- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 16, 2001

Sometimes the health department just has to shut down an eatery until its cleans up its act. There's another little "cafe" that could do with the same treatment — but unfortunately, the government owns the place.

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? 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 Middle East oil crises of the 1970s. Faced with an upward blip in gasoline prices, Congress directed the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration 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 shareholder suits, 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 2,200 to 3,900 fatalities annually, as well as an additional 11,000 to 19,500 serious injuries. Julie DeFalco of the Competitive Enterprise Institute 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 10 times as many serious injuries. We would like to prevent the continuing carnage. Despite the fact that it's supposed to be a safety agency, the highway administration has never candidly addressed this human toll, instead fudging its figures. That is not our conclusion but the decision of a federal appeals court. When the agency was sued, a court characterized its responses as bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo and accused it of having a "let them eat cake" approach to traffic safety. Not every problem needs a government regulatory resolution, especially when the solution is worse than the problem.

As we've noted in the past, "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 your life.

Dr. Michael Arnold Glueck of Newport Beach, Calif., and Dr. Robert J. Cihak of Aberdeen, Wash., write on health issues.

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