Dying for Better Gas Mileage

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The Article

Are you dying to get a car with better gas mileage? You may soon be running that risk, all in the name of “energy security.”

This week President Bush announced his plan to reduce U.S. gasoline consumption by 20 percent over the next 10 years. Five percent of this reduction — 8.5 billion gallons per year — is to come from increased gas mileage requirements for new cars and light trucks, known as Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards.

Increasing CAFE standards sounds like a no-brainer. Just mandate new standards and, somehow, auto company wizards will find a way to meet them with new technology, right?

The unfortunate reality, however, is that the only practical way automakers can meet higher CAFE standards at present is by the rather low-tech method of reducing the weight of automobiles.

And lighter cars are deadlier cars.

The National Academy of Sciences concluded in 2001 that existing CAFE standards increased traffic deaths by 1,300 to 2,600 per year. A Harvard University/Brookings Institution study put the figure at between 2,200 and 3,900 deaths per year.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has estimated that since CAFE was implemented, more than 46,000 traffic deaths would have been avoided if people had been driving heavier cars. Many tens of thousands more, of course, have been needlessly injured.

The NHTSA concluded in an October 2003 report that CAFE standards are even deadlier than the agency previously thought.

Every 100-pound reduction in the weight of small cars (those weighing 2,950 pounds or less), for example, increased annual traffic fatalities by as much as 715, according to NHTSA. For larger cars and light trucks, the agency estimated that each 100-pound reduction in weight would increase annual traffic fatalities by as much as 303 and 296, respectively.

“When two vehicles collide, the laws of physics favor the occupants of the heavier vehicle (momentum conservation). Furthermore, heavier vehicles were in most cases longer, wider and less fragile than light vehicles. In part because of this, they usually had greater crashworthiness, structural integrity and directional stability. They were less roll-over prone and easier for the average driver to control in a panic situation,” explained NHTSA.

And just in case you’re thinking that air bags will save you or a loved one in a lighter, more fuel efficient car, you may need to reconsider depending on your height.

A study presented this week at the 2007 Society for Academic Emergency Medicine Annual meeting reported that air bags actually are harmful to short and tall people.

Dr. Craig Newgard, an assistant professor of emergency medicine at the Oregon Health and Science University, analyzed crash data for over 65,000 front-seat occupants and found that air bags, while effective for people of medium stature (5-foot-3 to 5-foot-11) were actually harmful to people shorter than 4-foot-11 and taller than 6-foot-3.

Despite CAFE’s acknowledged risks to life and limb, are these risks outweighed by any potential “energy security” or economic benefits?

In terms of energy security, it’s not at all clear how using 5 percent less gasoline would help protect the U.S. from global oil shocks. We import about 60 percent of our oil needs, 40 percent of which comes from OPEC members. Oil is a global commodity and prices are set in the global market.

About 50 percent of the known oil reserves are in the Middle East, a region that, as long as we use oil, will always have a major impact on the availability of and prices we pay for gasoline.

Given our growing economy and barring the development of stunning new automotive fuel technology, our oil import and consumption profiles are not likely to change any time soon. Energy security, at least in terms of imported oil, is a pipe dream.

And should we drive less-safe cars for a pipe dream?

President Bush’s plan is also folly in economic terms. What is the economic impact of a 5 percent reduction in gasoline use? Let’s generously assume for the sake of argument that CAFE standards reduce gasoline use and that lower demand for gasoline translates into a $1-per-gallon savings in gas prices, for a total annual savings on a national scale of $8.5 billion based on the president’s plan.

Sounds great, right? But when you balance that potential benefit against the 2,000 lives lost annually from the CAFE standards, it’s not such a bargain.

Putting aside the thousands of annual family and personal tragedies caused by CAFE, at $5 million per life — that’s the value the U.S. government puts on our lives when it comes to environmental protection — CAFE’s cost is $10 billion in lost lives. And that figure doesn’t include CAFE-caused health care costs and lost income due to non-fatal traffic injuries.

The bottom line is that CAFE standards endanger lives without providing commensurate benefits to individuals or to the nation. Improved gas mileage is a fine goal, but let’s figure out a less lethal way of achieving it.

Steven Milloy
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