- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 14, 2002

Politicians and advocacy groups are using the September 11 terrorist attacks as justification to push their pet projects. From the legitimate to simple pork, suddenly everything is being described as a matter of national security.

While some projects could add some measurable social benefit, others might actually cause harm. One notable example is the drive to raise the federal Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standard. Enacted during the 1975 energy crisis as a means of reducing America's dependence on foreign oil, the CAFE standard requires auto manufacturers to meet certain mileage standards, measured in miles per gallon (mpg), across a manufacturer's entire fleet of vehicles. Currently standards are set at 27.5 mpg for standard cars and 20.7 mpg for light trucks.

Now some want Congress to increase the standards to 40 mpg for both cars and light trucks. In so doing, advocates are once again raising the specter of energy "security," in addition to a new argument that it will help reduce global warming.

If either suggestion were accurate, CAFE supporters might have a case. Yet neither is true; and in fact, an increase might actually cost lives.

Since 1974, domestic new car fuel economy has increased 114 percent, and light truck fuel economy has increased 56 percent. But rather than increasing our energy independence, the share of imported oil has risen from 35 percent of the oil consumed in the U.S. in 1974 to more than 52 percent today.

The reason? Improved fuel economy coupled with declines in oil and gasoline prices have made automobiles significantly less expensive to drive. And when driving becomes cheaper, almost everyone does more of it. Indeed, people drive twice as many miles today as they did when CAFE was enacted.

As for reducing global warming, whether human activity is a primary cause is still very much in dispute. Supporters of this view believe the last century's substantial rise in greenhouse gasses, particularly CO2 from fossil fuel consumption, is causing a dangerous increase in global temperature. By increasing U.S. fuel economy standards, they argue, fossil fuel use would drop and thus so would the amount of CO2 released into the atmosphere.

But once again, since higher fuel economy standards make driving less expensive, people do more of it, resulting in little or no decrease in overall fuel consumption.

Further, the National Academy of Sciences has issued a report suggesting an increase in CAFE standards could actually be counterproductive in fighting global warming. It found that while increasing CAFE standards might reduce greenhouse gas emissions from automobile tailpipes, these reductions would be offset by increases in emissions from new technologies needed to produce more efficient cars.

Finally, the steps needed to improve fuel economy might have tragic unintended consequences. For instance, improved fuel economy is primarily achieved by reducing the size and power of vehicles. Downsizing comes at a cost to safety. Proponents even admit this. Consumer advocate Ralph Nader, for instance, admitted in 1989 that "larger cars are safer."

Numerous studies drive this point home. For example, researchers at Harvard University and the Brookings Institution found that, on average, for every 100 pounds shaved off new cars to meet CAFE standards, between 440 and 780 additional people were killed in auto accidents or a total of 2,200 to 3,900 lives lost per model year. And using data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Insurance Institute for Traffic Safety, USA Today calculated that size and weight reductions of passenger vehicles undertaken to meet current CAFE standards had resulted in more than 46,000 deaths.

Since the laws of physics will not change, requiring all vehicles to be smaller will increase everyone's risk of death or injury in auto accidents.

Raising CAFE standards will neither decrease U.S. reliance on foreign oil nor reduce the chances of global warming, but it will result in more driver and passenger fatalities. Since the current proposal to increase CAFE standards would set the same standard for cars, light trucks, SUVs and minivans, everybody would be equally unsafe. Worse, since the overwhelming majority of minivan and SUV owners are families, many of these additional casualties will be children.

The CAFE standard is a morally bankrupt and an indefensible public policy an experiment that has killed almost as many people as the number of military personnel lost in the Vietnam War. In baseball, when a batter has three strikes, he's out. The same should hold for bad laws.


H. Sterling Burnett is senior fellow at the National Center for Policy Analysis.


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