Jewish World Review August 14, 2001 / 25 Menachem-Av, 5761
http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- A QUARTER CENTURY AGO President Jimmy Carter and a Democratic Congress created an "energy crisis."
President George W. Bush and a Republican Congress risk wandering down the same foolish path. Worst may be the campaign to lift corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards in order to make automobiles more fuel efficient.
Paradoxically, CAFE increases the amount of driving as well as the number of people killed in car accidents. Congress enacted CAFE in 1975, mandating that the average gas mileage for automaker fleets rise from 18 to 27.5 mpg. The industry complied by building cars that consumers didn't want and selling them below cost in order to continue producing larger autos. Smaller, luxury carmakers, such as Mercedes-Benz and Porsche, simply paid about a half-billion dollars in fines to Uncle Sam.
For years, automakers successfully lobbied to prevent any CAFE increase and keep the level for SUVs substantially lower. Now, however, the House has voted to raise the standards - though not as much as desired by some Democrats - and the issue moves to the Senate.
The most immediate beneficiaries of any CAFE increase would be Japanese and European manufacturers, which offer smaller, more fuel-efficient product lines. Indeed, the Japanese automakers possess future credits for being under federal targets in the past. In theory, the rule is supposed to reduce gasoline use. But to the extent that increasing mileage makes new cars less desirable - reducing their size and engine power - it encourages people to hold onto their older cars longer and to shift to SUVs. Which are less fuel-efficient. Moreover, when CAFE "works," it reduces the cost of driving. Environmentalists believe that price matters, which is why many of them support hefty energy taxes. Yet when gasoline costs $1.50 a gallon, a mileage increase from 30 to 40 per gallon is the same as a 37.5-cent price cut.
Americans now average twice as many miles driven as before fuel standards were imposed. That's not all due to CAFE, but no one knows how much, if any, gasoline has actually been saved. Federal fuel rules are a particularly bad deal for another reason. They kill people. There is one clear rule of the road: Big cars beat little cars. Any given auto can have less or more safety devices. But more metal around a driver or passenger means a better chance of surviving an accident.
In 1989, John Graham of Harvard University and Robert Crandall of Brookings reported a 23 percent average weight reduction in automobiles due to CAFE, warning: "the negative relationship between weight and occupant fatality risk is one of the most secure findings in the safety literature."
People intuitively understand this phenomenon, which is one reason many buy SUVs. Unfortunately, the fuel requirement runs against this rule. Although there are a number of ways to increase gas mileage, the easiest and cheapest, and thus most common, method is to make cars smaller.
Half of the dramatic auto downsizing over the last quarter century is due to CAFE. Graham and Crandall estimated the annual death toll to run between 2,200 and 3,900. In the mid-1990s the Competitive Enterprise Institute figured that between 2,700 and 4,700 people were dying because of CAFE, upward of one-fifth of America's total auto casualties.
Coming to the same conclusion was the National Academy of Sciences, which recently issued a detailed review of the issue. The academy estimated that 1,300 to 2,600 people died in 1993 due to the fuel rule. In 1999, USA Today analyzed federal crash data and figured that 46,000 people had died because of the shift to smaller, lighter autos. This research is backed by a recent study in the American Journal of Public Health by Dr. Leonard Evans, with the Vehicle Analysis and Dynamics Laboratory at the General Motors Research and Development Center in Warren, Mich.
Observed Evans, "replacing all the cars in a population with cars lighter by a fixed amount or percentage will necessarily increase population risk." Thus, drivers would be in greater danger even if all cars got smaller - especially since there will always be SUVs and trucks on the road.
The government has attempted to deny the obvious. In 1992, however, a federal appeals court dismissed arguments by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration defending CAFE's safety record as being based on "bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo," "fudged analysis" and "statistical legerdemain."
CAFE should be repealed, not strengthened. It would be hard enough to justify killing people if the rule dramatically cut energy use. It is truly obscene to do so when it ends up counteracting itself by making driving cheaper.
Americans should ask legislators who vote to hike CAFE a simple question: How may people are they willing to sacrifice in order to save a few barrels of
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