The national highway death and injury act of 1991

William G. Laffer III

May 07, 1991|By William G. Laffer III

THOUSANDS of additional Americans will perish on U.S. highways unless Congress puts the brakes on legislation requiring an increase in the fuel economy of automobiles sold in the United States.

The Motor Vehicle Fuel Efficiency Act, introduced by Sen. Richard Bryan, D-Nev., will sharply increase the present 27.5 miles per gallon (mpg) fuel-economy standard to approximately 34 mpg by the year 1996, and nearly 40 mpg by 2001. The bill's stated goals are simple: to reduce fuel consumption and, hence, U.S. dependence on foreign oil.

But the unintended consequences will be far different. Raising the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards will force manufacturers to produce "puddle jumpers" -- smaller, lighter, and less crashworthy cars. Indeed, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration studies confirm a significant relationship between vehicle size and the rate of death or serious injury in accidents.

Current CAFE standards, which apply to any manufacturer that sells more than 10,000 cars per year in the United States, already cause as many as 3,900 additional highway deaths for all cars sold in any given model year, calculated over a 10-year period.

By compelling the manufacture and sale of smaller, less-safe cars, the bill could raise the CAFE death toll 30 to 60 percent nationally, or between 4,800 to 8,600 deaths per model year over 10 years -- forcing Americans, in effect, to trade blood for oil.

In addition to safety concerns, the proposed increase in CAFE standards is on a collision course with the jobs of thousands of American workers, not all of them in the auto industry. For example, since the easiest way to make cars lighter and increase mileage is to reduce the steel content of cars, steel workers will suffer. So will workers in other auto-related industries.

Higher CAFE standards also will penalize efficiency. The CAFE ratings are not calculated on the basis of the fuel efficiency of each model, but on the average efficiency of all autos sold by a given manufacturer. Thus, if Chevrolet or Dodge sells too many large cars -- even very fuel-efficient ones -- and fewer smaller cars with even higher mpg ratings, it will run afoul of the standards. To prevent this, automakers likely will try to change the mix of cars they sell by raising the prices of larger cars. This, of course, would penalize large families or those who prefer bigger, safer cars -- such as the elderly.

Worse still, higher CAFE standards likely will have little or no impact on energy conservation. CAFE supporters point to the increase in fuel economy after CAFE took effect in 1978. But fuel economy improved long before that, increasing 40 percent from 1974 to 1978. The reason: As gasoline prices rose, consumers demanded more fuel-efficient cars.

No federal regulation was needed to tell automakers to improve fuel economy. Consumers sent the message.

Supporters of the higher mileage requirement argue that it's needed to reduce American dependence on Middle East oil. But there's a Catch-22: By making new cars more expensive, CAFE standards will prompt many drivers to keep their older, less fuel-efficient cars longer. That kind of strategy won't do much to wean us off oil imports.

The bill not only will fail to achieve any of its stated goals, it will fail to balance the need for more energy-efficient cars with consumer demands. If Congress wants to foster energy conservation, it should allow the price system to operate freely. The trade-off between the safety of a vehicle and its fuel efficiency must be left to the individual consumer, not the government.

William G. Laffer III is McKenna senior policy analyst in regulatory affairs at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank.

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