The Deadly Price of the Auto Mileage Mandate

The Obama administration just announced an increase in fuel efficiency standards for cars and light trucks, ostensibly to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and combat global warming. The politicos are spinning it as the "Clean Car" rule, but a more apt moniker is "Death Car," because this regulation kills — literally.

You don't have to take our word for it. In its original proposal, issued in August, the Obama administration's own National Highway Transportation Safety Administration estimated that the standards could cause 493 additional traffic fatalities annually.

Fuel efficiency standards kill because one of the easiest ways for automakers to meet them is to make smaller cars. That's problematic, because smaller cars are less safe. Research has shown that the smallest cars have occupant death rates that are more than twice those of large cars.

Congress first enacted vehicle fuel efficiency mandates — a.k.a. Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency (CAFE) standards — in 1975, and there is a long paper trail showing the causal relationship between increased fuel efficiency standards and increased traffic fatalities. Examples:

•A 2002 National Academy of Sciences study concluded that CAFE's downsizing effect contributed to between 1,300 and 2,600 deaths in a single representative year, and to 10 times that many serious injuries.
•A 1989 Brookings-Harvard study estimated that CAFE caused a 14 to 27 percent increase in occupant fatalities — an annual toll of 2,200 to 3,900 deaths.
•A 1999 USA Today analysis found that, over its lifetime, CAFE had resulted in 46,000 additional fatalities.

Under the "Clean Car" rule, the automakers' passenger car fleets will have to average about 35 miles per gallon by 2016. That's a big deal. Only a handful of cars on the road today meet that standard, so the Big Three are going small, fast.

In times past, Ford only sold the Fiesta primarily abroad; now, this tiny car is the centerpiece of Ford's ad campaign on "American Idol." General Motors is pinning its future on the Volt, an electric sedan. At this week's International Auto Show in New York, Euro-style mini cars are prevalent.

The bottom line is, these small cars might improve fuel economy, but they worsen car safety. Consumers weigh these trade-offs when making purchasing decisions, and many consumers consider crash-worthiness when buying a car. The question is, should government be, in effect, making such decisions about personal safety for every family in America?

Obama administration officials claim that the "Clean Car" rule will help America fight global warming and achieve energy independence. Even if it could, what good is a cooler climate and energy dependence to a dead motorist?

If President Obama wants to cure the climate and spurn the Saudis, he should find a solution that doesn't kill his constituents.