CAFE Battle Rages on Capitol Hill

Published July 31, 2007

Fuel economy standards are being vigorously debated in Congress. Competing corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards threaten to reduce consumer choice among family vehicles and impose significant new financial and safety costs on U.S. consumers.

The battle over more stringent fuel economy restrictions is being fought in the House, as the Senate has already approved legislation requiring new cars and light trucks to average at least 35 miles per gallon by 2020. The Senate legislation represents a 30 percent increase in car fuel economy and a 50 percent increase in light truck fuel economy relative to current requirements.

Automakers are researching new technologies to improve the fuel economy of existing vehicle designs, but experts warn most of the gains can be met only by making vehicles smaller and lighter–and hence more likely to result in injuries to and deaths of occupants in the event of a collision.

“An expected reduction in gasoline usage is the most common reason cited for raising CAFE standards. It is not clear, however, that CAFE standards are particularly helpful in reducing gasoline use. Meanwhile, there are significant disadvantages to the standards,” says Amy Ridenour, president of the National Center for Public Policy Research.

To the extent new technologies are employed to improve fuel mileage, consumers can expect to pay substantially higher new car prices.

According to testimony offered in federal district court in May of this year, raising fuel economy standards to 43 miles per gallon would add $5,000 or more to the price tag of new automobiles.

Just as importantly, more stringent CAFE standards will inevitably kill thousands of Americans each year. A 2001 report from the National Academy of Sciences found existing CAFE standards cause between 1,300 and 2,600 unnecessary traffic deaths each year due to vehicles being smaller and less crashworthy.

More stringent CAFE requirements will only add to the death toll, experts report.

“CAFE may well be one of the deadliest regulatory policies around, and it’s about to get even deadlier,” says Sam Kazman, general counsel for the Competitive Enterprise Institute. “CAFE kills people by restricting the production of larger, heavier vehicles. That may improve miles per gallon, but it reduces vehicle crashworthiness.

“So here we have, in effect, a blood-for-oil war, waged on civilians by policymakers who refuse to admit they’re putting lives at risk,” Kazman added.

One proposed alternative to the Senate bill would maintain the distinction between cars and light trucks, allowing the latter to achieve 30 rather than 35 miles per gallon. Other senators see little justification for changing existing standards at all.

Analysts note consumers already may choose from nearly 200 vehicle models that achieve 30 or more highway miles per gallon, and that many consumers choose larger vehicles for the additional safety.

James M. Taylor ([email protected]) is senior fellow with The Heartland Institute and managing editor of Environment & Climate News.