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We'll be killing fewer people in the future.
This is the unstated message of the Department of Transportation's current proposal, open for public comment until Nov. 22, to reform its automotive fuel-economy program, known as CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy). There is a documented trade-off between fuel economy and vehicle crashworthiness—larger, heavier cars get fewer miles per gallon, but also have lower death rates. DOT hopes to reduce that trade-off by making the standard more flexible (creating a larger set of vehicle categories) while raising overall mpg requirements.
CAFE will still be lethal, of course, but it might not become much more lethal than it already is. If you think that's a grisly stance for a federal agency, there are two things to keep in mind. First, this is the best that any administration has ever done to address CAFE's safety risks. Second, the alternative proposals that have popped up in the last few weeks are even deadlier.
DOT has long admitted that vehicle downsizing is a major means for raising fuel economy, and that larger, heavier cars are generally safer in crashes. Only rarely has it connected these factors and admitted that CAFE reduces safety, and in the program's 30-year history DOT has never attempted to quantify CAFE's death toll or lowered a standard to reduce that toll.
The "Reformed CAFE" plan is DOT's first attempt to openly alleviate CAFE's safety impact. That's more than can be said of other proposals that have come forth in the wake of gas-price spikes. Talk of higher fuel-economy standards continues to pop up, most recently in the budget reconciliation debate as a bargaining chip to secure greater offshore and Alaska drilling rights. One bill in Congress would mandate 30% higher fuel economy in the next decade; another even more. States such as California and New York are adopting carbon-dioxide emission reductions in the name of global warming that are equivalent to CAFE-style fuel-economy mandates.
While some of the arguments being used to support these proposals are new, they're all in line with the decades-long refusal of advocates to admit that it kills anyone. One typical argument is that CAFE must be safe because it's endorsed by Ralph Nader. Mr. Nader's position, however, has not been consistent. In the '70s he attacked the Volkswagen Beetle as being inherently unsafe due to its small size. As late as 1989, he pointed out the fuel-economy/safety trade-off, stating that "larger cars are safer—there is more bulk to protect the occupant. But they are less fuel efficient…"
Now he claims that there is no trade-off. In a letter published in this newspaper 1 (Sept. 21), he makes several points: The traffic death rate has dropped by over half since CAFE's enactment in 1975; CAFE has spurred technology rather than downsizing; the downsizing that has occurred has been among heavier vehicles that pose dangers to outsiders; and market forces alone are inadequate because the auto industry is a non-competitive oligopoly.
The traffic death rate has been improving—for the last 75 years. As far as CAFE is concerned, the real issue, as the National Academy of Sciences noted in a 2002 report, is "whether motor vehicle travel … is less safe than it would have been otherwise." The Academy concluded that it was, by about 2,000 deaths per year.
The major increase in fuel economy occurred in 1975-80. It was due less to CAFE than to the very market forces Mr. Nader dismisses. In the face of steeply rising gas prices, the public demanded higher fuel economy and industry responded. These same forces today are leading car buyers away from large SUVs to more efficient crossovers and hybrids—innovations created not by CAFE but by companies battling to win customers from each other. Some oligopoly.
A more recent argument in favor of CAFE is that new technologies can bypass the CAFE/safety trade-off. New technologies can certainly make small cars safer, but they do not eliminate that trade-off: If you take a car with advanced air bags and add 100 well-placed pounds onto it, that car will become less fuel-efficient but more crashworthy.
As Dr. Leonard Evans, former president of the International Traffic Medicine Association, puts it, the new-technology argument is like claiming that smoking is risk-free because good diet and exercise can make you healthier. Sure they can, but giving up smoking will make you healthier still, no matter how physically fit you are. All things being equal, smoking is risky and small cars are less safe.
Another widespread claim is that large cars may protect their occupants more, but that this is outweighed by the damage they inflict on outsiders. This is a complex issue, and it may be true at certain extremes. But half of all occupant deaths occur in single-vehicle collisions, where large mass offers more protection without putting anyone at risk.
Eventually, studies may demonstrate that increased size and reduced mass can offset each other to produce cars that are both safer and more fuel-efficient. Costs and reliability of such designs, however, are still unknown, and it is much too early to make this approach a basis for ramping up CAFE. In any event, an analysis issued last March by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found (as it has for over a decade), that within every vehicle group—cars, SUVs, etc.—"the heavier vehicles, like bigger ones, generally had lower death rates."
And for all the talk of new designs and technologies, consider this: Less than a week before DOT unveiled its new CAFE plan, it also proposed a new standard for stronger vehicle roofs. By the agency's own estimates, that standard would lead to cars being—you guessed it—both heavier and less fuel-efficient.
CAFE's proponents today claim that its lethal effects are a thing of the past, even though in the past they steadfastly disputed those effects. It seems that two things about CAFE haven't changed—the fact that it kills, and the fact that its advocates won't admit it.