Americans Could Pay for New Automobile Standards With Their Lives, by Bob Adams

An opinion/editorial piece published October 1995 by Bob Adams of The National Center for Public Policy Research

More people will die, environmental degradation will increase and jobs that families depend on will be needlessly destroyed if a regulation supported by the Clinton Administration — and environmentalists — is expanded further. Government bureaucrats are gearing up to toughen government-mandated fuel economy standards, the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards, for light trucks. The standard for these vehicles would rise from 20.6 miles per gallon to as high as 28 miles per gallon by the year 2008 — a close to 40% rise.

Congress first authorized the Department of Transportation to set and enforce CAFE standards in 1975. Spurred by concern over the energy crisis of the early 1970’s, CAFE was originally intended to reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil. More recently though, fuel economy standards have been championed by environmentalists as a means of reducing “greenhouse gases” alleged to be linked to global warming.

More fuel efficient and environmentally “friendly” pick-ups, mini- vans, and recreational vehicles sounds like a neat idea until one considers all the costs to consumers — costs federal rulemakers and environmentalists have apparently ignored. According to study by Andrew Kleit of the Federal Trade Commission, consumers will end up paying as much as $11 for every gallon of gas saved if the proposed 40% hike in the CAFE standards is permitted to take effect. But these costs pale in comparison to the toll they will take on American families and the environment:

  • Increasing CAFE standards will result in more highway fatalities. According to the American Automobile Association (AAA), small vehicles account for about twice as many fatalities as larger vehicles. In order for Detroit to increase fuel economy further, they must decrease the weight of vehicles. A study by Dr. John Graham, Director of the Harvard University Injury Control Center, found that a 40% increase for CAFE standards would cause an additional 1650 deaths and 8500 serious injuries every year.
  • Higher fuel economy will kill jobs American families depend on. The proposed CAFE standards will hit the “the big three” where it enjoys its most competitive advantage over the Japanese auto industry — the light truck category, which includes pick-ups, mini-vans, and 4-wheel drive recreational vehicles. American light trucks have steadily increased to over 40% of all new vehicle sales during the past ten years. The National Academy of Science (NAS) has estimated that a 40% increase in the standard would tack on an additional $2,750 to the sticker price, making them less competitive and reducing sales by between three and eight percent. The independent study says that job loss will parallel the crash in industry sales. And if that isn’t discouraging enough, data shows that Americans are already holding off longer on purchasing new vehicles. According to the Automotive Consulting Group, 11+ year-old vehicles still on the road increased from 24 million to over 50 million between 1980 and 1990.
  • Higher CAFE standards will harm the environment. When the costs of fuel-efficient technology are added up, many consumers are priced out of the new car market. This forces motorists to stay in older, less environmentally-friendly older cars for a longer period of time. It has been estimated that 90% of vehicle-emitted “greenhouse gases” are produced by 10% of the vehicles on the road — high polluting older cars and trucks.

Contrary to claims by environmental groups like the Sierra Club, which proposes a 60% increase in CAFE standards, greater fuel economy will not lead to cleaner air. In fact, the reverse appears to be true: According to the National Academy of Sciences report, “[CAFE] improvements will not directly affect vehicle emissions of hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide, and NOx because the emissions standards (in grams per mile) are identical for every passenger car or truck, as appropriate, regardless of fuel.” In other words, the amount of pollutants emitted from automobiles is based on miles driven — not miles per gallon. By reducing the costs of driving, higher CAFE standards may even encourage people to drive — and therefore pollute — more.

Higher CAFE standards fail a cost-benefit analysis test because they would provide plenty of costs — the loss of lives, jobs and environmental quality — but few benefits. To approve these new standards would be to place a higher value on gasoline than the livelihoods — and even the lives of the American people.

by Bob Adams – Bob Adams is Project Director for Environmental and Regulatory Affairs for The National Center for Public Policy Research.

The National Center for Public Policy Research is a communications and research foundation supportive of a strong national defense and dedicated to providing free market solutions to today’s public policy problems. We believe that the principles of a free market, individual liberty and personal responsibility provide the greatest hope for meeting the challenges facing America in the 21st century.