In 1975, The US Congress passed laws forcing automobile manufacturers to increase the average miles per gallon for cars below a certain weight. The Corporate Average Fuel Economy, or CAFE standards were born. The law, created in the wake of the 1973 Arab Oil Embargo, was designed to decrease the nation’s consumption of foreign oil. This was a reasonable goal. However the method was doomed to fail. As fuel prices fell following the embargo, and as the cars produced for sale in the US became more fuel efficient, the cost to operate them fell. As the cost to operate them fell, more people bought cars and consumed more gas. In 1970, the US imported 20% of its oil. We now import roughly 60%.1 Further, 2006 was the first year in 25 plus years that Americans decreased their average miles per vehicle per year.2 What happened in 2006? There was a significant price increase on fuel. The CAFE standards failed to achieve any reductions in our consumption of fuel. Instead American’s just drove more.
Its quite simple really. If you decrease the price of something you increase the demand. If the decreased price and subsequent increased demand result in a higher consumption of the product, then the attempt to decrease consumption is a failure. So is the case with CAFE standards. Some may say, so what? So the standards failed to prevent fuel consumption. In many ways, that is a fair question.
Unfortunately these policies have had a very serious cost in human lives. In order to accomplish the standards, cars were made from less protective stuff. Lighter materials were used to improve fuel efficiency at the cost of protection of the occupants. Remember the Chevrolet Geo? Imagine one of those in a wreck with an 18-wheeler. In 1999 the USA Today reported, using National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data, that since their inception, the CAFE standards resulted in over 46,000 additional deaths on American highways.3 That is nearly as many deaths suffered by the US during the entire Vietnam War. Further, the National Research Council concluded that in 1993, there were between 1,300 and 2,600 unnecessary deaths due to the changes in vehicle mass and weight imposed by the CAFE standards.4 That is more dead Americans per year than produced per year in the war in Iraq.
Yet, what now from our government? Last week, Mr. Obama demanded that the standards increase from 27.5 miles per gallon to 35 miles per gallon by 2011; in just 1.5 years. That increase will mean lighter vehicles and more deaths. "Hoping" for new technologies resulting in lighter, stronger materials is not a method for saving lives. If the technology could have been produced it would have been. The results of the above mentioned studies reflect that is not the case. And placing the deadline of 2011 is an absolute means of ensuring that either the car builders of the world will pay enormous fines, or many Americans will perish in lighter vehicles.
Granted, the goal of decreasing our dependence on foreign is an appropriate bull's eye. Even if the goal is purely environmental, which for many these standards are, the means will not accomplish the end. These new standards WILL NOT decrease consumption. The deaths of Americans will come as the cost; but as the past almost 35 years have shown there will be no benefit. If you improve efficiency and thus decrease the cost to operate the vehicle, the use of the vehicle and thus the consumption of gas will increase. Basic economics. Unfortunately, our government, just doesn’t get it.
1Mark Levine, Liberty and Tyranny, 2009
2Gasoline and the American People, Cambridge Energy Research Associate, 2006. http://www.cera.com/aspx/cda/public1/about/about.aspx
3James R. Healey, "Death by the Gallon," USA Today, July 2, 1999
4Mary Katherine Ascik, Fuel Efficiency Regulations Cost Lives and Money, National Center For Public Policy Research, August 2002. http://www.nationalcenter.org/NPA427.html