Death By Caution: Fuel Economy Standards Cost Lives

The Precautionary Principle has become the rhetorical war-horse of the global warming movement. With the Earth's survival at issue, environmentalists claim, it's surely better to be safe than sorry. We should act now to avert climate disaster, they argue, even if there's still no solid evidence of a problem.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />


But the Precautionary Principle can itself be deadly, and nothing illustrates this better than the ongoing debate over the federal government's new car fuel economy standards – a debate that may come to a head in the Senate as early as this week.


The Sierra Club argues that more stringent fuel economy standards are “the biggest single step the Clinton administration can take to curb global warming.” The current standards, known as corporate average fuel economy or CAFE rules, are 27.5 mpg for cars and 20.7 mpg for light trucks and SUVs. The Sierra Club wants them raised to 45 mpg and 34 mpg respectively, and the administration also favors an increase. But in recent years Congress has repeatedly frozen funds for any re-examination of CAFE. This CAFE freeze escaped a floor fight in the House when that chamber passed the Transportation appropriations bill on May 19, but opposition in the Senate may well be more intense.


There is conflicting evidence over whether CAFE actually reduces gas consumption, but there is overwhelming evidence that CAFE kills people. CAFE exerts its lethal effect by forcing cars to be downsized in order meet its fuel economy requirements. Lighter, smaller cars tend to be more fuel efficient than larger cars, but they are also less crashworthy. Decades of traffic safety research demonstrate that, in practically every collision mode, occupants of smaller vehicles are at greater risk than those of larger ones. This is not just the result of smashups between large and small cars; even in single-car collisions, the occupants of a subcompact face a risk of death four times as great as those in a large car.


CAFE's lethal effect has been recognized by authorities ranging from researchers at Harvard and Brookings, to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, to a federal appeals court. A 1999 USA Today study calculated that, since its inception a quarter-century ago, CAFE has resulted in nearly 50,000 traffic fatalities. By our estimates, last year alone CAFE was responsible for between 2,600 and 4,500 additional deaths. If CAFE were to rise, so would its death toll.


How, then, does the Sierra Club square the Precautionary Principle with its call for more stringent CAFE standards? Does it argue that long-term benefits of such standards outweigh their human toll? Does it offer some lower estimate of CAFE's lethal effects?


No, what the Sierra Club does is simply duck the issue through the auto safety equivalent of celebrity endorsement. In the words of one Sierra Club brochure: “Can we improve fuel economy without sacrificing safety? Absolutely. Longtime 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.”


But in reality, before large cars became so politically incorrect, both Mr. Nader and the Center for Auto Safety made it abundantly clear that larger size means more safety. In a 1989 Women's Day interview, Mr. Nader expressly recognized the trade-off between safety and fuel economy, stating that “larger cars are safer – there is more bulk to protect the occupant. But they are less fuel efficient.”


Clarence Ditlow's Center for Auto Safety (CAS) once took the same position as well. In 1972 the Center published an extensive critique of the VW Beetle titled “Small on Safety.” Page after page in this book describes the inherent safety risks of small vehicle size – that “the likelihood of serious or fatal injury goes up exponentially as the weight of the car decreases,” that “because of the Beetle's small size, there is little space between the occupant and the windshield,” that small size leads to a “lack of effective collapse distance, which is necessary to absorb some of the forces generated by a crash,” that the “one compensating advantage” of small cars, their supposedly greater maneuverability, is in fact a “myth.”


Neither Mr. Nader nor Mr. Ditlow has ever explained just what led them to change his mind. The Sierra Club's attempt to dodge the CAFE-safety issue by simply invoking their names is pure sophistry.


Sophistry, unfortunately, is not new to the CAFE debate. It was introduced over a decade ago by the very agency that runs CAFE – the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Despite the fact that its middle name is safety, NHTSA has never been very forthcoming about the safety effects of CAFE. In 1992 a federal appeals court ruled that NHTSA had illegally concealed CAFE's safety impact through a combination of “fudged analysis,” “statistical legerdemain” and “bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo.”


The Sierra Club argues that Congress shouldn't use an appropriations freeze to stop NHTSA from even studying the issue. But why should NHTSA be trusted with any more funds whatsoever when it comes to CAFE? Given the administration's stance on higher CAFE standards, and NHTSA's own sorry record in running the program, the outcome would be preordained: higher CAFE standards and more traffic deaths. So much for the Precautionary Principle.


Sam Kazman is general counsel of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a nonprofit free-market advocacy organization.