Senate rejects tighter CAFE as new data link program to thousands of deaths

Published April 1, 2002

Efforts to toughen a federal program initiated in response to the 1973 Arab oil embargo were rejected by the U.S. Senate on March 12, when Senators from both parties opted only to require that the Department of Transportation develop new standards within two years.

The 62-38 vote, on a measure sponsored by Sens. Carl Levin (D-Michigan) and Christopher Bond (R-Missouri), represented a major loss for environmentalists and hard-liners in the Senate who wanted corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards tightened immediately.

In a separate 56-44 vote, the Senate also passed an amendment by Sen. Zell Miller (D-Georgia) ordering that pickup trucks be exempted from future mandated standards.

Democratic Senators John Kerry of Massachusetts and Ernest Hollings of South Carolina had proposed a bill that would require new cars and light trucks to average 35 miles per gallon by 2013. Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona supported a similar bill that would impose a requirement of 36 miles per gallon by 2016. Current fuel economy standards require cars to average 27.5 miles per gallon and light trucks to average 20.7 mpg.

Labor unions, consumer safety advocates, and economists had voiced opposition to significant tightening of the CAFE program, which, they say, would fail to reduce oil consumption and would endanger passenger safety and American jobs.

Price spikes drive debate

The CAFE standards were first implemented in 1975 after the Arab oil embargo and ongoing gasoline shortages. The goal of CAFE was to lessen the impact of gasoline supply disruptions by making American vehicles more energy efficient. A secondary goal was to encourage lower gasoline prices by curtailing consumer demand.

Calls for higher CAFE standards heated up last year when gasoline prices spiked for the second spring in a row. The debate cooled down when gasoline prices quickly returned to normal, but picked up again in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks on America.

“The scientific studies show we’re right, and we’re going to use the truth to combat the industry’s lobbying clout,” said Kerry in a prepared statement on February 17.

Kerry did not identify the “scientific studies” to which he was referring. CAFE opponents, however, cited a substantial research literature indicating tighter standards would have little effect on gasoline consumption, would eliminate thousands of American jobs, and would cost thousands of American lives.

NAS: CAFE kills

Andrew Kleit, associate professor of energy, environmental, and mineral economics at Penn State University, released on February 7 a study showing higher CAFE standards would not restrict gasoline consumption as much as CAFE proponents predict.

“CAFE standard increases affect only new vehicles and do nothing to reduce driving. In fact, they tend to encourage increased driving as costs per mile driven decline,” stated Kleit. “They also encourage the retention of older, less ‘fuel-efficient’ vehicles.”

According to the Kleit study, the “rebound effect” of increased driving would not only mitigate desired fuel conservation, but would lead to more automobile pollution as well.

“If CAFE standards increase miles driven, say via the rebound effect for mileage, they can be expected to increase emissions of traditional pollutants,” Kleit noted.

Kleit is not the first researcher to have pinned serious negative, unintended consequences on CAFE. Others have concluded CAFE standards have caused thousands of American deaths by requiring lighter, less crash-resistant vehicles.

A 2001 study by the National Academy of Sciences found that CAFE, even at its current levels, contributes to between 1,300 and 2,600 traffic deaths every year. A Harvard University/Brookings Institution study put the figure at between 2,200 and 3,900 deaths per year, further determining that between 440 and 780 Americans die for every 100 pounds shaved off vehicle weight. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has estimated that since CAFE was first implemented, 46,000 traffic deaths would have been avoided if people were driving heavier cars.

In the mid-1960s, the United States ranked first in vehicle safety, boasting the lowest vehicle fatality rate in the world. It has fallen to 13th place since implementation of CAFE standards.

“The conclusion is that CAFE has caused, and is causing, increased deaths,” stated Dr. Leonard Evans of the National Academy of Sciences. “Higher CAFE standards will generate additional deaths. … From a technical point of view, there is no fuzziness or ambiguity of any sort whatsoever regarding CAFE. CAFE kills, and higher CAFE standards will kill even more.”

Livelihoods threatened as well

Although such high-profile senators as Kerry, Hollings, and McCain wanted tighter CAFE standards, many senators from both sides of the aisle remained unswayed. The list of skeptical senators included Levin, George Voinovich (R-Ohio), Bond, Debbie Stabenow (D-Michigan), and Jean Carnahan (D-Missouri).

“I thing the Democratic caucus is significantly divided on the issue,” observed Alan Reuther, legislative director of the United Auto Workers union.

The skeptics warn that increased CAFE standards will cost not only lives, but livelihoods. Researcher Kleit concluded the Kerry/Hollings proposal would eliminate more than 100,000 jobs in the nation’s domestic auto and supplier industries. The UAW warned the Kerry-Hollings bill “directly threatens the jobs of thousands of UAW members.”

“We do need to take steps to produce more fuel-efficient vehicles,” said a spokesman for Carnahan. “But we have to take into account that there are a lot of jobs as well.” Among Carnahan’s constituents are workers and plant managers at DaimlerChrysler’s Fenton, Missouri, plant, who recently hosted a “Save Our Jobs” rally.

“We believe in the need for fuel economy improvements,” said Ronnell Coleman, president of United Auto Workers Local 597. “But we don’t accept radical plans that could result in a loss of Missouri jobs.”

In an effort to pressure the undecided, the Sierra Club had targeted nine senators in radio ads it ran in February. The ads argued raising CAFE standards was a better way to lower America’s dependence on foreign oil than drilling in Alaska.

The ads appeared to backfire, however, as they left some listeners wondering whether the Sierra Club preferred killing people to inconveniencing caribou. Others noted how the ads, by their silence on the gas price issue, implicitly abandoned the rationale used to impose CAFE standards in the first place.

Nancy Mitchell Pfotenhauer, president of the Independent Women’s Forum, observed that oil embargoes are a distant memory, and the price of gas is no higher than it was 20 years ago.

“Why do we need to further tighten a costly and deadly program that is clearly no longer necessary?” wondered Pfotenhauer.