CAFE’S “Smashing” Success

If at first you cannot succeed in pushing a bad idea, try, try again – just use different rhetoric. Twenty years ago, when corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards for new vehicles were originally mandated by Congress, the intellectual basis for CAFE was that federal standards would decrease the U.S.’s dependence upon imported oil. Yet they turned out to be an incredibly expensive and ineffective way to achieve this questionable goal.

Then, as oil imports grew to be higher than ever, CAFE supporters claimed that it protects the environment – a claim that they are still making.

The issue has become even more high-profile now that President Clinton plans to sign an international agreements on climate change in Kyoto, Japan, this December. The resulting commitment to carbon dioxide emission reductions could result in even higher CAFE standards. The Sierra Club has called for raising CAFE to 40 miles per gallon (mpg). Sierra claims higher standards would be “the biggest single step to curbing global warming.” Yet, while CAFE supporters like the Sierra Club claim an increase would “preserve a safe climate for our kids to grow up in,” CAFE already kills thousands of people each year.

CAFE standards require automakers to ensure that the average fuel economy of each year’s fleet of passenger cars meet a federal prescribed average, currently 27.5 miles per gallon for passenger cars. The most dramatic effect of this law has been a downsizing of cars over the past twenty years. As the average fuel economy of a new car has doubled, the average weight of a new car has dropped by approximately 1,000 lbs. About half of this dowsizing is due to CAFE’s strict regulations.

Decades of auto research and Naderite nannyism has demonstrated the superior safety of larger cars over smaller ones in every crash mode. A 1989 Harvard-Brookings study estimated that CAFE at its current level of 27.5mpg causes a 14 to 27 percent increase in traffic deaths due to passenger car downsizing.

Nevertheless, federal government officials and various environmental advocates have denied any safety effect from this mandate. Indeed, they have taken pains to hide it. As a federal appeals court ruled in 1992, the National Highway Transportation and Safety Administration, the agency that manages CAFE, used a combination of “fudged analysis,” “statistical sleight of hand,” and “bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo” to avoid illegally confronting CAFE’s lethal effects. Nonetheless, environmental organizations, such as the Sierra Club, have called for CAFE standards to go even higher.

CEI’s just-released study, CAFE’s ‘Smashing Success:’ The Deadly Effects of Auto Fuel Economy Standards, Current and Proposed, is based upon the findings of the Harvard-Brookings study and subsequent research, which concluded that if CAFE standards were raised to 40 mpg, traffic deaths would increase by an additional 5.5 percent.

Based on this finding, CEI estimates that of the 22,000 passenger car deaths in 1996, 2,700 to 4,700 were due to CAFE. If a 40 mpg standard were imposed, CAFE would cause 3,800 to 5,800 deaths. (Survey results are broken down by states on page 6. Complete results are available from CEI.)

CAFE certainly did not lead to decreased oil imports. CAFE has not led to a cleaner environment either – levels of measured emissions are not dependent upon fuel economy. Most importantly, it is the height of cynicism to suggest that children will be helped by the CAFE mandate when it already kills thousands each year.

If the Sierra Club really wants to make our world a safer place, a good place to start would be to get rid of CAFE.

Read the full text of the study on which this article was based here.