Kay Neil doesn't need government statistics to know that small cars are more dangerous than large ones.
Neil, founder of DWI Smart, Inc., which seeks vigorous prosecution of drunk drivers, has been in four car accidents involving drunk drivers and knows firsthand the risks of small cars.
Neil's first accident occurred 1953 when a drunk driver broadsided her 1953 Chevy. Back in the 50s, automobiles were much heavier. Nobody was hurt and neither vehicle sustained significant damage.1
Neil wasn't so lucky in subsequent accidents, in which she was driving compact cars. A victim of polio in 1950, Neil blames car accidents in 1970 and 1981 for increasing the pain she must endure.2
Neil's 1970 crash was particularly severe. In that accident, a 1961 Chevy Impala plowed into the back of her VW bug, pushing Neil's backseat forward four inches and sending her car into the air. Her car spun around twice.
Neil believes her 1970 and 1981 accidents were more severe than her 1953 accident because her cars were smaller in 1970 and 1981.3
Crash data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) support Neil's conclusion. According to the NHTSA, 302 additional people die in auto accidents for every 100 pounds cut from the average car weight. Between 1975 and 1985 alone, the average car weight dropped by more than 1,000 pounds, thanks largely to passage of the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) law in 1975.4
Passed in the wake of the Mid-East oil embargo as a means of forcing the auto industry to increase auto fuel efficiency, CAFE mandates that automakers produce cars achieving an average of at least 27.5 miles per gallon (mpg) and produce light trucks (such as sports utility vehicles) achieving an average of 20.7 mpg.5 This means that for every car Ford, Chrysler or GM produce that get just 18 mpg, they must produce another car that gets 37 mpg.
The penalty for not achieving the standard can be severe: $55 for every mpg short of the required mpg, multiplied by the number of vehicles sold.6 A million cars attaining 18 mpg instead of 27.5, for example, could cost an automaker over $522 million.
While CAFE has been successful in increasing the number of fuel-efficient vehicles on the road, it has also cost lives. According to a recent USA Today analysis of NHTSA and Insurance Institute for Highway Safety data, 46,000 Americans have died in car accidents since 1975 that they would have survived had they been in larger cars.7
Despite this risk to public safety, there's talk of raising CAFE standards, particularly for light trucks like sport utility vehicles (SUVs) and minivans.8 Environmentalists argue that higher standards for trucks make sense because many Americans use these vehicles just like cars. Ironically, this is because of the CAFE law.9 The law all but made the family station wagon, notorious for its poor fuel economy, extinct. Consumers seeking vehicles large enough and safe enough for their families had to turn to SUVs or minivans, which, because they are classified as trucks, fall under the easier-to-reach 20.7 mpg standard. The SUV alternative could be placed at risk by an increase in the light truck standard.
No parent wants to be forced to choose between a vehicle that meets his family's needs and one that is safe. Yet that is precisely what higher light truck standards could do.
"I respect our need to look out for fuel efficiency," commented Kay Neil. "But when it comes to the casual sacrifice of human lives, I don't agree. We have to decide if fuel economy is worth sacrificing human lives."10
I couldn't have said it better myself.
1 Interview with Kay Neil, founder, NWI Smart, July 19, 1999.
4 James R. Healey, "Deaths by the Gallon," USA Today, July 2, 1999.
5 Daniel R. Levine, "The Law Might Kill You," Reader's Digest, March 1993.
8 "Stage Set for CAFE Freeze Vote," Update (Washington, D.C.: Coalition for Vehicle Choice), May/June 1999.
10 Interview with Kay Neil, founder, NWI Smart, July 19,
David Ridenour is vice president of The National Center for Public Policy Research. Comments may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.