For weeks, as the debate over federal fuel-economy standards has moved closer to the Senate floor, environmentalists have claimed overwhelming public support for higher standards. They tout polls showing that 60, 80, perhaps even 200 percent of Americans favor laws to boost the mile-per-gallon capabilities of new vehicles. But a poll released by the Competitive Enterprise Institute on February 25 shows that a strong plurality (48 percent) actually opposes such an increase.
the difference? Our poll claimed that this program, known as CAFE
(Corporate Average Fuel Economy), kills people. The other polls didn't.
We received many irate e-mails
complaining that we had used a distorted, highly biased piece of
disinformation aimed at producing precisely the result we wanted. Those
complaints would be justified if CAFE's lethal effects were a poorly
supported hypothesis. But the evidence on this issue comes from no less
a body than the National Academy of Sciences, which issued a report
last August finding that CAFE contributes to between 1,300 and 2,600
traffic deaths per year. Given that this program has been in effect for
more than two decades, its cumulative toll is staggering.
has this impact on safety because it restricts the production of large
cars. Large cars are less fuel efficient than smaller, similarly
equipped vehicles, but they are also more crashworthy in practically
every type of accident. The first major analysis of this issue came in
a 1989 report from researchers at Harvard and the Brookings
Institution; since then, a number of other analyses, by government and
private researchers, have confirmed the conclusion that CAFE kills.
There are dissenters on this point, but they are exactly that.
not a single proponent of CAFE admits that it kills anyone. It's not as
if they dispute the numbers of deaths, or argue that CAFE's lethal toll
is a necessary price to pay for some other objective. Instead, they
simply claim that CAFE creates a win-win situation for everyone —
consumers, the auto industry, the environment, and, in the wake of
9/11, even national security.
of higher CAFE standards offer three basic arguments for their claim
that CAFE is risk-free. The first argument is that new technologies can
give us higher fuel economy and more safety, and so therefore there is
no trade-off. But try this thought experiment: Imagine a high-tech car
with incredibly advanced engines and equally great safety systems. Now
add a few additional cubic feet and a few additional pounds to the car,
so that it's a little bit bigger and a little heavier. Two things will
happen. This high-tech car has become a bit safer, but also a bit less
fuel-efficient. That is, you still have a tradeoff between fuel economy
In short, high technology
doesn't get you out of the CAFE/safety bind. In the words of Dr.
Leonard Evans, president of the International Traffic Medicine
Association, this argument is like a tobacco-industry executive saying
that smoking doesn't endanger your health, because with everything we
now know about diets and exercising, you can smoke and still be as
healthy as a non-smoker.
It is true
that, with current knowledge about keeping fit, smokers can be
healthier. But this knowledge can make a nonsmoker even healthier yet.
If you smoke, you're going to be taking a risk no matter what.
second argument is based on the steadily declining fatality rate in
cars. Since the 1970's, when CAFE was enacted, that death rate has
improved even though cars have been downsized. How, then, can CAFE's
downsizing effect be making cars less safe when the death rate has been
But in fact the
vehicle death rate has been improving not just since CAFE was enacted,
but for most of the past century. That steady improvement has nothing
to do downsizing; in fact, in the absence of downsizing it would have
improved even more. By analogy, consider the fact that in 1970 we had
zero cases of AIDS, but now we have tens of thousands. Yet longevity in
the U.S. today is about ten months greater than it was in 1970. Does
that allow us to say that AIDS is not a health threat?
last argument they use is that CAFE cannot be deadly because it's
endorsed by such auto safety activists as Ralph Nader, Joan Claybrook,
and Clarence Ditlow. In fact, they do endorse higher CAFE standards.
But years ago, these very same people stated very forthrightly that
larger cars are safer cars. In 1972, for example, Nader and Ditlow
published a book called Small on Safety, a critique of the
Volkswagen Beetle. Page after page has such statements as: "Small size
and light weight impose inherent limitations on the degree of safety
that can be built into a vehicle."
January, Joan Claybrook appeared before the Senate Commerce Committee
with a diatribe on how the CAFE-safety tradeoff was a myth propagated
by industry. But in 1977 she appeared before that same committee and
stated, "There are going to be tradeoffs."
happened? Back then, large cars were not politically incorrect. Today
they are. For these people, the line all along has been: You want more
safety? You need more government. But with CAFE it's exactly the
opposite — more regulation means less safety. Their response has been
to choose the former over the latter.
is not a single advocate of CAFE who admits that it kills anyone. For
this reason, the CAFE debate is fundamentally dishonest. CAFE is often
portrayed as a way to keep us out of "blood-for-oil" wars, but at least
those wars have clear life-and-death risks. CAFE, on the other hand, is
itself a blood-for-oil war, waged on American civilians by proponents
who refuse to admit it carries any risks at all.
knowledge of those risks can change the CAFE debate. In our poll we
found that, given a general description of CAFE (with no mention of
safety), the program is supported by 61 percent of the public, and
opposed by only 22 percent. Once the National Academy's findings were
described, however, support dropped to 42 percent, while opposition
rose to 39 percent. More importantly, on the issue that's currently in
play — whether to make CAFE even more stringent — 48 percent opposed
such changes, while only 43 percent supported them.
is often caricatured as a money-saving maneuver that puts innocent
lives at risk. With CAFE, it's exactly the opposite. It's rare for the
lethal effects of more regulation to be so well documented and to
involve such life-and-death stakes. If the Senate agrees to more
stringent fuel-economy standards, we'll have to wonder what, if any,
deregulatory battles can still be won.
Deadly CAFE: A Dishonest Debate Hits The SenateKazman Op-Ed in National Review Online