The CAFE Effect

Back in 2005, James Taranto of the Wall Street Journal speculated on the existence of a "Roe Effect" -- the possibility that liberal eagerness to take advantage of Roe v. Wade's liberalization of abortion was leading them to Roe themselves out of existence. Taranto's research demonstrated that drops in the liberal vote after 1992 were closely correlated with high abortion rates. For decades, dutiful liberals had been aborting future voters needed to assure continuation of the progressive program. "Americans born after Roe v. Wade," Taranto wrote, "have a greater propensity to vote for the pro-life party--that is, Republican--than they otherwise would have." At least part of the Republican ascendancy in recent years is a direct result of liberal activities.

I'd like to add a corollary to Taranto's thesis, one that acts on a similar basis though not directly related to the abortion controversy -- the CAFE effect. 

In 1975 the Energy Policy and Conservation Act was passed in response to a bogus "oil shortage" triggered by OPEC cuts in oil production in an attempt to pressure the West over its support of Israel. The CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency) standards were a major feature of the bill, intended to lower gasoline usage by increasing automobile efficiency. Automakers were required to produce more fuel-efficient cars on short notice and with no financial assistance for research and development. So the manufacturers resorted to the fastest, cheapest, and most direct solution: using smaller engines and shrinking cars to preserve performance.

The problem was that removing mass and weight exposed passengers to stronger impact forces, resulting in higher death rate in accidents and collisions. This has been repeatedly demonstrated in studies carried out by such organizations as the Harvard School of Public Health, the Brookings Institution, USA Today, and the National Highway Transportation and Safety Administration. Depending on the study, the CAFE standards have been responsible for 41,600 to 124,800 deaths and up to 624,000 serious injuries over the past thirty-five years.

It will come as a shock to no one to learn that the standards have generated no oil savings or other measurable benefits. As cars grew cheaper to operate, people drove more. This "rebound effect" has kept fuel use at the about the same rate it was in 1975. In the years since, oil imports have risen from 35% to 52%.

So unless the criterion for success involves killing as many innocent citizens as possible, the CAFE standards are as great a failure as any law on the books. Not the greatest failure of government policy -- there's just too much competition to ever achieve certainty about that (as Death by Liberalism makes clear enough). But it's up there among the finalists.

The public responded to fuel-standard lethality on the level of instinct. The same era saw the rise of the SUV as the suburban vehicle of choice. The CAFE standards ruined the family station wagon -- it could not meet auto standards and federal bureaucrats refused to reclassify it as a light truck -- so the SUV was adapted as a substitute. An added benefit of driving SUVs lay in the protection they offered. The standard SUV -- and even so-called "mini" models -- was heavy, well-constructed, and sat high off the road, offering superb protection in the event of a crash. 

Unsurprisingly, SUVs became the bete noire of environmentalist greens, both for "waste of resources" and the end-run they offered around fuel standards. SUVs became a green obsession, the subject of lengthy studies to prove their evil in the eyes of Gaia, the target of PR campaigns designed to persuade all right-thinking people to avoid so much as setting foot in one, and a favorite theme of ecology-minded preachers. "What kind of car would Jesus drive?" we were asked, which in turn raised the question of how many people Jesus wants to die in automobile collisions.

These campaigns had their effect. The serious liberal (liberalism and hard green environmentalism are inseparable these days) wouldn't be caught dead driving an SUV. Instead, entire families of acceptable green vehicles were marketed, such as the Honda Civic, the Chrysler PT Cruiser, the Nissan Cube, and the KIA Rio. These were go-carts with motors, lightweight, flimsy, and deadly to so much as look at. I drove a PT for several months back in 2005 -- a death-trap, dramatically underpowered, with no rear visibility to speak of (the rear window is miniscule and deliberately tilted to provide a "cocoon" effect, in hopes of making female drivers feel "secure"), and as sturdy as a wet cardboard box. Minimal structure secures the vehicle sides; if hit broadside by anything more massive than a bicycle, mortality seemingly would be total. And yet this little keychain charm was designed to appeal to suburban housewives, a class of driver needing all the protection they can get, not to overlook their small children.

But these cars admirably fill their intended role of green status symbol. Most liberals view environmentalism with the seriousness of religion, and while perhaps not quite ready for the return to a hunter-gatherer existence that the ideology demands, they are eager for opportunities to otherwise display their allegiance. Green carlets are manifestly not SUVs. They advertise that the driver is a convinced follower of Gaia, if not quite on the high-priest level with Leaf and Prius drivers. Questions of lethality, so crucial to green campaigns against pesticides, nuclear power, and toxic waste, simply never arise.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety is a standard source for vehicle death rates. In its 2007 Status Report, which covers the period of 2001-2004, the most deadly cars are products of the CAFE regime. The KIA Rio has a rating of 175. The Pontiac Sunfire, 179. The Chevrolet Cavalier, 171, the Mitsubishi Eclipse, 169. (The rates are calibrated at deaths per million registered vehicle years.) The sole exception is the Ford Blazer, a midsize SUV rated at 232. I assume that this is explained by the notorious "rollover" problem.

The fifteen lowest-rated vehicles, on the other hand, are all large. They include no less than seven SUVs, all rated below 20, nearly at the level of the statistically undetectable. Fuel-standard lethality is as obvious as a smashed windshield. As the report's authors put it: "The smallest vehicles in any type/body style group generally have the highest rates. None of the 15 vehicles with the lowest driver death rates is a small model. In contrast, 11 of the 16 vehicles with the highest death rates are mini or small models, and none is large or very large."

Now, not all small car owners are liberals. But a large proportion of them are -- you're not going to find too many Humvees parked at the recycling center. So we can take it for granted that a majority of those killed driving various greenmobiles are left-of-center, advocates not only of environmentalism but all other liberal causes -- gun control, affirmative action, gay rights, and abortion. So it appears that we have a complement to the Roe effect, with the liberal elite busy purging itself at both ends of the mortal coil - prior to birth through abortion, and in later years in preventable fatal car crashes. The only difference is that there's a real choice involved in deciding what kind of car to drive.

For the moment, anyway. In May 2009, and again in 2010, Barack Obama extended and broadened existing CAFE regulations. Light truck standards were revised and made far more stringent -- a blow aimed at the SUV -- while the time allotted to achieve the new 35 mpg car standard (originally a Bush initiative, to be fair) was halved. The 2010 standards extended the concept to heavy trucks while calling for even fiercer standards for cars. Green organizations such as the National Resources Defense Council and the Sierra Club are talking about a 60 mpg standard, which will mean that cars will feature bamboo structural members and paper panels, like the walls of Japanese cottages.

The major point of the Obama standards is that they will remove much of the element of choice as regards automobiles. No longer will it be possible to select a sturdy and safe means of transportation (unless you're willing to pay a premium for certain European makes such as BMW and Mercedes, both of which pay heavy penalty charges for the privilege of producing decent cars). Liberals will have assured that everyone suffers the same level of casualties that they do.

Consistency has never been a characteristic liberal virtue. Freedom of choice has been the standard liberal argument in favor of abortion. We now see it transformed into an infraction where automobiles are concerned. If liberals want to vanish into extinction, that's up to them. But what right do they have to drag the rest of us after them?

J.R. Dunn is consulting editor of American Thinker and author of the new book Death by Liberalism.