House subcommittee approves tighter fuel economy mandates

Published September 1, 2001

In a blow to large families and vehicle safety proponents, the House Energy and Air Quality Subcommittee voted 29-3 on July 12 to increase Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards for light trucks (including sport utility vehicles, mini-vans, and pickup trucks).

The measure was expected to clear the House Committee on Energy and Commerce easily and will be sent to the House floor, where the subcommittee’s broad bipartisan support virtually assures passage by the full House. Congressional Republicans say they expect the Bush administration to approve the new standards this fall.

Light trucks must average 20.7 miles per gallon under current CAFE standards. While the pending measure does not specify the exact average mileage that light trucks will soon have to meet, it does require the vehicles to save five billion gallons of gasoline between 2004 and 2010. General Motors, Ford, and DaimlerChrysler, the companies most affected by the proposed regulations, would be given some flexibility in meeting the savings target. Experts expect the new standard will require a fuel-efficiency increase of three to four miles per gallon.

The proposed standard represents a compromise that may have staved off more severe standards proposed by opponents of the automobile industry. Even so, the results may be severe.

Downsizing is deadly

Studies have shown that tighter CAFE standards invariably lead to smaller and lighter vehicles, which in turn reduce vehicle safety. For example, a 1994 study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that occupants of vehicles with a 95-inch wheelbase were more than twice as likely to die in car accidents than occupants of vehicles with a 114-inch wheelbase.

More recent studies have confirmed the safety benefits of larger vehicles. A study by Dr. Leonard Evans, reported in the July 2001 American Journal of Public Health, concluded that drivers of larger vehicles are much more likely to survive a crash than drivers of smaller vehicles. “The implication is clear that policies, such as CAFE, which lead to reductions in car weight inevitably increase traffic deaths,” wrote Dr. Evans. “The study provides more specific direct evidence that ‘CAFE’ kills.”

Observed Sam Kazman, general counsel with the Competitive Enterprise Institute, “Safety researchers have long understood that downsizing is deadly. Dr. Evans’ latest study, however, adds a new level of detail to the size-safety issue. The notion that we can mandate more stringent CAFE standards without increasing traffic deaths is simply preposterous, and this study confirms that.”

In June 13 testimony before a House Ways and Means subcommittee, Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers President and CEO Josephine Cooper had urged Congress to encourage higher fuel efficiency through voluntary incentives rather than more restrictive CAFE mandates. Cooper noted the top 10 most fuel-efficient vehicles account for less than 2 percent of total vehicle sales.

“Increasing CAFE standards will require automakers to produce less of the products that American consumers are actually purchasing today and more of the products that are in lower demand,” Cooper noted.

Voluntary incentives more effective

“A better way to improve vehicle and fleet fuel economy,” observed Cooper, “and one that is more in tune with consumer preferences, is to encourage the development and purchase of advanced technology vehicles (ATVs). . . . Americans place a high priority on performance, safety, space, and other issues with fuel economy ranking much lower even with today’s gas prices. ATVs hold great promise for increases in fuel efficiency without sacrificing the other vehicle attributes consumers desire. Just as important, the technology is transparent to the customer.”

Cooper pointed out that automobile manufacturers have already invested billions of dollars in developing advanced technologies such as hybrid fuel cells and alternative energy sources even without the mandates of more stringent CAFE standards. Cooper said voluntary incentives associated with ATVs would be a more effective, and less intrusive, means of encouraging greater fuel efficiency.

In the end, however, Congress appears ready to impose heightened CAFE requirements. “The good news is that this is in play,” said Dan Becker of the Sierra Club. “We are headed for a floor vote for the first time in a long time.”

For more information . . .

An abstract of Leonard Evans’ “Causal Influence of Car Mass and Size on Driver Fatality Risk” is available on the Web site of the American Public Health Association at