Death by CAFE Standards

Media discussions of the administration's new mileage rules have covered about everything except how many people they will kill.

Manipulating fuel efficiency standards has been a favored method of fulfilling environmental prerogatives for thirty years and more. Like most Green initiatives, it is essentially ritualistic. Rather than actually confront the problem at issue, it is instead intended to instill a sense of virtue (what economist Robert J. Samuelson calls "psychic benefits"), while at the same time acting as a punitive measure against those opposed to Green ideology. As is true of many environmentalist programs, it has the unintended side-effect of killing large numbers of unknowing individuals.

Like much else in the way of nonsense, mileage regulation was a product of the 1970s. The decade was marked by several "oil shortages," which media, government, and Green activists all attributed to resource depletion. In truth, they were triggered by Arab manipulation of oil prices in an attempt to undercut support for Israel, then amplified by U.S. government incompetence and public hysteria generated by the Greens.

Fuel standards are the longest-lived of an entirely futile array of attempts to address 1970s oil shortages. They first went into effect in the 1975 Energy Policy and Conservation Act as the Corporate Average Fuel Economy program, better known as CAFE. Under the CAFE standards, domestic and foreign automobile manufacturers had to meet a certain mileage standard in their cars and light trucks. They were allowed a very short time to carry this out before fines were levied, so they met the challenge in the easiest way possible: by designing small engines that used less fuel while lowering the size and weight of new vehicles to preserve performance.

The new standards had no success in lowering fuel consumption. Quite the contrary -- since it now cost less to fill the tank, people drove more. Within a few years, this "rebound effect" doubled average fuel usage. As a result, oil imports increased from 35% of consumption in 1975 to 52% by the year 2000.

The new regulations did accomplish one thing -- they killed drivers and passengers in large numbers. By lightening cars and removing material, auto companies were inadvertently discarding the armor that protected motorists in the event of a crash. Similarly, the compressed new models lacked space for impact forces to attenuate before causing damage and injury. Drivers in lightweight cars were as much as twelve times more likely to die in a crash. It was once said about American autos that they were "built like tanks." Many of the new models from the late '70s onward more closely resembled go-carts -- and proved to be about as sturdy.

Studies have repeatedly demonstrated the fatal results of mileage regulations, starting in 1989 with the Brookings Institution (in collaboration with the Harvard School of Public Health), followed by USA Today in 1999, the National Academy of Sciences in 2001, and at last the federal government's own National Highway Transportation and Safety Administration in 2003. This formidable lineup of organizations all came to the same conclusion: Fuel standards kill.

According to the Brookings Institution, a 500-lb weight reduction of the average car increased annual highway fatalities by 2,200-3,900 and serious injuries by 11,000 and 19,500 per year. USA Today found that 7,700 deaths occurred for every mile per gallon gained in fuel economy standards. Smaller cars accounted for up to 12,144 deaths in 1997, 37% of all vehicle fatalities for that year. The National Academy of Sciences found that smaller, lighter vehicles "probably resulted in an additional 1,300 to 2,600 traffic fatalities in 1993." The National Highway Transportation and Safety Administration study demonstrated that reducing a vehicle's weight by only one hundred pounds increased the fatality rate by as much as 5.63% for light cars, 4.70% for heavier cars, and 3.06% for light trucks. These rates translated into additional traffic fatalities of 13,608 for light cars, 10,884 for heavier cars, and 14,705 for light trucks between 1996 and 1999.

How many deaths have resulted? Depending on which study you choose, the total ranges from 41,600 to 124,800. To that figure we can add between 352,000 and 624,000 people suffering serious injuries, including being crippled for life. In the past thirty years, fuel standards have become one of the major causes of death and misery in the United States -- and one almost completely attributable to human stupidity and shortsightedness.

