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Under-reported scandal may kill again
Scripps Howard News Service


August 26, 2005

Fuel-economy standards have killed at least 40,000 Americans, maybe more, maybe a figure as high as the number of U.S. troops killed in the Vietnam War, and yet here we go again: The Bush administration wants new, tougher standards, though not nearly as tough as those sought by environmental activists, countless liberal politicians, even some conservatives.

It is a deadly desire that might not be threatening us today if news outlets had ever treated the 1970s enactment of the Corporate Average Fuel Economy Program for the very nearly unparalleled governmental scandal that it was. The choice has mainly been to ignore highly reputable researchers on a panel of the National Academy of Scientists and from Harvard and the Brookings Institution who were among those informing us that the act was at one time costing a minimum of 1,000 lives a year and perhaps three or four times that many.

True, USA Today did a hard-hitting investigative piece on the issue, confirming the human cost of the legislation, and there have been scattered stories and commentaries referring to the deaths, some expressing horror at what happened. But this mass extinction of Americans has received scarcely a fraction of the media attention engendered by innumerable incidents both governmental and private that, while certifiably disgraceful, were nowhere near as consequential.

I think I know why. I think the fault lies with a widespread news-media mindset in which regulations are almost always the good guys riding down the hill to rescue the citizenry from that villain of villains: dastardly business practices. It's very nearly unfathomable to some reporters that no matter how well-intentioned, sweeping governmental interventions in the world of manufacturing and commerce can do more harm - snuff out more lives - than any dozen corporate CEOs on the greediest, most callous or negligent day they have ever had.

The 1970s standards, prompted by an OPEC oil embargo, were meant to increase the number of miles per gallon burned on average by passenger cars and light trucks. The idea may have been to prompt gas-saving technological innovations, but here is something that members of Congress should try to comprehend: You cannot legislate technology. Detroit mainly met the standards by downsizing cars. The smaller the auto, the less the gas consumption. But the smaller the auto, the more dangerous it also is in accidents. This is a fact. It is demonstrable as a matter of physics, and has been proven definitively in experiments.

So the policy stuck people in small cars where they would have less chance of living in the event of a crash. And what was achieved? Not much, various experts have reported. There were some gas savings, but not enough to lessen dependence on foreign oil or reduce air pollution much from what it would have been. The standards have not made a dent in global warming. The mandates caused some people to hang onto their old cars longer. When they did buy more fuel-efficient cars, they tended to drive them more, nullifying the oil savings. They were also less inclined to car-pool and take other measures to reduce gas consumption, analysts say.

Consumers struck back by buying SUVs, which were in the light-truck category. They wanted safety, and they wanted space, and if they had to pay more for gas, so be it. The left was fit to be tied, and so there has been pressure for years now to toughen the regulations that killed, thereby killing more. The pro-regulation crowd says cars are safer now, but no matter how safe you make a car, it will be safer still if it is bigger. A person who smokes cigarettes may live longer with a good diet and exercise, but he will live longer still if he quits smoking, notes a man who has done more work on this issue than maybe any other single person - Sam Kazman, general counsel and all-around saint at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

The Bush recommendations are sensible relative to liberal recommendations. They don't try to fit all vehicles into just two categories, and their requirements are soft to the point of aggravating some environmental groups into rhetorical harshness. But these policies won't do diddly to reduce oil prices, as claimed, or to make us less dependent on foreign sources. They will be dangerous. If more journalists had done objective homework on this issue, the citizenry would know as much, and we would not be faced with another round of pointless deaths.


Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado.
He can be reached at SpeaktoJay(at)

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