wonder why the family station wagon vanished? At a recent family
reunion, we were fondly recalling our Chicago-to-Colorado summer
trips in our station wagon. Dad would lovingly wax it weekly and
replace the wood along the side seemingly monthly. Many memories
of us six kids are linked to those station wagons.
primarily because government fuel-efficiency standards drove manufacturers
out of the station-wagon business.
This loss would
be acceptable if the government regulations delivered as they promised
to by strengthening America's national security, reducing
our dependence on foreign oil, diminishing pollution, furthering
the conservation of our environment, and contributing to public
safety and welfare.
But they haven't.
Quite the contrary. They don't help us as consumers, and they don't
further our national security at a time when America has
to wage war in an increasingly unruly, even hostile, world.
In fact, fuel-efficiency
standards on cars known as Corporate Average Fuel Economy
standards, or CAFE make up a classic case study in doing
real harm by attempting to do a noble good. No other government
regulation has become as Sam Kazman called CAFE "a
regulation that, plain and simply, kills people." (Kazman is
general counsel of the respected Competitive
Enterprise Institute, a nonprofit think tank.)
sounded so worthy when they were first enacted, in 1975. American
conspicuous consumption symbolized by gas-guzzling cars like
our beloved wood-adorned station wagon would be curbed for
the collective good. Small cars would be fostered for everyone's
sake. Our environment would be saved and, with it, humanity's future.
Who could object?
That was the
pitch. Sadly, nearly every benefit CAFE standards promised hasn't
happened. Unintended consequences, on the other hand, have
done damage. What the late Harvard social scientist Edward Banfield
said about many social-welfare programs proved true of CAFE standards:
"Do no good, and no harm will come of it."
predicted that auto manufacturers would design cars with greater
fuel efficiency, but without sacrificing size, comfort, or safety.
That hasn't happened.
Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that over CAFE's first
ten years, cars became on average 1,000 pounds lighter, and their
wheelbases ten inches smaller. This auto-downsizing was essential
to getting more miles per gallon. So it's good for the principle
of gas consumption.
But it's bad
for people. Smaller cars means more death on the highways. Last
summer, a National Academy of Sciences panel concluded that CAFE
had contributed to between 1,300 and 2,600 traffic deaths each
year, with ten times the number of serious injuries. Another
authoritative source found similar results. The Harvard Center for
Risk Analysis concluded that these regulations account for half
of the weight reduction in new cars, which led to "2,200 to
3,900 additional fatalities to motorists per year."
The head of
the Harvard group stands by this astonishing finding: "To the
best of my knowledge, these findings have never been disputed in
the peer-reviewed scientific literature."
A USA Today
report found that the regulations cost 7,700 American lives for
every mile-per-gallon gained through 1999. USA Today found
that since its enactment, CAFE has resulted in a whopping 46,000
fatalities more than 15 times the number murdered on September
Even such a
professional do-gooder as Ralph Nader made this connection between
personal safety and automotive size. When asked in 1989 what type
of car he would buy, the author of the landmark bestseller Unsafe
At Any Speed (1965) and father of consumer protection said:
"Well, large cars are safer. There is more bulk to protect
like any government regulation, restricted consumer choice. The
station wagon had to go, since each auto manufacturer had to average
27.5 miles per gallon. This was not attainable with lots of station
wagons leaving the assembly line.
SUV was created. Though less fuel-efficient than station wagons,
they fit into another government category the "light
truck"; standard: 20.7 miles per gallon.
counter-arguments over CAFE standards would make for lively think-tank
disputes, were the stakes not so high. Protecting American lives
should be as high a government priority as fuel economy. And protecting
the now-fragile American economy, which is funding our military
at this time of war, is likewise vital to our collective future.
Yet some powerful
senators now seek to tarnish the one bright spot in today's dark
economy. Just as sales of sport-utility vehicles are skyrocketing
up by a stunning 63 percent in October (from one year ago)
for General Motors, 45 percent for Ford, and 17 percent for DaimlerChrysler
powerful members of the Senate Commerce Committee are advocating
crippling new government regulations.
Some of them
claim that such a move helps our national security by reducing our
dependence on foreign oil. Were it so, CAFE standards might be worth
the cost to American consumers.
But our reliance
on foreign oil has increased not decreased, as promised
since CAFE standards were enacted. Besides, this set of regulations
has added costs to new cars, causing a significant number of consumers
to retain older, less fuel-efficient cars longer than they would
as existing CAFE standards are to us consumers, making them more
stringent would positively harm U.S. national security, by encumbering
an already weakened economy. The stronger America is economically,
the stronger we can be in the world.
America rolling," goes the new General Motors jingle. Yet "Stop
America rolling" would be the outcome of various proposals
for the energy bill, which already passed the House, and will be
debated and voted on in the Senate when Congress resumes at the
end of the month.
current CAFE assault is largely unnecessary. More than a year ago,
Ford Motor Company set its own goal of improving the fuel economy
of its SUVs by 25 percent before 2005. Both General Motors and DaimlerChrysler
quickly promised to match, or even beat, Ford's gains.
reports that its SUVs, pickup trucks, and minivans are already more
fuel-efficient than Ford's, and will stay that way. "Continuing
to be better than Ford is what we said we'd do," Rick Wagoner,
GM's CEO said and "not just Ford. Particularly if you
look at truck products, we stack up very well against Toyota, or
others, product by product."
consumer-protection advocates, and those concerned with U.S. national
security should be applauding such private-sector responsibility,
rather than urging more government regulation in the name of the
collective good. That's how to keep America rolling free,
prosperous, and strong in an increasingly threatening world.