Jewish World Review August 30, 2001 / 11 Elul, 5761

Drs. Michael A.Glueck & Robert J. Cihak

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Consumer Reports

Shut down this
government CAFE -- SOMETIMES the health department just has to shut down a eatery until its cleans up its act. There's another little "cafe" that could do with the same treatment --- but unfortuately, the government owns the joint and won t let the inspectors through the door.

This CAFE is the nickname for Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards, the federal government's new-car fuel economy standards. With Congress considering whether to expand it, it might be better termed "Congress Actively Forcing Efficiency."

So what s the problem? It's really pretty simple. CAFE kills and maims --- needlessly and cruelly. It does so by forcing cars to be made smaller and lighter -- downsized -- in order to save gasoline. Unfortunately, while smaller and lighter might mean more fuel-efficient, it also means more dangerous in crashes. Dead car occupants are not healthy people.

The CAFE standards go back to the command-and-control response of politicians to the Mideast oil crises of the 1970s. Faced with an upward blip in gasoline prices, Congress directed the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to set mile-per-gallon standards for new vehicles.

The current standard is 27.5 mpg for cars, and 20.7 mpg for light trucks, a category that includes van and sport utility vehicles. Automakers not having enough "credits" from previous years pay fines if they exceed these standards. While some foreign carmakers routinely pay these fines and incorporate them into their car prices, American car companies have made it a policy to comply with CAFE, because, as usual, the attorneys have them on the run. They are worried that violating CAFE would lead to shareholdersuits, bad press and poor image.

CAFE didn't really show its real teeth until the 1980s, when gas prices stabilized and then started to fall. Americans started, once again, to demand larger cars, but CAFE prevented the automakers from meeting that demand. It forced the automakers to keep putting small cars on the road and to restrict its sales of large cars.

This had some very serious effects on traffic safety. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, "The laws of physics dictate that, all else being equal, larger and heavier vehicles are safer than smaller and lighter ones. In relation to their numbers on the road, small cars have more than twice as many occupant deaths each year as large cars."

This CAFE doesn't come free. Developing and marketing small cars costs billions of dollars, according to USA Today; the U.S. buyer won't pay much for small cars. American manufactures end up subsidizing small car sales from big car sales. It's a sort of indirect tax, eventually paid by the consumer. Consumers and manufacturers ought to be free to spend these billions seeking the best combinations of safety, efficiency and other features that meet consumer needs.

Back in 1989, Robert Crandall of the Brookings Institution and John D. Graham of Harvard estimated the CAFE standards would be responsible for an additional 2200-3900 fatalities annually, as well as an additional 11,000--19,500 serious injuries. Julie DeFalco of the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) updated these estimates for 1997, concluding CAFE was responsible for between 2,600 and 4,500 traffic fatalities that year.

Last month a new report from the National Academy of Sciences estimated that CAFE contributes to between 1,300 and 2,600 traffic deaths a year, plus ten times as many serious injuries. A USA Today analysis concludes that CAFE's death toll exceeds 45,000 so far.

We'd like to prevent the continuing carnage. No matter whose numbers you look at, CAFE kills thousands of Americans every year.

Suppose a prescription drug were found to cause even a fraction as many deaths as CAFE does, without offering any positive trade-off for the patient. If doctors prescribed the drug, knowing about its lack of effectiveness and poisonous potential, both the doctors and the drug companies would be sued for malpractice faster than you can say "flat tire."

Call us naive, but for us, safety starts by steering clear of death itself. Despite the fact that s it s supposed to be a "safety" agency, the NHTSA, has never candidly addressed this human toll, instead fudging its figures. That s not our conclusion but the decision of a federal appeals court.

When CEI and Consumer Alert sued, the court called it bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo, and accused NHTSA as having a "let them eat cake" approach to traffic safety. A few years later NHTSA came up with new approach to whitewashing CAFE. This time it won in court, but the judges still noted that NHTSA's logic was "troubling".

The new National Academy study confirms CAFE's lethal effect. It claims to have found a way to expand the program while avoiding these effects in the future, but that recommendation is based on far less substantial evidence. It's also driven by controversial concerns over global warming. The real point is that CAFE, once again, has been found to be a very lethal program. Politicians are debating how to expand it, when they should be seeking to repeal it.

Sometimes not every problem needs a government regulatory solution -- especially when the solution is worse than the problem. As we've noted in past commentaries, "the dose makes the poison". CAFE is incredibly toxic at its current dose, and yet some in Congress are ready to increase that dose. This is a bad prescription for your health and, ultimately, for your life.

Michael Arnold Glueck, M.D., of Newport Beach, Calif., writes on medical, legal, disability and mental health reform. Robert J. Cihak, M.D., of Aberdeen, Wash., is president of the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons. Both JWR contributors are Harvard trained diagnostic radiologists who write numerous commentaries and articles for newspapers, newsletters, magazines and journals nationally and internationally. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2001, Michael A. Glueck & Robert J. Cihak