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Coffee Won’t Kill You, But CAFE Might

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While these downsized cars are more fuel-efficient, they are also less crashworthy.

The federal government’s auto fuel economy standards have for decades posed a simple problem: They kill people. Worse, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has covered this up. The Environmental Protection Agency, which since 2009 has helped manage the Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards, known as CAFE, also played a role in burying their deleterious effects. But change finally is coming.

On Monday EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt announced he is re-examining the stringent standards set by the Obama administration in 2012. This might finally bring some honesty to the issue of CAFE’s lethal effects and push the safety issue to the forefront of the debate over government efficiency mandates. Or it might not.

To call it a coverup isn’t hyperbole. CAFE kills people by causing cars to be made smaller and lighter. While these downsized cars are more fuel-efficient, they are also less crashworthy. In 1992 in Competitive Enterprise Institute v. NHTSA, a lawsuit my organization brought with Consumer Alert, a federal appeals court ruled that the agency had “obscured the safety problem” through a combination of “fudged analysis,” “statistical legerdemain” and “bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo.” In the court’s view, nothing in the record “appears to undermine the inference that the 27.5 mpg standard kills people.”

How many people? A 1989 Harvard-Brookings study estimated the death toll at between 2,200 and 3,900 a year. Similarly, a 2002 National Academy of Sciences study estimated that CAFE had contributed to up to 2,600 fatalities in 1993. This was at a relatively lenient CAFE level of 27.5 miles per gallon. Under what the Obama administration had in store, CAFE would soon approach levels twice as stringent.

These inconvenient truths should have led the government to change its approach to CAFE. At least the standards didn’t get worse for about a decade throughout the 1990s, despite environmentalist demands for a stricter—and therefore more lethal—approach. But then CAFE was swept up in climate-change politics.

Advocates of stringent standards claim that automotive technologies have advanced since that 1992 court ruling, making vehicle mass less significant. But the basic relationship between size and safety has not changed. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which closely monitors crashworthiness, still provides the same advice it has been giving for years: “Bigger, heavier vehicles are safer.”

CAFE advocates like Consumer Reports treat lighter cars as merely a question of comfort, not crashworthiness. Car makers and dealers may express concerns about safety in the abstract, but considerations of politics and marketing make them hesitant to discuss hard numbers.

In his announcement, Mr. Pruitt proved admirably blunt in characterizing the Obama CAFE standards as based on “politically charged expediency” and assumptions “that didn’t comport with reality.” Let’s hope he’ll be similarly candid about CAFE’s risks. A lethal program that’s been in effect for decades deserves one thing above all—an accounting.

Originally published at The Wall Street Journal