A Milestone of a Mistake
Inconvenient CAFE truths.


Demands for tighter auto fuel-economy standards are a major part of the global-warming bandwagon, and the newly unveiled Markey-Platts bill on auto fuel economy is being touted by environmentalists as a “bipartisan milestone” on the issue. Unfortunately, it’s a milestone of a mistake. It continues a central tradition of proponents of this program, known as CAFE (for corporate average fuel economy) — namely, never admit that CAFE has any impact on auto safety.

In fact, CAFE is a well-established killer of a regulation, because it restricts the production of larger, more crashworthy vehicles. According to the National Academy of Sciences 2002 study of CAFE, this downsizing effect contributes to about 2,000 deaths per year — a huge toll for a program that’s been in effect for three decades.

But according to the Markey-Platts bill, the NAS study “clearly states that fuel economy can be increased without negatively impacting the safety of America’s cars and trucks”. Actually, the study doesn’t say that at all. It does suggest that new technology can allow CAFE to be increased without further downsizing, but that’s quite a bit different from say CAFE will stop killing people. The NAS study does not conclude that new technology will allow a reversal of the downsizing that’s already occurred under CAFE. Second, the study never addresses the more fundamental point that more stringent standards would very likely restrict the upsizing of the new-vehicle fleet. That upsizing — an increase in average vehicle size and weight — is something that many consumers will want if (or, more likely, when) gas prices stabilize or fall in the future. The more stringent the CAFE standards are, the less the auto industry will be able to respond to that demand.

In short, more stringent CAFE standards will be even more deadly than the current ones, and the NAS report is no basis for pretending otherwise.

The Markey-Platts bill is also notable for citing the work of an Oak Ridge researcher, David Greene, for the proposition that “fuel economy is not linked with increased fatalities.” That may sound impressive, since David Greene was a member of the NAS committee that produced the 2002 report. But Greene, it turns out, dissented from the committee’s finding that CAFE kills people.

The most notable finding of the NAS CAFE report was that CAFE was one very deadly program. It’s strange that Representatives Markey and Platt try to wrap their bill in the prestige of that report, while at the same time ducking its finding that CAFE kills.

Strange, but to be expected. In all the years that CEI has been involved in this issue, we’ve never found a single proponent of CAFE who would admit that it kills anyone. That tradition, it appears, is still going strong. You can bet that as the push for tighter CAFE standards accelerates under the global warming debate, this dubious tradition will get even stronger.

 – Sam Kazman is general counsel of the Competitive Enterprise Institute.