How Helpful Ideas Sometimes Make Matters Worse

GEORGE F. WILL

May 20, 1991|By GEORGE F. WILL

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Nevada's Sen. Richard Bryan is a Democrat who has picked a democratic fight, one involving everyone. Everyone, including Nevadans, who drive long distances at high speeds, usually in cars bigger than the senator's bill would allow.

His bill would raise CAFE (corporate average fuel economy) standards from the current 27.5 miles per gallon to approximately 34 in 1996 and 40 in 2001. His is a perversely efficient proposal, demonstrating the many vagaries of regulations and the many ways intended improvements can make matters worse.

Driving is the most dangerous thing most Americans do. Senator Bryan's bill would make it more so. Furthermore, it probably would have negligible, and perhaps negative, influence on fuel consumption and the environment.

There are two basic means of increasing automobile fuel efficiency. One is technological innovation that improves the burning of fuel and the transmitting of the resultant energy through the vehicle's drive train. The other is by making vehicles lighter.

Not even Congress can limitlessly command technological improvements. Today increased fuel mileage depends increasingly on lightening vehicles, frightening for a nation in which about 130 people -- casualties comparable to those in an airline crash -- die on roads daily.

The reduction of car sizes, and of the ratios of steel to mass, has made the average American car 23 percent lighter than in 1974. In the 1978 model year, 25 percent of the new cars weighed more than 4,000 pounds. Only one percent of cars built since 1984 do. In 1978, 70 percent of new cars weighed more than 3,500 pounds. By 1988, only 37 percent did.

Robert Crandall of the Brookings Institution and John Graham of the Harvard School of Public Health, both economists, calculate that the 500-pound weight reduction that they ascribe to CAFE standards has increased fatalities over the life of each year's model cars between 14 and 27 percent, or 2,200 to 3,900 extra deaths (plus 11,000 to 19,500 additional serious injuries) over the lifetime of each year's vehicles.

Safety measures such as air bags only partially compensate for diminished safety resulting from weight-reduction and the increased rollover potential of smaller cars with narrower wheelbases. Mr. Crandall estimates that the senator's proposed mpg standard would require weight and steel-content reductions sufficient to increase CAFE-related deaths to between 4,800 and 8,600 over the life of a model year.

If we really regarded life as ''priceless,'' or even so precious that radical measures were justified to reduce traffic deaths radically, we would willingly pay steep prices in inconveniences. We would, to cite just one example, ban left turns, which often are occasions for lethal accidents.

Safety is only one reason for the revival of consumer demand for bigger cars. America's population is aging. Baby boomers have had babies and have discovered the limited charm of close confinement with loved ones on long trips, or even short ones. The elderly value ease of ingress and egress from cars.

William Laffer, regulatory analyst for the Heritage Foundation, notes a perverse effect of the mixture of today's CAFE standards and consumer preferences. The standards are calculated not on a manufacturer's model-by-model improvements but the average of a manufacturer's total annual output. Large cars are not apt to achieve 40 mpg. Thus as demand for larger cars increases (partly because of improved fuel economy), the increased sales of such cars lowers the manufacturer's fleet average. So manufacturers are penalized for the improved fuel efficiency of large cars that shifts their sales mix from smaller to larger cars.

Is there an environmental, and hence public health, benefit commensurate with CAFE costs? Mr. Laffer argues that approximately 50 percent of all auto pollutants come from 10 percent of all cars -- generally the worst tuned and usually the oldest. If Senator Bryan's CAFE standards become law, new large cars will become much more expensive because manufacturers will raise prices of large cars to subsidize prices and stimulate sales of small cars, to improve their fleet fuel-economy average. Large cars will become more scarce -- perhaps even extinct. So millions of safety-conscious drivers will keep their old large cars rather than buy new ones, thereby injuring both the air and the autoworkers.

The real (inflation-adjusted) cost of a gallon of regular unleaded gasoline in 1981, the peak year, was $1.31, which is $1.88 in today's dollars. A 50-cent per gallon tax would not even bring the real cost of gas to what it was a decade ago, and would serve conservation (and other public goods) more efficiently than will further regulatory fiats designed to veto consumer preferences.

Such a tax would be a straightforward and minimally-intrusive way for government to pursue its energy policy without trying to fine-tune the public's private choices. CAFE standards are yet another price we pay for today's taxaphobia.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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