TCS Daily

Whither the Wagon?

By Ken Adelman - February 21, 2002 12:00 AM

Ever 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.

They're gone 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 the Competitive Enterprise Institute's Sam Kazman called CAFE - "a regulation that, plain and simply, kills people."

CAFE standards 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."

Supporters predicted that auto manufacturers would design cars with greater fuel efficiency, but without sacrificing size, comfort, or safety. That hasn't happened.

The National 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 11.

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 the occupant."

CAFE standards, 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.

Instead, the 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.

Arguments and 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 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 otherwise.

As harmful 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.

A version of this article first appeared in National Review Online.

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