NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


November 21, 2005

The Department of Transportation (DOT) has proposed a reform of its automotive fuel-economy program, known as CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy). As Sam Kazman of the Competitive Enterprise Institute explains, there is a documented trade-off between fuel economy and vehicle crashworthiness -- larger, heavier cars get fewer miles per gallon, but also have lower death rates.

DOT hopes to reduce that trade-off by making the standard more flexible (creating a larger set of vehicle categories) while raising overall mpg requirements. Kazman says the "Reformed CAFE" plan is DOT's first attempt to openly alleviate CAFE's safety impact, which is much more than other proposals that have come forth in the wake of gas-price spikes.

According to Kazman:

  • The traffic death rate has improved over the last 75 years but as far as CAFE is concerned, the National Academy of Sciences says the real issue is whether motor vehicle travel is less safe than it would have been otherwise; in a 2002 report, they conclude that it was, by about 2,000 deaths.
  • The major increase in fuel economy occurred in 1975-80 and it was due less to CAFE than to market forces; in the face of steeply rising gas prices, the public demanded higher fuel economy and the industry responded.
  • New technologies can certainly make small cars safer, but they do not eliminate the CAFE/safety trade-off.
  • Half of all occupant deaths occur in single-vehicle collisions, where large mass offers more protection without putting anyone at risk.

Kazman says studies may eventually demonstrate that increased size and reduced mass can offset each other to produce cars that are both safer and more fuel-efficient. Costs and reliability of such designs, however, are still unknown, and it is much too early to make this approach a basis for ramping up CAFE.

Source: Sam Kazman, "CAFE is Bad for Your Health," Wall Street Journal, November 14, 2005.

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