When Auto Safety Is Against the Law

In 1997, between 20 and 40 Connecticut residents were killed by a defective product. The dangers ofI this product have been documented for more than a decade, and itspotentially lethal nature has even been noted by a federal appeals court. Yet not only is this product still around, it’s actually a mandatory component of every new car sold in this country.

The product is the federal government’s pew car fuel economy standards, known as CAFE (for corporate average fuel economy). CAFE imposes a minimum fuel economy requirement on every automaker’s yearly output of new cars in the United States. The current passenger car standard is 27.5 miles per gallon.

The connection between fuel economy mandates and car safety is relatively straightforward. Downsizing a car is one of the most effective means of increasing its fuel economy. Since CAFE’S enactment in 1975, auto fuel economy has more than doubled, while* the average weight of a new car has dropped by about a thousand pounds. Some of this was caused by the mid-’70s Arab oil embargo; consumers, facing the prospect of steadily rising gasoline prices, demanded more fuel-efficient cars. As a result, fuel economy rose even faster than required by CAFE.

But when gasoline prices stabilized and then began to fall in the early to mid-1980s, consumers once again sought out larger cars. It was at this point that CAFE began to restrict vehicle production, causing automakers to raise the prices aid restrict the availability of large cars. More fundamentally, the industry undertook design changes aimed at an overall downsizing of its new cars.

The resulting fleet was more fuel-efficient than it would have been absent CAFE, but it was also less safe. The laws of physics dictate that small cars are less crashworthy than similarly equipped large cars in practically every type of accident. Small cars have less mass to absorb collision forces and less space in which to protect their occupants. Small cars can be made safer, through such features as collapsible steering wheels and air bags, but they will still not be as safe as large cars having these features.

A 1989 study by Robert Crandall of the Brookings Institution and Harvard Public Health Professor John Graham analyzed CAFE’s safety effects. They concluded that CAFE was responsible for a 500-pound downsizing of the average car. The result was a 14 percent to 27 percent increase in occupant traffic deaths. A new study by the Competitive Enterprise Institute shows that, for 1997, this translated to 2,600 to 4,500 additional deaths nationwide. In Connecticut alone, which suffered about 175 car occupant deaths in 1997, CAFE was responsible for about 20 to 40 of those deaths.

As lethal as CAFE is, it may get worse. The Sierra Club claims that raising CAFE is “the biggest single step we can take to curb global warming.”

Read the full op-ed in PDF.