Safety, jobs at stake in CAFE debate

Published July 1, 2001

With each new Congress, politicians and professional environmentalists press for amendments to “strengthen” a 25-year-old government regulation that is little understood and plagued with unintended consequences.

Called CAFE, for “corporate average fuel economy,” it was enacted to help achieve “energy independence” by improving vehicle fuel economy. It has utterly failed to achieve that goal. Oil imports accounted for 30 percent of U.S. oil consumption when CAFE was passed; they account for around half of what we use today.

Despite this failure, CAFE supporters want to make the rules tougher. Congress, however, has passed a series of one-year extensions of the current CAFE rules, effectively preventing the Department of Transportation from tightening the rules.

Changing the rules

This year, Senators Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), Dianne Feinstein (D-California), Jeff Bingamen (D-New Mexico), and Tom Daschle (D-South Dakota), and House members John Olver (D-Massachusetts), Sherwood Boehlert (R-New York), and others have introduced bills to force light trucks to meet the same mileage rules as cars. CAFE currently requires each car company to produce a fleet of passenger cars that achieves an average fuel economy of 27.5 mpg. The proposed legislation would require light-duty trucks, which include vans, SUVs, and pickups, now meeting a 20.7 mpg rule, to meet the 27.5 level.

As is too often the case with politicians, they say and may think they are aiming at manufacturers, but they will be hitting consumers as well as the auto workers who make these vehicles. Their proposed legislation would require smaller, lighter vans and other light trucks, and will also mean severe disruptions for auto workers and their communities where current-model light trucks are made.

The most important unintended consequence of imposing higher CAFE standards on SUVs and light trucks would be a serious reduction in occupant safety protection. The primary ways to improve fuel economy are to decrease vehicle rolling resistance and to lower inertial forces during acceleration. The primary ways to do this are to reduce size and weight.

To meet existing CAFE rules, full-line manufacturers took an average of around 1,000 pounds out of their vehicles. And despite some technological advances, weight reduction is still the basic way greater fuel economy is attained.

Any serious student of Newtonian mechanics knows that, all other factors being equal, a lighter, smaller vehicle is less safe than a heavier, larger vehicle. In a head-on crash, the occupant changes his or her forward speed from the prior speed of the vehicle to zero in a fraction of a second. The forces resulting from that deceleration can determine the degree of harm to the occupant.

Larger vehicles provide more structure to protect occupants and to absorb these forces. This results in a more constant rate of deceleration and, therefore, reduced harm. Heavier vehicles do this by moving, bending, or breaking the object struck in the crash.

Denying the elementary laws of physics will not change the fact that people are killed at a much higher rate in smaller vehicles. If Congress requires higher fuel economy rules for either light trucks or passenger cars, it means they will be less safe. Insurance data show that, in crashes with other vehicles, occupant fatalities in cars that weigh 2,500 pounds are about 70 percent higher than in cars weighing 4,000 pounds. For utility vehicles, occupants in 2,500 pound vehicles die at a rate nearly 90 percent higher than in vehicles weighing 4,500 pounds.

The debate over safety

Today, parents are urged, even required, to put their children in the rear seats of vehicles—for the protection provided by the additional structure between them and a crash. Everyone would be safer in the back seat. It is that structure, size, and weight that CAFE takes away.

Some argue that if all cars were smaller, we would all be safer. There are two flaws in this. First, around 45 percent of fatalities result from single-car crashes where more structure and more weight would help protect the occupants. Second, when two smaller cars of equal weight crash head-on at equal speed, the risk of driver fatality or injury is about twice as great as when two cars, each twice as heavy as the first cars, experience the same type of crash.

Why aren’t Americans outraged that Congress would pass a law that causes more fatalities? The primary reason is they aren’t being informed. Opposition to CAFE would be fierce if the news media could put names and faces on these fatalities, as they did in the recent incidents of tire failure. Unfortunately, when someone is killed in a vehicle made smaller and lighter because of CAFE, reporters are unlikely to make the connection to an obscure government regulation, particularly one that “saves energy.”

CAFE and the auto industry

Car makers don’t like CAFE, but not because they have some perverse desire to make their vehicles burn more fuel. Nor is their problem that they don’t know how to build high-mileage cars. Models that get 40 miles-per-gallon or more have been on sale for years.

The problem, manufacturers say, is that their consumers don’t want to buy these cars in the numbers required by CAFE rules. With gasoline cheaper than bottled water, and when improving mileage often undermines features customers value—like size, power, and a reasonable price— there is limited demand for small, high-mileage cars.

Car makers have learned to live with CAFE. They produce a mix of vehicles the government regulators demand, not necessarily what consumers want. They subsidize the sale of small, less-popular vehicles with the profits from larger cars, SUVs, and pickups. American companies did this because there are serious penalties and other risks for failing to meet CAFE standards. Some foreign-based companies (e.g., Mercedes Benz and BMW, and also Volvo and Jaguar before they joined Ford Motor Co.) operated under different legal systems and chose to ignore CAFE mileage rules and pay large fines.

Japanese companies that had traditionally focused on producing small cars were not constrained by early CAFE standards. Their mix of vehicles allowed them to start building larger and heavier luxury and performance sedans for the U. S. market while U.S. companies were forced to downsize cars in those same categories.

A decision now by Congress to require higher fuel economy for SUVs, light trucks, and vans will especially harm U.S. car and truck manufacturers, since sales in that market niche have been the industry’s way of following the original CAFE rules and remaining profitable.

Who speaks for consumers?

Unfortunately, government seems driven to adopt more regulations despite the consequences. Manufacturers seem too tied up with corporate image concerns or hopes of regulation-driven competitive advantages to aggressively fight the new rules. Who, then, will speak out for the drivers and passengers whose lives will be further jeopardized if tougher CAFE standards are adopted?

Safety is too important to be left to either government or the companies. This is a consumer issue in need of a champion. People would continue to buy small cars even without CAFE, and they should have that option. But their government should not, by stealth and misinformation, force them to give up safety protection in exchange for a few gallons of fuel.

James D. Johnston is a resident fellow of the American Enterprise Institute.