Jewish World Review July 20, 2001 / 29 Tamuz, 5761

Jeff Jacoby

Jeff Jacoby
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Consumer Reports

Dying for better mileage -- A PANEL appointed by the National Academy of Sciences, The New York Times reported in a Page 1 story on Tuesday, is going to recommend an increase in the mandatory fuel efficiency of new vehicles, especially pickup trucks and sport utility vehicles. The story appeared just as the House Energy and Commerce Committee took up a bill to promote conservation by, among other things, making fuel standards more stringent. Playing up the report on Page 1 gave a boost to Democrats who insist that the bill doesn't go far enough in regulating pickups and SUVs.

So far this sounds like Washington journalism and energy politics as usual. But buried inside the story -- in the 16th paragraph, on Page C2 -- was a startling admission:

"The report mentions that rapid increases in fuel economy standards for cars in the early 1980's may have contributed to thousands of additional deaths, as automakers sharply reduced the size and weight of vehicles . . . ." In other words, making cars more fuel-efficient also made them more deadly. Stop the presses!

For years, critics of these regulations -- known as the Corporate Average Fuel Economy program, or CAFE -- had warned that by forcing manufacturers to build cars able to get more miles per gallon, the federal government was sending motorists to their deaths. In conceding that the critics were right, the NAS panel helps blow away some of the smoke and fog that have protected CAFE from the public outrage it deserves. That's what should have been on Page 1.

Currently, automakers must hold each year's fleet to an average efficiency of 27.5 miles per gallon for passengers cars and 20.7 miles per gallon for light trucks. The only realistic way to meet that standard -- and avoid a steep penalty -- has been to downsize much of the fleet: A small, lightweight car requires less fuel than a big, heavy one. Time and again, the federal government touted downsizing as a key to fuel economy. Weight reduction, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration stressed in 1989, is "probably the most powerful technique for improving fuel economy."

The result, observes Sam Kazman of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a Washington think-tank that has long decried CAFE's dangers, is that the average passenger car has shrunk by more than 1,000 pounds since 1978. Fuel-efficiency standards are the reason big station wagons all but disappeared from American roads. "Too many people were buying them," Kazman says. "It was throwing off the fleet's CAFE average and triggering big fines. So manufacturers basically stopped making a car that motorists wanted to drive."

But as cars have shrunk, the death toll has grown. In 1999, USA Today analyzed government crash data and found that in the 25 years since fuel-efficiency standards were first imposed, 46,000 people had died in crashes they would have survived if they had been driving bigger cars. Small cars -- those no larger than a Chevy Cavalier or Dodge Neon -- accounted for 18 percent of all vehicles on the road, the paper found, but they were responsible for 37 percent of automobile fatalities.

For every mile per gallon gained in fuel efficiency, 7,700 American motorists have died. We have paid a staggering price. And for what?

A lowered dependence on imported oil? That was one of the promised benefits of CAFE standards, but it never materialized. In 1975, 35 percent of the nation's oil supply was imported. Today we import 52 percent.

Fuel efficiency standards were also supposed to reduce gasoline consumption. But higher energy efficiency usually leads to more energy use, not less. Cars today get around 50 percent better mileage than they did in 1970; over the same 30 years, the average number of miles driven per person has doubled.

More oil imported, more gasoline consumed, more deaths on the road: Your tax dollars at work.

In every respect, CAFE has been a failure. The only issue Congress should be debating is how quickly to repeal it. Instead it is considering demands to make the regulations even stricter -- and to apply them with particular severity to light trucks and SUVs. But before Congress votes, it should understand the stakes: Higher CAFE standards will mean smaller vehicles, and smaller SUVs will mean more death.

I repeat: Smaller SUVs will make highways more dangerous, not less. It is fashionable to deride SUVs as dangerous, gas-guzzling monsters, but it would be more accurate to call them family-sized lifesavers. Force them to shrink and they will save fewer lives. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, replacing the very largest cars and SUVs with vehicles one size smaller would kill 300 more people per year. Must they die?

Too many Americans have already been sacrificed on the altar of fuel efficiency. It's time for Congress to stop the bloodshed by putting CAFE out of business.

Jeff Jacoby is a Boston Globe columnist. Comment by clicking here.

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