New mandates for gas mileage would risk lives

February 26, 2002|By Nancy Mitchell Pfotenhauer

ARLINGTON, Va. - Politicians in our nation's capital are taking steps that will almost inevitably increase fatalities on our nation's roads. Their reason is as straightforward as it is frightening: to curry favor with environmental special interest groups in an election year.

These environmental groups are calling for new fuel mileage regulations. Sen. John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat, and Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota are spearheading the environmentalist agenda and plan to introduce new Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) mandates as soon as the Senate gets back into session.

CAFE mandates, born after the 1973 OPEC oil embargo, neither reduced America's dependence on foreign oil nor lowered gasoline consumption, the two goals of the Energy Policy and Conservation Act. Unfortunately, like many well-intentioned but interventionist government policies, CAFE had tremendous hidden costs. Tragically, those costs are measured both in dollars and in deaths.

The imposition of CAFE regulations, in effect, have pushed automakers toward smaller, lighter vehicles, which perform well with fuel-efficient engines. If this were the whole story, there would be no complaint from this mother of five. But since the current standards were adopted, an estimated 46,000 people have died in crashes that they would have survived if they had been traveling in heavier cars, according to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, as analyzed by USA Today.

As too many families have learned, Congress can't repeal the laws of physics.

Lighter vehicles are more dangerous, whether involved in a guardrail accident or a head-on collision with a heavier car. Consumers know this. A recent study by a Missouri-based marketing research firm showed that safety and price are the primary considerations when purchasing a vehicle; fuel efficiency was near the bottom of the list.

If CAFE standards are such a big loser with voters, why do politicians seem bent on increasing their restrictions and exacerbating the costs imposed on the public? Raising the CAFE standards has become one of the litmus test issues for the nation's politically potent environmental lobby.

Understandably, this lobby wants to pursue policies that result in less pollution, such as lowering gasoline consumption and reducing vehicle emissions that are believed to contribute to global warming. Unfortunately, raising the CAFE standards has not proved to accomplish the first goal and only marginally affects the second.

Since the original CAFE mandates went into effect, Americans have doubled the number of miles driven a day and oil imports have risen 22 percent. As engine efficiency improved, our miles per gallon rose accordingly.

Obviously other factors contribute to this correlation, but it is just common sense that making something more efficient will, over time, increase usage. So, ironically, the establishment of CAFE regulations may have had the unintended consequence of increasing gasoline consumption and our reliance on foreign oil.

How about lowering emissions? The evidence reveals that a sizable increase in CAFE standards would only modestly improve greenhouse gas emissions. According to 1991 figures from the Office of Technology Assessment, a 40 percent increase in fuel economy standards would lead to a reduction in greenhouse emissions of only about 0.5 percent given the optimal circumstances.

We all strive for a clean environment and are willing to bear many costs associated with achieving this goal. This mom, however, draws the line at supporting flawed policy that puts American lives on the line.

Nancy Mitchell Pfotenhauer is president of the Independent Women's Forum.

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