NHTSA had essentially dodged this issue through “fudged analysis”, “statistical legerdemain”, and “bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo”.  Id. at 324, 327.  After taking more than a year to reconsider its approach, NHTSA issued yet a new set of rationalizations for why CAFE supposedly had no lethal effects; in fact, according to the agency, CAFE supposedly had no downsizing effects at all.  CEI and Consumer Alert filed a second court challenge.  This time, a new appellate panel upheld NHTSA, noting the high degree of judicial deference to which the agency’s judgement was entitled.  But even under this deferential approach, the court found it necessary to point out “NHTSA’s failure to adequately respond” to existing studies on CAFE's lethal effects—an approach which the court found “troubling”.  CEI and Consumer Alert v. NHTSA, 45 F.3d 481, 486 (D.C. Cir. 1995).

 

In short, NHTSA’s failure to candidly address CAFE’s lethal safety effects contradicts both its own research and a huge body of independent analysis.  As our prior testimony documented, NHTSA has not changed its approach in more recent years.

 

The past year, however, has been notable for two reasons.  On the one hand, the evidence on CAFE's adverse effects continues to mount.  On the other hand, environmentalist organizations have made more stringent CAFE standards a key element in their global warming agenda.  Yet when it comes to acknowledging the lethal impact of such standards on auto safety, these organizations simply refuse to admit that there will be any effect whatsoever.

 

II WHEN IT COMES TO NEW CAR SAFETY, SIZE AND WEIGHT CONTINUE TO BE MAJOR FACTORS, AND CAFE CONTINUES TO EXERT ITS DOWNSIZING EFFECT

 

In the past year the evidence for both the size-safety relationship and for CAFE's lethal effects has continued to mount:

 

·        A noncommissioned report from an independent consulting firm found that NHTSA's crash testing program, with its one-to-five star ratings, is misleading consumers "into believing that compact cars offer similar crash protection as similarly-ranked light trucks, when the test data and experience prove otherwise."  P.L. Anderson, Light Trucks and Compact Cars:  Which Protect Their Occupants Better?, Executive Summary p. 2 (Attachment B hereto) (Anderson Economic Group, 1999) (full report available at www.aeg1.com).  After examining a group of cars, vans and SUVs, all of which received 4 stars in NHTSA's crash tests, Mr. Anderson concluded that vans and SUVs provided the best crash protection, while large cars proved more crashworthy than the median compact car.  While NHTSA warns consumers not to compare vehicle ratings across size classes, consumers are still misled into doing so, due in part to NHTSA's own contradictory statements.

 

·        A USA Today analysis concluded that CAFE-induced downsizing has, over the life of the program, resulted in 46,000 traffic fatalities.  "Death By The Gallon", USA Today, July 2, 1999, Section B.  Among its conclusions:  the high death rate for small cars has practically nothing to do with small car--SUV collisions, and there is no correlation between car size and pollution.

 

·        A new report from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety similarly found that the issue of vehicle incompatibility, such as between small cars and SUVs, has been greatly exaggerated:  "The high risks for occupants in light (and small) cars have more to do with the vulnerability of their own vehicles than with the aggressivity of other vehicles."  IIHS, Status Report, Oct. 30, 1999, p. 6 (available at www.iihs.org ).  According to one IIHS official, "getting rid of the lightest cars would have a big positive effect on highway safety … and putting occupants of heavier cars into lighter cars would actually lead to more deaths."  Id. at p. 5.  On both of these counts, CAFE is guilty of reducing safety.  As IIHS notes in its advice for car buyers, "vehicle size and weight are important characteristics that influence crashworthiness.  The laws of physics dictate that, all else being equal, larger and heavier vehicles are safer than smaller and lighter ones."  IIHS, Shopping For A Safer Car, p. 1 (Oct. 1999, available under "Publications" at www.iihs.org).

 

·        A new study by CEI concluded that in 1997 (the most recent year for which full traffic statistics were available), CAFE was responsible for between 2,600 and 4,500 traffic fatalities in passenger cars.  J. DeFalco, The Deadly Effects Of Fuel Economy Standards:  CAFE's Lethal Impact On Auto Safety, (June 1999, available at www.cei.org) (Attachment C hereto).  Under a 40 mpg standard, the death toll would have ranged from 3,800 to 5,700.

 

III. WHILE CAFE HAS BECOME A MAJOR ENVIRONMENTALIST ISSUE, ITS LETHAL SAFETY EFFECTS ARE BEING SKIRTED BY PROPONENTS OF MORE STRINGENT CAFE STANDARDS

 

CAFE has become a major environmentalist issue in the global warming debate.  The Sierra Club, for example, characterizes CAFE as “the biggest single step to curbing global warming and saving oil”.  Sierra Club Global Warming and Energy Program, CAFE (undated; distributed in 1999) (Attachment D hereto).  In its words, “the biggest single step the Clinton Administration can take to curb global warming and ensure a safe energy future for America is to adopt strong automotive fuel economy standards for cars and light trucks.”  Id.  The Sierra Club advocates that CAFE standards be raised to 45 mpg for cars and 34 mpg for light trucks.

