Unsafe at Any Speed

Tags: standards, higher, smaller, deaths, vehicle, safety, washington, economy, highway, lighter

When Washington unveiled its graphic new warning labels for cigarettes last week, several wits asked whether the federal government would slap similar warnings on its own products. To cite just one example: How many innocent civilians have died from unnecessary wars?

True, everyone already knows war is hell. But government policies can kill people in far less obvious ways. Take vehicle fuel-efficiency standards. The Obama administration has floated a proposal to more than double Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards, from the current 27.5 miles per gallon to 56.2 mpg.

As usual, the auto industry says it can't be done. But it can be, or could be. The only question is whether society is willing to pay the cost. The higher standards would raise vehicle prices, by anywhere from $770 (the government's low-end estimate) to $10,000 (the Center for Automotive Research).

Yet that is only the most obvious price. Higher fuel-economy standards also would increase highway fatalities. That is because the most effective method of increasing gasoline mileage is to make cars smaller and lighter, which makes them more dangerous.

Can auto makers improve gas mileage in other ways? Sure they can. But engineers can squeeze only so much efficiency out of engines before the law of diminishing marginal returns kicks in. Same goes for better aerodynamics, keeping your tires properly inflated and so on. Steps like those will help—a little. To get where Washington wants to go requires far more radical changes.

That is why higher gasoline taxes have won endorsement from unusual suspects such as General Motors CEO Dan Akerson and Ford Motor Co.'s Bill Ford. As the Competitive Enterprise Institute's Sam Kazman noted in a recent piece for The Wall Street Journal, "In 2009 . . . Ford [cited] the need for a 'price signal . . . strong enough so customers will continue buying smaller, fuel-efficient cars.'" (Customers don't flock to them on their own because, among other things, big families need big vehicles.)

Advocates of higher CAFE standards are correct when they insist better safety features can mitigate some of the damage done by mandating smaller, lighter cars. But this is a rhetorical head-fake. True, a small car with crumple zones and airbags is safer than a big car that doesn't have them. But a big car with those same safety features is even safer than that.

Research from a wide variety of sources has borne this out time and again. A 1989 study by Harvard and the Brookings Institution found that CAFE standards caused a 500-pound reduction in the average vehicle, resulting in additional deaths of 2,200 to 3,900 persons per decade, depending on the model in question.

In 1999, USA Today reported that CAFE standards had been responsible for 46,000 deaths since 1978. In 2003, a study by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration found that reducing a vehicle's weight by 100 pounds increased fatality rates 3 percent for light trucks, 4.7 percent for big cars, and 5.6 percent for small cars.

Well, you get the point. In any contest between a big car and a small car, the laws of physics dictate that the big car will win. As the CEI's Kazman notes, "SUVs heavier than 4,500 pounds have a death rate less than one-third that of cars under 2,500 pounds."

Advocates of higher CAFE standards say the answer is simple: Get rid of all the big cars. Problem solved, right?

Wrong—not unless we're also going to shrink trees, telephone poles, and bridge abutments too. Ask yourself: Would you rather hit a telephone pole at 30 mph on a 600-pound Harley-Davidson motorcycle, or inside a 60-ton Abrams tank? In 2009 the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety reported: "Occupants of smaller cars are at increased risk in all kinds of crashes, not just ones with heavier vehicles. Almost half of all crash deaths in [small cars] occur in single-vehicle crashes, and these deaths wouldn't be reduced if all cars became smaller and lighter." As the IIHS' Russ Rader put it last year, "We're trading more crash deaths for better fuel economy. That's the bottom line."

Well, so what? Society makes cost-benefit analyses all the time. Washington even has a standard figure, known as the value of a statistical life, to help it decide if a given regulation does more good than harm. So maybe, if you're of a strongly environmentalist bent and you believe we're killing the planet with exhaust fumes, you still think higher CAFE standards are worth the lives they will cost. Fair enough. That's a value judgment.

Still: Shouldn't it come with a warning label?

A. Barton Hinkle is a columnist at the Richmond Times-Dispatch. This column originally appeared at the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

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