Fuel Efficiency Regulations Save Gas But Cost Lives and Money, by Mary Katherine Ascik

That new car you just bought may be a threat to your health – and even your life – thanks to Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards. These federal rules are responsible for thousands of needless deaths and injuries. Not only that, CAFE standards make it difficult for many Americans to afford safe cars.

The CAFE program was established by Congress in 1975. Current CAFE standards require motor vehicle manufacturers’ fleets of cars to average 27.5 miles per gallon of gasoline and their fleets of light trucks (which include minivans and SUVs) to average 20.7 miles per gallon.1 The only affordable way for automakers to meet these standards is to reduce the mass and weight of their vehicles.2

This reduction has had deadly consequences. According to a study by the National Research Council (NRC), reductions in vehicle mass and weight necessary to meet CAFE standards increase the risk of death or serious injury in crashes. The NRC study found that vehicle downsizing and downweighting resulted in between 1,300 and 2,600 deaths and between 13,000 and 26,000 serious injuries in 1993 alone.3 A USA Today report, using data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, estimated that 46,000 people – nearly as many Americans as lost their lives in the Vietnam War – have died since 1975 as a result of the vehicle downsizing and downweighting due to CAFE standards.4

CAFE standards have also been responsible for several hundred thousand injuries. African-Americans should be particularly concerned about these dangers because motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for black children.5

CAFE standards also make it harder for people to purchase cars. To meet fuel efficiency requirements, automakers must sell a certain number of small (read: fuel efficient) cars. But to induce consumers to purchase these small cars, automakers must sell them at little more than their production cost.6 To recover the profits lost through the sale of these small cars, automakers must raise the prices of larger cars and light trucks. In short, according to environmental policy expert Charli Coon of The Heritage Foundation, “CAFE standards act as a tax on larger, safer cars that is used in turn to subsidize sales of smaller, less safe cars that get more miles per gallon.”7

This de facto tax on larger cars and light trucks essentially discriminates against people who have lower incomes, larger families, need a larger vehicle or just want to own a safer car. African-Americans are particularly affected, since their incomes tend to be lower than those of whites.8

CAFE standards make today’s small cars smaller than ever, making them more dangerous than when the CAFE program was established in 1975.9 Since smaller cars are more dangerous, collision insurance for small cars is now more expensive than for larger cars and light trucks. Small, cheap cars also depreciate more quickly and can be easily damaged even in minor accidents.10

In the 27 years since they were established, CAFE standards have not only taken a toll on consumers’ lives, health and wallets; they have also failed to accomplish the goals for which they were created – reducing U.S. gasoline consumption and dependence on foreign oil. Since CAFE standards were established in 1975, oil imports have increased from approximately 35 percent of supply to 52 percent.11 Although fuel efficiency has improved, this improvement has encouraged people to drive more. Hence, CAFE has had little success in reducing overall fuel usage.12

CAFE is a failed government program that has had deadly and costly consequences for thousands of Americans, and it places those with lower incomes at particular risk. It’s time to repeal CAFE standards and put safety first.

Mary Katherine Ascik is a Research Associate of The National Center for Public Policy Research, a Washington, D.C. think tank. 

1 Charli E. Coon, J.D., “Why The Government’s CAFE standards for Fuel Efficiency Should Be Repealed, Not Increased,” Backgrounder #1458, The Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies, The Heritage Foundation, Washington, DC, downloaded from http://www.heritage.org/library/backgrounder/bg1458.html on June 5, 2002.

2 “Death By The Gallon,” USA Today, July 2, 1999, downloaded from http://www.serve.com/commonpurpose/news/cafeusatoday.html on June 5, 2002.

3 Effectiveness and Impact of Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) Standards, Committee on the Effectiveness and Impact of Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) Standards, Board on Energy and Environmental Systems, Transportation Research Board, National Research Council, National Academy of Sciences, Washington, DC, downloaded from http://books.nap.edu/books/0309076013/html/77.html on June 4, 2002.

4 “Death by the Gallon.”

5 “The Facts To Buckle Up America: Seat Belts and African Americans – 2000 Report,” National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, U.S. Department of Transportation, Washington, DC, downloaded from http://www.nhtsa.dot.gov/people/injury/airbags/buckleplan/seatbeltsafro-american.index.html on June 13, 2002.

6 “Death by the Gallon.”

7 Coon.

8 Tables H-3A and H-3B, “Historical Income Tables – Household,” U.S. Census Bureau, U. S. Department of Commerce, Washington, DC, downloaded from http://www.census.gov/hhes/income/histinc/h03ax1.html and http://www.census.gov/hhes/income/histinc/h03bx1.html on June 12, 2002.

9 “CAFE Standards Cost Lives,” National Center for Policy Analysis, Dallas, Texas, downloaded from http:/www.ncpa.org/pd/regulat/regf.html#F2 on June 5, 2002. (Original source cited as “Silent Killer,” Investor’s Business Daily, January 30, 1996.)

10 “Death by the Gallon” and “Downsizing Cars Kills” National Center for Policy Analysis, Dallas, Texas, downloaded from http://www.ncpa.org/pd/regulat/oct97d.html on June 5, 2002. (Original source cited as Eric Peters, “Wake Up and Smell the CAFE,” Investor’s Business Daily, October 28, 1997.)

11 Coon.

12 “Environmental Briefing Book Issue Brief: Automobile Fuel Economy Standards,” Competitive Enterprise Institute, Washington, DC, March 1, 1999, downloaded from http://www.cei.org/EBBReader.asp?ID=724 on June 10, 2002.

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.