Uncle Sam’s Killer Cars

WHOM can you trust more — an old-time tobacco salesman, or a modern proponent of higher federal fuel-economy standards?

If you ask Dr. Leonard Evans, president of the International Traffic Medicine Association and one of the world’s foremost traffic safety researchers, he’ll take the tobacco salesman hands down. In Evans’ view, higher fuel economy standards have huge safety risks that are simply being ignored by their advocates.

The issue is a major part of the upcoming Senate energy debate. The Democrats’ bill would greatly increase what are known as the CAFE standards (for Corporate Average Fuel Economy). CAFE sets minimum mile-per-gallon criteria that must be met, on average, by each automaker’s yearly output of new vehicles. The standard is currently 27.5 mpg for passenger cars and 20.7 mpg for light trucks, which include pickups, SUVs, and minivans. Advocates of higher standards argue that they would cut gasoline consumption, boost energy independence and reduce the threat of global warming. Opponents contend that they would force higher-priced, less useful vehicles on consumers while having only a minimal impact on energy use and the environment.

But for Dr. Evans, the real problem with CAFE is that it kills people, literally. CAFE restricts the production of larger, heavier cars. Such cars are less fuel efficient, but they are also more crashworthy than similarly-equipped

small cars in practically every type of collision. They have more mass to absorb collision forces and more inside space between their passengers and the vehicle interior. In short, there’s a trade-off between fuel economy and safety.

The size of that trade-off, moreover, is pretty substantial. According to. a National Academy of Sciences’ study issued last August, the downsizing effect of the current 27.5 mpg standard contributes to between 1,300 and 2,600 traffic deaths per year. In 2000, New York State experienced over 700 passenger car occupant deaths; by our estimates, 90 to 150 of those deaths were due to CAFE.

It would be one thing if CAFE’s advocates acknowledged this trade-off. They might, for example, argue that this human toll was justified by CAFE’s objectives. But in fact advocates of higher standards refuse to admit that CAFE kills anyone at all. Their major argument is that technological innovation can give us both higher fuel economy and greater safety.

It’s true that new automotive technologies can improve many aspects of vehicle performance. Nonetheless, they can’t transcend basic laws of physics. Take the most hi-tech car imaginable, and then make that car larger and heavier. Two things will happen: that car will now be less fuel-efficient, but it will also be safer. The trade-off between fuel economy and safety exists regardless of how advanced the technology becomes.

There is where Dr. Evans’ tobacco analogy comes in. Evans compares the CAFE technology argument to a tobacco salesman claiming that, with new dietary knowledge and better exercise, smokers can be just as healthy as nonsmokers. It’s true that eating right and keeping fit can make a smoker healthier, but that doesn’t change the fact that smoking itself will still carry a health risk.

CAFE advocates claim that the American public overwhelmingly supports higher standards. However, the polls  they cite make no mention of the safety issue, and the public itself knows relatively little about this aspect of the debate. Our own polls show that, once the public learns of CAFE’s safety trade-off, support for higher standards plummets. When informed of the National Academy’s findings, for example, a plurality of 48 percent opposed raising CAFE, while only 43 percent supported it.

If CAFE were a privately-produced product, found by the National Academy to cause only a handful of deaths annually rather than thousands, it would have been banned long ago. But CAFE is a product of politics, and for politicians, unfortunately, the Hippocratic oath of “first, do no harm” sometimes doesn’t apply.