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Jewish World Review August 14, 2001 / 25 Menachem-Av, 5761

Doug Bandow

Doug Bandow
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Consumer Reports

Uncle Sam's false fuel economy -- 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 oil?

JWR contributor Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. Comment by clicking here.


08/08/01: The Clinton administration in drag
07/31/01: The high cost of government
07/24/01: Kill the campaign reform illusion
07/17/01: Do as I say, not as I do
07/11/01: Lawyers at play
07/05/01: Western blundering, Macedonian disaster
06/26/01: How best to honor Bill Clinton?
06/19/01: A maturing Europe?
06/15/01: Tell Beijing to mind its own business
06/06/01: Ukraine's boiling cauldron
05/31/01: Protecting privacy from Uncle Sam
05/22/01: America's Balkan quagmire
05/09/01: The Taiwanese flash point
05/01/01: Globalization serves the world's poor
04/24/01: Who's cheating whom?
04/10/01: The NCAA scam
04/03/01: Balkan stupidities
03/27/01: McCain doesn't want a 'risk for our country'
03/20/01: Dubious Korean alliances
03/06/01: Coercive patriotism
02/27/01: Bombing without end
02/20/01: A dose of misplaced outrage
02/13/01: Psst: Tax cuts for taxpayers. Pass-it-on
02/06/01: Bridging the unbridgeable gap
01/23/01: Left-wing demagoguery
01/16/01: The drug war problem
01/10/01: Politics and trade
01/03/01: Hope for liberty?
12/27/00: The debris of war
12/19/00: What's the rule of law for?
12/15/00: Ending silicone breast implant saga
12/05/00: Election may yield victor, but there are no winners
11/21/00: A Bush presidential mandate?
11/07/00: Exprienced Gore? Yeah, right
11/01/00: Interventionist follies
10/17/00: America's brightening prospects in Ukraine
10/11/00: GOP budget scandals
10/03/00: How a pharmaceutical 'crisis' was created
09/27/00: Clinton's empathy has helped nobody
09/13/00: AlGore's risky budget policies
09/05/00: Military readiness and Korean commitments
08/29/00: Let sleeping hypocrites lie
08/21/00: Targeting a journalistic pariah
08/15/00: European garrison for Kosovo?
08/08/00: Journalistic cleansing at the Boston Globe
08/04/00: Junk science on trial
06/22/00: Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty
06/15/00: The end of U.N. peacekeeping
06/07/00: The Clinton regulatory miasma
06/01/00: Administration stupidity, congressional cowardice
05/25/00: The silence of the international community
05/18/00: Protecting the next generation

05/11/00: Freer trade with China will advance human rights

05/04/00: How not to save the Constitution

04/28/00: American tripwire in Korea long ago disappeared: Why are we still involved?

04/18/00: Clinton administration believes the IRS is too gentle, wants more auditors

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