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For a program that's more than 30 years old, the federal government's fuel economy standards for cars have become one hot topic. Global warming is now a 24/7 issue, and whenever politicians warn of global warming you can bet that tougher fuel standards are near the top of their to-do list.
This is too bad, because when all is said and done, this program, known as CAFE (for corporate average fuel economy) has accomplished very little of benefit. CAFE, it is claimed, was responsible for doubling the miles per gallon of new vehicles during the 1980s, but it has allegedly stagnated in recent years. Fuel-hungry SUVs have boomed in popularity, and consumers have reverted to their supposedly bad habit of ignoring fuel economy in favor of larger size and more horsepower. The reins on automakers, we're told, need to be tightened.
This might sound inspiring, until you realize that these reins really go around our own necks. Consumers have demonstrated, time and again, that when necessary they themselves do a far better job of saving fuel than government does. The increase in gas prices in the 1970s drove consumers to demand vehicles with greater fuel economy, and the auto industry responded far more quickly than anything required under CAFE.
More recently, the post-Hurricane Katrina gas price spikes led to a massive change in new car-buying patterns. Consumers switched from large SUVs to smaller crossover models, and hybrids became a hot item. Those changes took place within a matter of months. In contrast, it takes years before new CAFE standards have an impact on car design.
But don't think that CAFE has no real-world effects. It does. The problem is that they're bad effects.
CAFE raises new vehicle prices and restricts consumer choice, especially during periods of stable or falling gas prices. In times like those, consumers who prefer large cars are making perfectly rational decisions about the trade-offs involved in buying a new car.
And CAFE does something even worse. It kills people, by discouraging the production of larger, heavier vehicles. Lighter vehicles are more fuel efficient than similarly designed heavier ones, but they're also less crashworthy. As data from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety show, larger and heavier cars generally have better crash records than smaller, lighter ones in every vehicle category. According to the National Academy of Sciences' 2002 report on CAFE, the program's downsizing effect contributes to about 2,000 fatalities per year.
That study also concluded that the increase in the popularity of heavier cars in the late 1990s actually saved lives. But you won't hear this from any of the multitude of politicians who clamor for CAFE to be made more stringent. Instead, they claim that new technologies allow us to avoid any trade-off between fuel economy and safety.
This claim is nonsense. If you take the most high-tech car imaginable and make it larger and heavier, two things will happen: its crashworthiness will get better, and its fuel economy will drop. In short, the safety trade-off is unavoidable. CAFE's proponents, however, can't bring themselves to acknowledge this fact. Talk about an inconvenient truth!
So the next time you hear politicians advocate more "progressive" fuel standards, just remember what they're really proposing - putting a big dent in your wallet and your family at risk.