The Great Safety and Fuel-Saving Failure

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Despite nearly two million injury-causing car crashes each year, Congress and environmentalists apparently have made safety a lower priority than their (largely futile) efforts to reduce auto gas prices and carbon dioxide emissions. Despite years of government dictates, based largely on guesswork, the attempts of bureaucrats and politicians to raise auto fuel-economy standards have been a proven failure -- and a dangerous one for the public's safety.

A National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) study raises a crucial issue. Because improved fuel economy has hinged, to a large extent, on manufacturing lighter-weight vehicles, people riding in these vehicles are more likely to be killed in crashes. Cutting the weight by 100 pounds annually would result in 1,118 more deaths, the agency figures. More than half the fatalities would be in cars, the balance in light trucks, the agency has calculated.

Other safety studies have reached similar scary conclusions. For instance, a National Academy of Sciences panel declared that fuel efficiency laws contributed to as many as 2,600 traffic deaths a year by discouraging the production of large cars. So, forcing car manufacturers to boost fuel economy standards actually can kill people.

Meanwhile, a study sponsored by USA Today determined that since the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) law took effect in 1978, approximately 46,000 people died in crashes they would have survived if they had been in larger, heavier vehicles. The National Center for Policy Analysis reportedly calculated that this amounted to 7,700 deaths for every mile per gallon saved by the mandatory CAFE rules.

Politicians Dictating to Engineers

For the past two decades, Washington has tried to mandate the number of miles automobile manufacturers can squeeze out of a gallon of gas. One unsuccessful Senate proposal, for example, called for new auto models to get fifty-five miles per gallon, twice what car companies now must accomplish under federal rules.

Posing as automotive engineers, Congressmen have, in effect, pulled out of their hats standards that auto makers have had to reach -- or else. Car companies are heavily fined if they don't toe the line, even though fuel use depends mainly on which cars consumers will buy and how they drive.

NHSTA and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which implement the CAFE standards, are not without expertise. But for Congress to dictate precisely what new car fleets must attain in average mpg years into the future is like predicting who will win the next five Super Bowl games.

The ability to forecast and require with precision how much mileage any new car must attain years into the future has nearly as many variables as there are stars in a summer sky: How does an owner drive? How fast? For what distances, and with how many passengers? The variables go on and on -- including nuances of driving technique such as jump starts and entanglement in traffic jams.

What put CAFE in the limelight in recent years is the popularity of SUVs, vans, and light trucks. These vehicles have less stringent CAFE standards than do passenger cars. The current fuel requirement for cars remains at 27.5 miles per gallon. Gas mileage for new light trucks is scheduled to rise to 22.2 miles per gallon from 20.7 by model year 2007.

The lure of light trucks, vans, and particularly SUVs, which have let soccer moms haul their kids around in what they see as safety as well as plenty of space, prompted the Senate not long ago to contemplate hoisting the CAFE standard for these vehicles to the same as for regular passenger cars.

Fuel-efficiency requirements have forced auto companies to continue manufacturing smaller vehicles that consumers had little hankering for in order to meet the decreed mileage average for their entire fleet (which is the way CAFE measures efficiency). Those resources could be better spent making cars safer through ever-higher technology.

The Real Sources of Safety

Though politicians in Washington have been dictating for a generation how many miles you can tweak from a gallon of gasoline, cars are more fuel efficient and safer than ever based on the genius and decisions of auto design engineers -- from side air bags to crushable materials for use in dummy crash tests.

Fuel injection technology replaced carburetors. Fuel is regulated, and emissions also reduced because of the way car companies have utilized computer chips and new, stronger materials in construction. The CFRS report said that 70% of the improvement "was the result of weight reduction, improvements in transmissions and aerodynamics, wider use of front-wheel drive, and use of fuel injection."

New anti-lock brake systems, electronic stability control, tire pressure monitoring systems, daytime running lights, and advanced frontal air bag systems designed to reduce injury to passengers sitting too close to an air bag that deploys are other safety features available or in the works.

Auto manufacturers have spent a century in research and billions of dollars to make new cars safer and more aesthetically pleasing to the consumer, all while using less gas.

Changing Customer Demands, Inflexible Regulations

As oil prices climbed in the 1970s, car manufacturers figured they could meet the CAFE standards by building smaller cars. But as oil prices went back down, so too did customer demand for small cars. The policy goal was to double fuel efficiency by 1985 -- an arbitrary date and goal.

The nonpartisan, objective Congressional Research Service (CRS) in a 2002 report said that fuel imports have increased by roughly one third, whereas domestic new car fuel economy has about doubled. "Some studies suggest," the CRS noted, "most of the gains in fuel economy in the 1970s and 1980s" flowed from manufacturers' technical accomplishments.

The futility in raising CAFE standards lies in the long lead times needed to change model lines. The impartial CRS report said studies show "CAFE is a slow and inefficient means of achieving reduction in fuel consumption." It noted further that standards "risk interfering with consumer choice and jeopardizing the health of the auto industry" -- not to mention passengers' lives.

Eco-Friendliness with Minimal Government Involvement

A major concern of environmentalists (such as the Sierra Club and Natural Resources Defense Council) and some political figures is, of course, carbon dioxide emissions from your car's tailpipe. According to the CRS, however, vehicles account for only about one-fifth of the CO2 emissions across the nation. So raising CAFE standards are a marginal, if not a totally ineffective, way to cut CO2 emissions.

Today you can buy a car with a hybrid gas-electric propulsion system. When the car is running on battery power -- most of the time in the city -- no emission drifts from its tailpipe into the nostrils of an environmentalist. And the battery never needs to be plugged in for recharging.

More than 100,000 of these cars, the Toyota Prius, are on the road worldwide, and they get more than fifty-two miles per gallon. And Toyota made the car largely without government interference such as that imposed on conventional cars by CAFE.

American car manufacturers aren't far behind. Ford is selling its Escape hybrid, an SUV, very much like Toyota's Prius passenger car. The Escape is said to deliver up to forty miles per gallon and accelerate similarly to a V6 engine.

Ford CEO Bill Ford says, "We remain committed to hybrid vehicles, and that is why we have the industry's first full hybrid. Long-term, Ford continues to develop a variety of advanced power train solutions beyond the Ford Escape Hybrid, including diesel and hydrogen-fuel cars."

General Motors has a fuel-cell-run truck on the road in Japan and expects to have a hybrid ready for the U. S. market soon.

Whether one sees the hybrids as a free-market advance or a side effect of the rise in environmentalist regulations, they may yet enable us to leave old mpg regulations and requirements in the dust, revealed once and for all as the fossils they are.

Tait Trussell won a Loeb Award "for distinguished reporting of business and financial news" and a Benjamin Fine award for columns on education. He was vice president of the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research (AEI) and served on the Bicentennial Commission on the U.S. Constitution.