Unsafe at Any Speed

The government's fuel-economy standards should come with a warning label.


When Washington unveiled its graphic new warning labels for cigarettes last week, several wits asked whether the federal government would slap similar warnings on its own products. To cite just one example: How many innocent civilians have died from unnecessary wars?

True, everyone already knows war is hell. But government policies can kill people in far less obvious ways. Take vehicle fuel-efficiency standards. The Obama administration has floated a proposal to more than double Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards, from the current 27.5 miles per gallon to 56.2 mpg.

As usual, the auto industry says it can't be done. But it can be, or could be. The only question is whether society is willing to pay the cost. The higher standards would raise vehicle prices, by anywhere from $770 (the government's low-end estimate) to $10,000 (the Center for Automotive Research).

Yet that is only the most obvious price. Higher fuel-economy standards also would increase highway fatalities. That is because the most effective method of increasing gasoline mileage is to make cars smaller and lighter, which makes them more dangerous.

Can auto makers improve gas mileage in other ways? Sure they can. But engineers can squeeze only so much efficiency out of engines before the law of diminishing marginal returns kicks in. Same goes for better aerodynamics, keeping your tires properly inflated and so on. Steps like those will help—a little. To get where Washington wants to go requires far more radical changes.

That is why higher gasoline taxes have won endorsement from unusual suspects such as General Motors CEO Dan Akerson and Ford Motor Co.'s Bill Ford. As the Competitive Enterprise Institute's Sam Kazman noted in a recent piece for The Wall Street Journal, "In 2009 . . . Ford [cited] the need for a 'price signal . . . strong enough so customers will continue buying smaller, fuel-efficient cars.'" (Customers don't flock to them on their own because, among other things, big families need big vehicles.)

Advocates of higher CAFE standards are correct when they insist better safety features can mitigate some of the damage done by mandating smaller, lighter cars. But this is a rhetorical head-fake. True, a small car with crumple zones and airbags is safer than a big car that doesn't have them. But a big car with those same safety features is even safer than that.

Research from a wide variety of sources has borne this out time and again. A 1989 study by Harvard and the Brookings Institution found that CAFE standards caused a 500-pound reduction in the average vehicle, resulting in additional deaths of 2,200 to 3,900 persons per decade, depending on the model in question.

In 1999, USA Today reported that CAFE standards had been responsible for 46,000 deaths since 1978. In 2003, a study by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration found that reducing a vehicle's weight by 100 pounds increased fatality rates 3 percent for light trucks, 4.7 percent for big cars, and 5.6 percent for small cars.

Well, you get the point. In any contest between a big car and a small car, the laws of physics dictate that the big car will win. As the CEI's Kazman notes, "SUVs heavier than 4,500 pounds have a death rate less than one-third that of cars under 2,500 pounds."

Advocates of higher CAFE standards say the answer is simple: Get rid of all the big cars. Problem solved, right?

Wrong—not unless we're also going to shrink trees, telephone poles, and bridge abutments too. Ask yourself: Would you rather hit a telephone pole at 30 mph on a 600-pound Harley-Davidson motorcycle, or inside a 60-ton Abrams tank? In 2009 the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety reported: "Occupants of smaller cars are at increased risk in all kinds of crashes, not just ones with heavier vehicles. Almost half of all crash deaths in [small cars] occur in single-vehicle crashes, and these deaths wouldn't be reduced if all cars became smaller and lighter." As the IIHS' Russ Rader put it last year, "We're trading more crash deaths for better fuel economy. That's the bottom line."

Well, so what? Society makes cost-benefit analyses all the time. Washington even has a standard figure, known as the value of a statistical life, to help it decide if a given regulation does more good than harm. So maybe, if you're of a strongly environmentalist bent and you believe we're killing the planet with exhaust fumes, you still think higher CAFE standards are worth the lives they will cost. Fair enough. That's a value judgment.

Still: Shouldn't it come with a warning label?

A. Barton Hinkle is a columnist at the Richmond Times-Dispatch. This column originally appeared at the Richmond Times-Dispatch.


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  1. One of my coworkers drives a Ford Expedition.

    One day as he’s filling up, some lady topping off her Prius asks “How can you drive that… that… gas guzzling thing?” to which he glibly responded “If you were in an accident, which one of these two vehicles would you rather be in?”

    She sputtered a bit but didn’t say anything more.

    1. The deeper the depth of field, the slower the shutter speed. Photography’s full of those kinds of trade-offs, and so are all sorts of other decisions in life. Reducing one expense or risk at the expense of another.

      1. But the statists can’t stand people making trade off decisions themselves individually.

        They want to make sure that THEIR preferred trade offs are shoved down everyone else’s throats.

