NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

CAFE's Dirty Little Secret

July 20, 2001

Environmentalists are once again lobbying Congress to increase the gas-mileage requirements for American vehicles. Political observers say the activists' aim is to get sports utility vehicles off production lines.

Since 1984, the corporate average fuel economy standard -- known as CAFE and set as a goal for automakers -- has been 27.5 miles per gallon. But the standard for light trucks was set at 20.7 mpg.

Automakers went about achieving the standard mostly through reducing the weight of cars. But as a leaked draft report of the National Academy of Sciences acknowledges, lighter cars have meant unnecessary traffic deaths.

  • Since 1978, the weight of the average passenger car has dropped by about 1,000 pounds.
  • The Competitive Enterprise Institute has built upon research by the Brookings Institution's Robert Crandall and Harvard University's John Graham to conclude that in 1997 lower car weights linked to the CAFE standard accounted for between 2,600 and 4,500 traffic fatalities.
  • The victims were particularly vulnerable in collisions with trucks and buses.
  • While the overall rate of traffic deaths continues to fall, it would have fallen even further without CAFE, analysts conclude.

The federal government has long contended that there is no link between CAFE standards and traffic fatalities. But two federal appeals courts have criticized that stance. Now the NAS appears poised to make that link.

It has been pointed out that if CAFE were a chemical that cost even a few dozen lives a year, it would have been banned as an unacceptable risk years ago.

Source: Editorial, "CAFE's True Cost," Wall Street Journal, July 20, 2001.

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