- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 23, 2000

Three hundred ninety-five members of Congress are smart enough to understand that improved fuel efficiency, while desirable, is less important than saving lives. Thirteen others aren't. Last Friday, that's how the vote went on whether to raise federal Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) requirementsto which all automakers must adhere. By a landslide defeat of 395 to 13, the House agreed to leave well enough alone and froze CAFE requirements at their current level of 27.5 mpg for cars and 20.5 mpg for SUVs, pickups and minivans.

That means automakers won't be forced to shed weight and thus safety from their vehicles in order to satisfy some bureaucrat's idea of what constitutes good gas mileage. Which means you and your loved ones will be more likely to survive an accident. But saving lives has never been the first priority of CAFE's most ardent champions. Zealots on the environmental left, such as the leadership of the Sierra Club, Ralph Nader, Ozone Action, etc., have sought for years to force an increase in CAFE to 40 miles per gallon or more a standard which would have dire consequences if ever enacted into law.

CAFE which first went into effect during the height of the energy crisis of the mid-1970s resulted in a dramatic "downsizing" of the average vehicle in order to save fuel. The typical mid-sized passenger sedan lost almost 1,000 pounds of mass between 1975 and 1985 the result of which has been an additional 2,000 fatalities per year, as well as an additional 20,000 serious or moderate injuries, according to the government's own statistics as compiled by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

To date, according to a study done by USA Today and the insurance industry, some 46,000 Americans have been killed "as a direct result of mandated fuel economy increases" that have made cars smaller, lighter and thus less able to protect occupants in a crash. Put another way, the study found that for every mile per gallon saved by CAFE, roughly 7,700 lives were lost during the period 1975-1998. A related study of the impact of CAFE done by Harvard University and the Brookings Institution found a 14-27 percent increase in accident fatalities that could be directly attributed to the CAFE-induced downsizing of automobiles.

Air bags, crumple zones and other high-tech safety advances cannot obviate the laws of physics. A smaller, lighter car is inherently less safe than a larger, heavier car. You and your family stand a better chance of surviving a major crash in a 4,500 pound, full-size sedan (with or without air bags) than in a 40 mpg subcompact such as the Honda Civic or Chevrolet Metro.

Meanwhile, despite a quarter century of CAFE, we are more dependent on imported oil than ever (35 percent circa 1975; 55 percent today) and use more gasoline per capita now than before CAFE went into effect. CAFE has failed utterly in its policy goal and done so at the cost of many thousands of lives. Kudos to the Republican leadership for exercising some damage control and here's to hoping for this ill-conceived law's eventual repeal.

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