 

What would be the safety effects of such an increase in CAFE standards?  According to the Sierra Club, none at all:  “Can we improve fuel economy without sacrificing safety? Absolutely.  Long time safety advocates such as the Center for Auto Safety and Ralph Nader support increasing the CAFE standard to 45 miles per gallon and point out that we can do so safely.”  Id. at 2.

 

But in fact, long before the size-safety issue became politicized, both Mr. Nader and the Center for Auto Safety made it clear that larger size means more safety.  In a 1989 interview regarding what type of car he would buy, Mr. Nader stated:  “Well, larger cars are safer‑-there is more bulk to protect the occupant.  But they are less fuel efficient ....”   As to the question of which cars are least safe, Mr. Nader replied: “The tiny ones such as the Corvette, Yugo, Hyundai."[1]

 

In short, Mr. Nader recognized the trade-off between auto safety and fuel economy; larger size meant more safety, but it also meant lower fuel economy.

 

The Center for Auto Safety (CAS) once took the same position as well.   In 1972 the Center published a book entitled Small on Safety‑-The Designed-In Dangers of the Volkswagen, with an introduction by Ralph Nader and with Clarence Ditlow as one of its authors.  Page after page in this book dealt with the reduced safety inherent in small vehicle size, as the following excerpts demonstrate:

 

·        according to one cited study, “the likelihood of serious or fatal injury goes up exponentially as the weight of the car decreases” (p. 1);

·        "Because of the Beetle's small size, there is little space between the occupant and the windshield ....” (p. 5);

·         "In shorter cars, the gas tank is necessarily closer to the occupant than in larger cars.”  (p. 5);

·        "Yet another hazardous result of the Beetle's small size is the lack of effective collapse distance, which is necessary to absorb some of the forces generated by a crash." (p. 5);

·        "Small size is supposed to have one compensating advantage: according to a prevailing myth, cars like the Beetle are less likely to become involved in accidents, because they are more maneuverable than large cars.  This myth is not supported by the facts." (p. 13, italics added);

·        "Small size and light weight impose inherent limitations on the degree of safety that can be built into a vehicle.  All known studies relating car size to crash injury conclude that occupants of smaller cars run a higher risk of serious or fatal injury than occupants of larger cars." (p. 87).

 

There is no question that small cars have become safer, and can become safer still.  But when the technologies that make this possible are used in large cars as well, those large cars will continue to be safer than similarly equipped small cars.  As long as CAFE restricts large-car production, it will continue to impose a safety trade-off no matter what new technologies are developed.

 

Ralph Nader and the Center for Auto Safety may well support higher CAFE standards, but as the above quotes illustrate, their prior statements contradict the notion that CAFE imposes no safety trade-off.  The CAFE-safety issue cannot be avoided by simply invoking their names.[2]

 

CONCLUSION

 

The CAFE funding freeze has been characterized by its opponents as a crude attempt to prevent NHTSA from even studying the possibility of more severe standards.  But as two court decisions demonstrate, NHTSA's record in assessing the existing CAFE standards is woefully inadequate.  Given the heated campaign to raise CAFE, a campaign that, like NHTSA, attempts to skirt the CAFE-safety question, Congress is fully justified in barring NHTSA from considering increases in CAFE.  Until NHTSA demonstrates that it can adequately handle the current program, it should not be allowed to even contemplate a more hazardous one.

 

DISCLOSURE OF FEDERAL GRANTS AND CONTRACTS

The undersigned hereby certifies that neither he nor CEI nor Consumer Alert has received any federal grant or contract, or subgrant or subcontract, during the current fiscal year or during either of the two preceding fiscal years.

                                                                        Respectfully submitted,

                                                                        Sam Kazman

                                                                        General Counsel

                                                                        Competitive Enterprise Institute

                                                                        February 7, 1999

1"Be Safer in the 90's:  New Warnings from Ralph Nader", Woman's Day, Oct. 24, 1989, p. 32.

[2] The Sierra Club CAFE brochure also cites the 1992 National Academy of Sciences report on CAFE for the proposition that new technology can improve both safety and fuel economy.  Id. at p. 2.  But in fact that report makes it clear that, when it comes to higher fuel economy, safety is a very probable trade-off:  “It may be inevitable that significant increases in fuel economy can occur only with some negative safety consequences.”  National Research Council, Automotive Fuel Economy—How Far Should We Go?, p. 62 (1992).  The report emphasizes the need for obtaining the “most complete information available” in order to assess this trade-off.  Id.  In contrast, the Sierra Club simply pretends that there is no trade-off.