Bush to Tighten Fuel Economy Standards

Published July 1, 2007

President George W. Bush announced on May 14 a plan to force U.S. consumers and businesses to reduce gasoline consumption by 20 percent over the next 10 years. Five percent of that reduction–8.5 billion gallons per year–is to come from increased gas mileage requirements for new cars and light trucks, known as Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards.

Killing for Fuel Economy

In his May 14 announcement Bush stated, “these reforms would save billions of gallons of fuel and reduce net greenhouse gas emissions without compromising jobs or safety.”

In the past, tightening CAFE standards has always led to lighter automobiles, and history has shown the restrictions have always sacrificed human lives for oil conservation. The National Academy of Sciences concluded in 2001 that existing CAFE standards have increased traffic deaths by 1,300 to 2,600 per year.

A Harvard University/Brookings Institution study put the figure at between 2,200 and 3,900 deaths per year.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has estimated that since 1975, when CAFE was implemented, more than 46,000 traffic deaths would have been avoided if people had been driving heavier cars. In addition, many tens of thousands more people have been needlessly injured.

“Higher fuel economy standards will only succeed in restricting consumer choice, destroying jobs, and increasing traffic fatalities,” said Sam Kazman, general counsel at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. “It’s a shame that the president, spurred by a political desire to appear proactive, is taking one of our worst federal programs and making it even worse.”

Deadlier than Realized

The NHTSA concluded in an October 2003 report that CAFE standards are even deadlier than the agency previously thought. According to NHTSA, every 100 pound reduction in the weight of small cars (those weighing 2,950 pounds or less) has increased annual traffic fatalities by as many as 715 deaths.

For larger cars and light trucks, the agency estimated each 100 pound reduction in weight would increase annual traffic fatalities by as many as 303 and 296 deaths, respectively.

“When two vehicles collide, the laws of physics favor the occupants of the heavier vehicle (momentum conservation),” explained NHTSA. “Furthermore, heavier vehicles were in most cases longer, wider, and less fragile than light vehicles. In part because of this, they usually had greater crashworthiness, structural integrity, and directional stability. They were less roll-over prone and easier for the average driver to control in a panic situation.”

Sticker Shock Inevitable

In addition, “Fuel efficiency is not a free good,” said Jerry Taylor, senior fellow at the Cato Institute. “All things being equal, it costs more money to manufacture a fuel-efficient car than it does to manufacture a fuel-inefficient car. If it were otherwise, then all our cars would get 40+ miles per gallon.

“How much more expensive both cars and light trucks will become is unknown because the details are yet to come,” Taylor added. “But to put this in perspective, the National Research Council reported a few years ago that improvements in automotive fuel efficiency would increase sticker prices for passenger cars by $1,018-$3,578, depending upon how aggressive those fuel efficiency improvements were and the vehicle class in question.”

Steven Milloy ([email protected]) publishes JunkScience.com and CSRWatch.com. He is a junk science expert, an advocate of free enterprise, and an adjunct scholar at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.