Want more road deaths? Raise mileage standards
H. Sterling Burnett
July 13, 2007

Let's hope the U.S. House does not follow the Senate's lead and dramatically raise Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards across the board.

Raising CAFE standards will only accomplish two things: Eliminate consumers' freedom of choice concerning the types of vehicles they can drive; and place drivers at greater risk of serious injury or death in the event of an accident.

None of the senators has ever designed a car and sold it in the marketplace for a profit. Yet, they see fit to tell the entire automobile industry what is possible.

Even Toyota, the company touted as having the line of cars with the highest fuel economy, fought raising CAFE standards from their present two-tiered approach of 27.5 miles per gallon for cars and 22.2 mpg for light trucks to the Senate's 35 mpg mandate for both sets of vehicles.

People can choose fuel efficient cars if they want them. There are more than 60 car models sold today that get more than 30 mpg and more than 30 that get more than 40 mpg.

None of these vehicles is a best-seller because most people choose vehicles based on factors other than fuel economy.

People want air conditioning, automatic transmission and comfort in vehicles that give them the ability to haul multiple passengers with legroom and headroom to spare, quick acceleration for passing and merging onto the highway, the ability to haul heavy loads, trailers and boats and safety in an accident.

The laws of physics indicate that these traits require vehicles of a certain size and weight with high-powered, six-cylinder or big V-8 engines.

Toyota and other carmakers recognize what the Senate seems oblivious to: You can get good fuel economy or you can get power, comfort and room, but you can't have both. And the public wants the latter more than the former.

Besides reducing consumer choice, the Senate's CAFE standards also would result in needless deaths and serious injuries on the nation's roads and highways.

Improving fuel economy is primarily achieved by reducing the size and power of vehicles. Downsizing comes at a cost to safety.

As consumer advocate Ralph Nader stated in 1989, ``Larger cars are safer.''

Researchers at Harvard 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 undertaken to meet current CAFE standards had resulted in more than 46,000 deaths.

The Senate's defense for this indefensible policy is that it wishes to reduce gasoline consumption and thereby reduce our reliance on foreign oil. Yet, history shows that CAFE will not do this.

Since 1974, domestic new car fuel economy has increased 114 percent, and light truck fuel economy has increased 56 percent.

At the same time, the share of imported oil has risen from 35 percent of the oil consumed in the United States to nearly 60 percent. Improved fuel economy makes it less expensive to drive. When driving becomes cheaper, almost everyone does more of it.

Indeed, people drive more than twice as many miles today than 1974.

Raising CAFE standards will not decrease U.S. reliance on foreign oil, but it will result in more driver and passenger fatalities and reduce consumers' freedom.

The CAFE standard is a morally bankrupt public policy -- an experiment that has killed almost as many people as the number of military personnel lost in the Vietnam War. It's time to end, not expand CAFE.

The writer is a senior fellow at the National Center for Policy Analysis. This commentary was distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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