In 2007, the Bush administration moved to change these standards. No, not to abolish them as failed policy and a threat to public safety, but to expand and extend them exactly as if they constituted a rational solution to an actual existing problem. Rather than set a single figure, as was the case with the original CAFE standards, the Bush administration created a "sliding scale" based on a vehicle's size and weight. The typical bureaucratic solution: if something doesn't work, make it more complex and see what happens then. (To be fair to Bush, his administration had been hounded over fuel standards for several years by lawyers, activists, and the media, an effort that included two lost court cases. But this scarcely rates as an excuse.)

Along with Predator strikes, fuel standards were one of the few Bush initiatives that Barack Obama liked. (It's really too bad we can't persuade jihadi chiefs to drive around in Neons.) So much, in fact, that he decided to expand them even further. In the new standards announced -- surprise! -- on April 1, the Obama administration returned to the single standard. Mileage levels for cars and light trucks were raised to 35.5 mpg. (It goes without saying that the "light trucks" category was added to target that enemy of nature, the SUV.) In addition, the Environmental Protection Agency added a "tailpipe emissions standard" of 250 grams of CO2 per mile in order to combat global warming, should such a thing ever in fact occur. 

All kinds of impressive results are being promised for this latest set of regulations. It will "save" 1.8 billion barrels of oil over an otherwise unspecified "program life." It will reduce CO2 emissions by 960 million metric tons. It will, in other words, do all the swell things that the previous standards somehow failed to do.

What we don't hear is how many motorists and passengers will be killed. The Obama mileage standards are jammed up right at the very edge of the technically feasible -- and perhaps beyond. Automobile technology has progressed substantially since the 1970s, and gas mileage can be increased by utilizing a number of technical advances including computerization, fuel injection, stop-start engines, and hybrid vehicles. But the Obama standards demand more. As in the original CAFE legislation, they demand cars that are chopped down, lightened, and diminished. They demand cars that will kill their drivers and passengers.

With these new standards, a kind of threshold has been passed. Liberal policies are killer policies. Since the early 1960s, liberal programs, whether dealing with criminal justice, health care, the environment, or any other aspect of society, have brought premature death to an increasing number of Americans. My upcoming book Death by Liberalism deals with dozens of such programs, many of them operating to this day. (It also provides a much more detailed -- and infuriating -- account of the CAFE standards.) The overall death rate may be as high as half a million. A level of mortality that would depopulate St. Louis, Cincinnati, or Tampa, brought to us on behalf of our own government.

But the mileage standards as applied by the Obama administration (not to forget the Bush administration before them) are different. They are different because everybody knows about them. No serious dissent exists concerning the fact that the CAFE standards have killed tens of thousands of Americans. If a private company were to be found responsible for even a small fraction of this level of fatalities, the sky would crack, Congress would go into twenty-four hour sessions, and John Edwards would experience a new lease on life. (Anyone doubting this should consider Toyota's recent travails. It is uncertain that anything, anything at all, is wrong with Toyota's products. Yet the media and government are tearing at the company like a pack of wolves after an injured deer.)

But in the case of fuel standards, the government itself is responsible -- and that's different. Governments get away with things that private companies can't. Even policies that enable deaths outnumbering those of all American wars of the past seventy years. Deaths that are unnecessary, deaths that can be avoided, deaths that are being encouraged in order to solve problems that can be overcome in any number of other ways. (Not to mention those problems -- such as global warming -- that can't even be demonstrated to exist.) Yet the topic doesn't even come up in debate. Did anyone involved in the health care "debate" ever mention how many people the British National Health Care system kills every year? That number is 95,000. The equivalent number for the U.S., adjusted for population, would be 450,000 a year. That's the "change" that's coming our way.

Such regulations embody the next step in the process by which the relationship between government and people begins to resemble that of a lawnmower and an anthill. We've seen the end result in other countries -- in most other countries, as a matter of fact. It could be argued that governmental irresponsibility and indifference are the ground state of civic culture, from which we have been attempting to escape for eight millennia, encountering real success only in the past two centuries. From that point of view, the fuel standards, and the mentality that justifies them, mark no advance at all, but a regression to a world that we want nothing to do with.

J.R. Dunn is consulting editor of American Thinker and will edit the forthcoming Military Thinker.