Death in the CAFE

By Doug Magill


A liberal friend smugly commented to me recently that one of President Obama’s positive achievements was the increase in the Corporate Average Fuel Economy Standards (CAFÉ ) to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025.  My pal proclaimed that by mandating those standards we would save a tremendous amount of gasoline and have an enormous impact on our carbon footprint.

I noted that announcing an intention does not really constitute an achievement, and then casually mentioned that if all the Harry Potter of the Potomac had to do was wave his wand and make things happen, how come he didn’t make gasoline $.75 a gallon, or declare solar power to be mandatory for all electricity use (oops, maybe he tried that in that Solyndra thing)?  Of course, why not really go for the gusto and declare that Jack Nicklaus is allowed to go faster than light so he can design some golf courses in a really exotic location so our President can go there at taxpayer expense?

My friend opined that I wasn’t taking him seriously, and that CAFÉ was different and the president really was making a difference.

The conversation became even less friendly when I stated that there was a vast difference between good intentions and actual results, and perhaps my friend didn’t realize that he was encouraging the death of thousands of people as well as insuring that millions more were effectively priced out of the car market.  Angry words accompanied by incredulous looks followed while I tried to explain.

CAFÉ standards were first passed in 1975 in response to the 1973 Arab Oil Embargo.  Like many things that the government does however well-intentioned, it has been a bureaucratic nightmare although it has been a feel-good opportunity for Democrats to praise the power of government.  The reality however, as is so often the case with government, is not as is portrayed.

No matter how magical my liberal friend considers Obama, he has as of yet been unable to change the laws of physics.

A typical Chevy Silverado pickup weighs in at almost 4500 pounds, while the curb weight of a Honda Fit is 2400 pounds.  In order to understand the affect of this weight difference we need to do some basic calculations on the force each vehicle would strike the other if each were travelling at the NHTSA standard of 35 miles per hour (or 15.75 meters per second).

Such calculations are performed in Newtons, which is the force required to accelerate one kilogram at a rate of one meter per second squared.

Using Newton’s Second Law of Motion, whereby the force exerted is equal to the mass of the object times its acceleration, our Silverado exerts a force of 638,820 Newtons in a crash with another vehicle (assuming it decelerates to zero in 5 hundredths of a second because of the impact).

Our Honda Fit exerts a force of 343,665 Newtons in the same scenario, a difference of 295,155 Newtons, or roughly 271 times the weight of the Fit.  Guess what?  The Fit loses in every way possible in this kind of impact.

That is the problem with CAFÉ standards.  It’s not hard to get to 55 miles per gallon, if you make everyone drive Vespas, or cars without side steel door beams, or heavy frames.  The result is that smaller vehicles are less crash-resistant, and will result in greater fatalities for their occupants.  Car companies have known this since the first CAFÉ nightmare: make cars smaller and lighter and they will get better gas mileage.  But at a price.

In 2007, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety noted that “None of the 15 vehicles with the lowest driver death rates is a small model.  In contrast, 11 of the 16 vehicles with the highest death rates are mini or small models.”

The Brookings Institution performed its own study and found that a reduction of 500 pounds increases annual highway deaths by up to 3900, and serious injuries by up to almost 20,000.  USA Today found that 7,700 deaths occurred for every mile per gallon gained in fuel economy (due to weight reduction).

The exact number of deaths is impossible to know, but according to J.R. Dunn in The American Thinker, “the total ranges from 41,600 to 124,800.  To that figure we can add between 352,000 and 624,000 people suffering serious injuries.  In the past thirty years , fuel standards have become one of the major causes of death and misery in the United States.”  He also noted that “Drivers in lightweight cars were as much as twelve times more likely to die in a crash.”

The National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA) did a study of the economic effects of the new CAFÉ standards.  They concluded that the result will be 7 million lower income consumers priced out of being able to buy a new car, as it will raise the average price of cars and light trucks by $3000 each.  The study noted that a Chevy Aveo would increase from $12,700 to $15,700 – without accounting for inflation.

We couldn’t leave the subject without noting that there will also undoubtedly be political compromises along the way.  Another administration may rescind these standards, or – like most regulatory fiats – there will be exceptions carved out to suit a particular interest group (or in Obama’s case donor group).  For instance, when the original standards came out there were exceptions made for SUVs and light trucks as the Japanese didn’t sell many of those and American manufacturers made a lot of money on them.  Something that contributed to the demise of the station wagon which was not exempted, by the way.

While liberals pat themselves on the back on another symbolic gesture that does not address the real issue at hand, the real world effects are ugly and not discussed in polite company.  In addition to the studies noted above, the National Acadmey of Sciences as well as the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration (NHTSA) itself came to the same conclusion in their own studies as noted by J.R. Dunn: “CAFÉ standards kill.”


Doug Magill has worked in the automobile industry and has had occasion to bless the sturdiness of a larger, heavier vehicle in protecting his children.  He is currently a voice-over talent and freelance writer.  He can be reached at




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