- The Washington Times - Friday, February 22, 2002

With families all over the country heeding the administration's call for heightened homeland security, politicians in our nation's capital are taking steps that will almost inevitably increase fatalities on our nation's roads. Their reason why is as straightforward as it is frightening: to curry favor with environmental special interest groups in an election year.

These environmental groups are calling for new fuel mileage regulations. Sen. John Kerry and Majority Leader Tom Daschle are spearheading the environmentalist agenda and plan to introduce new Corporate Average Fuel Economy (or CAFE) mandates as soon as the Senate gets back into session. Members of the U.S. Senate must consider all of the devastating implications of new mileage regulations, especially the increased traffic fatalities.

CAFE mandates, born in the aftermath of the 1973 OPEC oil embargo, neither reduced America's dependence on foreign oil nor lowered gasoline consumption, the two goals of the Energy Policy and Conservation Act. Unfortunately, like many well-intentioned but interventionist government policies, CAFE had tremendous hidden costs. Tragically, those costs are measured both in dollars and in deaths.

The imposition of CAFE regulations have effectively pushed automakers toward smaller, lighter-weight vehicles, which perform well with fuel-efficient engines. If this were the whole story, there would be no complaint from this mother of five. Unfortunately, an estimated 46,000 people have died in crashes that they would have survived if they had been traveling in heavier cars since the current standards were adopted, according to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, as analyzed by USA Today.

As too many families have found out, Congress can't repeal the laws of physics. Lighter-weight vehicles are more dangerous, whether involved in a guardrail accident or a head-on collision with a heavier car. Consumers know this. A recent study done by a Missouri-based marketing research firm showed that safety and price are the primary considerations when purchasing a vehicle, while fuel efficiency was near the bottom of the list.

If CAFE standards are such a big loser with voters, why do politicians seem bent on increasing their restrictions and exacerbating the costs imposed on the public? Raising the CAFE standards has become a litmus test for the nation's politically potent environmental lobby.

Understandably, the environmental lobby wants to pursue policies that result in less pollution, like lowering gasoline consumption and reducing vehicle emissions that are believed to contribute to global warming. Unfortunately, raising the CAFE standards has not proven to accomplish the first goal at all and only marginally affects the second.

Since the original CAFE mandates went into place more than 30 years ago, the United States has doubled the number of miles we drive per day and oil imports have risen 22 percent. As engine efficiency improved, our miles per gallon rose accordingly. Obviously, other factors contribute to this correlation, but it is just common sense that making something more efficient will over time increase usage. Ironically, the establishment of CAFE regulations may have had the unintended consequence of increasing gasoline consumption and our reliance on foreign oil.

How about lowering emissions? Here the evidence reveals that a sizeable increase in CAFE standards would only modestly improve greenhouse gas emissions. According to the Office of Technology Assessment's figures in 1991, a 40 percent increase in fuel economy standards would lead to a reduction in greenhouse emissions of only about 0.5 percent given the optimal circumstances.

As a society, we are constantly asked to make trade-offs. Right now our country is having an important and lively debate about balancing civil liberties with the need to strengthen homeland security. Polling data shows that women are more likely to sacrifice some of our freedom of movement in order to ensure greater safety. We all strive for a clean environment and are willing to bear many costs associated with achieving this goal. This mom, however, draws the line at supporting flawed policy that puts American lives on the line. As Cato Institute expert Sam Kazman puts it, if CAFE were a chemical, it would have been banned long ago.


Nancy Mitchell Pfotenhauer is president of the Independent Women's Forum.

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