CAFE Belongs in the Graveyard with its Victims: We Can Increase Fuel Economy Without Costing Lives, by Tom Randall

The Senate, laughably called the world’s greatest deliberative body, recently found itself locked in another absurd debate, spurred on by two men whose primary motivation seems to be their desire for George W. Bush’s job – Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and John Kerry (D-MA).

The Johns and a handful of their colleagues got together to propose that corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards be raised from the current 27.5 miles per gallon for cars and 20.7 mpg for light trucks to 36 mpg for both.1

The Johns are not stupid, so they had to know full well that such an increase is not possible without eliminating sports utility vehicles, the transportation of choice for many, including Moms who haul bevies of kids to their various games, parties and outings of all sorts. It is a choice Moms make because the current CAFE standards eliminated the large family sedans and station wagons that used to serve such purposes.2

The Johns also know that current CAFE standards have cost thousands of lives because average vehicle weights had to be dramatically decreased to meet them. In fact, nearly as many lives have been lost to CAFE as to the Vietnam War. We know the Johns know this because the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) told them so.3

The Johns also know that their proposed large, across-the-board increase in CAFE standards would cause additional deaths if implemented. They know this because the National Research Council told them, “…any increase in CAFE as currently structured could produce additional road casualties, unless it is specifically targeted at the largest, heaviest light trucks. If an increase in fuel economy is effected by a system that encourages either downweighting or the production and sale of more small cars, some additional traffic fatalities would be expected.”4

Interestingly, the Johns must also have known, as the Sierra Club’s Dan Becker told Environment and Energy News, that their measure had virtually no chance of passing into law.5

And it didn’t.

However, since both John McCain and John Kerry have presidential aspirations, and undoubtedly see environmentalists such as Becker essential to their success, the Senate engaged itself in an absurd debate.

On the winning side was a group led by Senator Carl Levin (D-MI) and Christopher “Kit” Bond (R-MO). Their amendment, which was approved, simply leaves it up to the NHTSA to develop mileage standards and dates for implementation.6This seemingly harmless “do nothing” approach might have some chance of passage. However, it may in the end be as disastrous as the Kerry-McCain proposal would have been.

It was just such vague “leave it up to the bureaucrats” legislation that turned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) into the 800-pound, answerable-to-no-one regulatory gorilla that it is today.

Fortunately, there is a third way to go providing the Johns and other politicians care as much about the safety and well-being of their constituents as they do about preening for the presidency.

Stop government from reducing fuel efficiency. Here’s how: Allow expanded use of diesel engines.

Nearly every European automaker makes diesel versions of the gasoline-powered cars they send to the U.S. They get incredible mileage with great performance. Volkswagen’s Golf, Jetta and New Beetle, powered by their new unit-injector turbo diesel engines, are running all over Europe getting 47/55 mpg. These engines and others like them could be built to power just about any size vehicle with dramatically improved fuel economy.7

But not in the U.S.

The EPA doesn’t like diesels because they emit fine particulate matter that the agency says aren’t good for us – though they don’t seem to be hurting the greener-than-thou Europeans.

And quit this business about wanting Americans to drive alternative fuel and “dual-fuel” cars. The Department of Energy and EPA’s own figures show they get, pound-for-pound, about one-fourth to one-third fewer miles per gallon than gasoline-powered vehicles.8

If, in the end you still want lighter vehicles, and want them to be safe, stand aside. Industry experts say amazing new technology is on the way… without government help. It hold outs the promise of making cars both lighter, which increases fuel economy, yet safer.9

The Johns and their ilk are not the solution. They contribute to the problem. That’s no way to run for President.


Tom Randall is the Director of Environmental & Regulatory Affairs of the John P. McGovern, MD Center for Environmental and Regulatory Affairs of The National Center for Public Policy Research. 


1 Gretchen Randall, “Fuel Efficiency Standards: What to Do Next,” National Policy Analysis #393, The National Center for Public Policy Research, Washington, DC, February 2002, available online at
2 Ibid.
3 Ibid.
4 “Effectiveness and Impact of Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) Standards,” National Research Council, Washington, DC, 2002.
5 Colin Sullivan, Suzanne Struglinski and Natalie M. Henry, “Energy Policy, Trading Reform Could Dominate Debate,” Greenwire, March 13, 2001, downloaded from on March 12, 2002, paid subscription required for access.
6 Ibid.
7 Interview with Robert Brooks, Wards Engine and Vehicle Technology Update, March 13, 2002.
8 “Model Year 2002 Fuel Economy Guide,” U.S. Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Agency, Washington, DC, DOE/SS-0250.
9 Interview with Robert Brooks.

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