        There are plenty of fuel efficient cars for those who value that attribute above all else.

        But there are plenty of people who don’t value that attribute above all else – or even very highly at all.

        And the statists just HATE that becuase we should all defer to their obviously superior (in their minds) worldview, values and judgement.

        Never mind the fact that none of them have ever actually accomplished anything that proves that their worldview, values and judgement are, in fact, superior in any way.

        1. They have proven that they can get men with guns to enforce their chosen trade off decisions.

          I think that counts for something.

          1. “I think that counts for something.”


            The Hitler/Stalin/Mao medal of achievement award.

            1. Is that anything like the Pol Pot Please-Don’t-Kill-Me Prize?

        2. Thank you for clarifying my point for me. I’m keeping weird hours right now and think everyone’s going to understand where I’m coming from even through the limitations of the ASCII veil.

          Thanks man!


      People who drive bigass vehicles because “it makes them feel safe” are contemptible cowards. Carrying capacity, towing, having a small jimmy… THOSE are valid reasons. Being a little woman cowering in fear for your life otoh…damn what a fucking pussy.

      Libertarians ride motorcycles or drive modified badass cars.

      1. Word. To your mother.

      2. Cowards live to flee another day!

  2. Air pollution kills thousands of people each year. Increasing fuel efficiency standards reduces air pollution, saving lives.

    Can you prove whether or not fuel efficiency standards have saved more lives than they’ve cost? That’d require actual research and stuff, so I guess not. Maybe gasoline should come with a warning label.

    1. Please don’t feed the troll.

      1. Oddly, trolls always come with a warning label. It makes it easy.

      2. OK, let’s do a little “research and stuff”. We have a pretty good assessment of the health and mortality effects of vehicular pollution from a report by Dr. David McKeown, the Toronto medical officer of health (and probably not an internet troll). According to his figures, vehicular air pollution causes an excess death rate of about 0.04% of the population annually. Assuming anout 30% of Americans live in urban conditions similar to those in Toronto, that adds up to about 36,000 excess deaths from vehicular pollution annually. Making the conservative assumption that doubling the required efficiency under CAFE would cut excess vehicular pollution deaths by 10%, increased fuel efficiency (and corresponding pollution reduction) would save 3600 lives each year. Assuming the accuracy of the estimates of the dangers of caused by vehicle weight reductions in this article, an overall 5% increase in traffic crash fatalities would cost an additional 2400 lives.

        As a matter of sheer lives saved, therefore, the CAFE standards make sense. From a moral and human freedom perspective, of course, they make even more sense. Individuals who find the increased risk of more efficient vehicles unacceptable can give up the convenience of driving. Asthmatics, on the other hand, cannot give up breathing.

      3. Can’t handle people disagreeing with you, huh?

    2. I’m sorry to wake you Honey, but I can’t put off vacuuming forever.
      No, no, you don’t have to get out of bed on my account. I can vacuum around it after I pick up your clothes. Can I fix you some lunch?

    3. You forgot the magic word.

      1. “Abracadabra”?

    4. herp

    5. Air pollution doesn’t exist because if it did it would be devastating to my worldview, which is, totally sanely and reasonably, that we should use up all the resources we possibly can get our hands on because the market gods demand it, and they will provide new tech at exactly the moment we need it.

      1. PWN’D!!!11!!

      2. Wow. Damn shame we didn’t have some kind of government control to keep the cavemen from using up all the flint. We could all use something to make knives out of.
        When cave men ran short of flint they found more efficient ways of making flint points.
        When the ancient Greeks were running out of trees they found a way to make ships using less wood. And oh yeah, they were stronger and faster too.
        You get the idea. Or you would if you wanted to.

        1. We’ll just ignore the fact that without fossil fuels, this planet is only capable of sustaining about $1 billion. No need to figure out how to deal with a fossil-fuel-free future now. The market gods will figure it out. Planning is evil; only blind ignorance will solve all our problems.

          1. Oops $1 billion = 1 billion humans

          2. “No need to figure out how to deal with a fossil-fuel-free future now.”

            That is correct, actually.
            You see, as fossil fuel demand rises, the price goes up. This encourages digging the stuff out where at the previous price there was no profit margin. But doing that causes supplies to rise and the price to go back down. This encourages efficiency in production.
            Eventually though, the cost and price of fossil fuels will rise above that of “alternate” fuels.
            When this happens, consumers and producers alike will naturally start using the alternatives.

            Don’t believe me? Ask the buggy whip makers what happens when the alternative becomes cheaper.

            1. And since the byproducts of burning fossil fuels do not in fact go into the atmosphere, but disappear into nothingness, not only is the full cost accounted for in fossil fuels, but Isaac Newton was a moron!

              1. Sorry but I’m not interested in joining your doomsday cult.

                Have a nice day!

              2. It’s a good thing the Clovis People planned for a flint-free future way back then, huh?
                The main byproduct of fossil fuels — CO2 fertilizer — indeed does not disappear, but has great positive effect on plant growth, especially as compared to the effects from pre-fossil-fuel byproducts, mainly urine, manure and poorly-handled garbage.
                But thanks in large part to fossil fuels and the wealth it makes available the really nasty pollutions of that past are little more than names to us now: plague, malaria, typhus, yellow fever, encephalitis, dengue fever, elephantiasis, sleeping sickness, river blindness, cholera, dysentery, typhoid fever, leprosy, tuberculosis, smallpox, botulism, trichinosis…
                Tired yet?

            2. thankfully the Government didn’t subsidize the buggy whip manufactures or require that everyone buy one.

  3. broken eggs, omelet, grand plan…

  4. CAFE standards are too broad and their implementation is a key reason behind the downfall of the homegrown US automakers. If they’re actually needed then a better effect would be to sectionalize the fleets and require standards based upon whatever genre of car is being built (force minivans to make 25+ mpg, etc) thus allowing niche players in large-car / light truck markets to exist while also providing upward pressure on fuel economy. Coupled with increased gas taxes it’d probably achieve the same effect while also improving competition.

    This particular proposal is simply absurd, though. It defacto illegalizes 95+% of the existing market and what’s being designed to replace it.

    1. I’m willing to bet 90% of the idiotic regulations put on car manufacturers were devised solely for protectionist purposes…airbags, cafe, etc etc.

    2. I have a better idea; why don’t we keep congresscritters from legislation on matters that are over their heads and none of their business?

  5. CAFE standards are the reason people switched from station wagons to SUV’s. The standards for cars got stricter but for light trucks, not so much. How much additional pollution has that caused over the past couple decades?

  6. The current proposal is probably just to make a 40% or 50% increase seem reasonable. His UAW handlers would never let him regulate their members out of work.

  7. I am going to flaunt that new pack — status symbol for the young — the hell with Joe Camel!

  8. CAFE standards are poor policy, but the conclusion that they reduce safety is at somewhat misleading.

    Trucks and SUVs are safer for the occupants conditional on an accident occurring, and more deadly to everyone except the occupants. They are also more likely to cause accidents than smaller, lighter vehicles. For these reasons, policies which decrease the proportion of trucks and SUVs on the road could increase or decrease overall safety, depending on the mix of vehicles on the road.

    Choosing whether to buy a big, heavy vehicle like an SUV or a small car is like a big Prisoner’s Dilemna: if I by a Canyonero, I make myself a little safer, but I make everyone else on the road less safe. The result is that too many people buy SUVs.

    The correct policy response is to tax vehicle weight. The correct policy response to externalities from burning gasoline is to tax gasoline. Attempting to command-and-control fuel economy, as CAFE does, is simply bad policy.

    On vehicle weight, safety, and the argument that vehicle weight should be taxed, see this paper by Michelle White:

    1. They are also more likely to cause accidents than smaller, lighter vehicles.

      Really? Vehicles just jump up and cause accidents? I thought the drivers had something to do with it. And also, citation needed for this odd assertion that heavier vehicles cause more accidents.

      1. 1. You’re being obtuse.
        2. Did you read the paper that he linked to?

        1. Vehicles don’t cause accidents.
          A peeve of mine is when some newspaper article says “SUV drives off road…”
          Uhhhh no?
          A person drove the SUV off the road.

          Maybe more lousy drivers choose larger vehicles? I dunno. But unless there is a mechanical defect like the wheel falling off, vehicles do not cause accidents.

          Drivers to.

          1. A comment on a blog should not be held to the same standards as a newspaper article. In the vernacular his meaning is clear.

    2. The correct policy response is for government to get out of the business of dictating gas mileage for vehicles or trying to engineer people into certain types of vehicles.

      It was never legitimately any of the government’s busisness to begin with.

    3. My SUV gets 1 highway / 0 city.

      1. Geez, what does your license plate read, M1A1?

        1. Paleo is the Thread Winner!!!

  9. I thought gas mileage has been improved, in other countries at least. Hell I’ve been hearing of diesel cars in the UK that get 70mpg. For some reason though none of them seem to come here.

    1. They can’t pass US emissions or crash-safety laws.

      1. And 70mpg would be IMPERIAL. 1.2 US gallons = 1 imperial gallon. A significant difference that no one seems to understand.

        Also, it stands to reason that lighter cars are less safe, but it’s simply not true when comparing cars of similar class and intent. Look up videos of old F-150 crashes and tell you’d rather be a front passenger in that than a VW GTI.

        I don’t agree with CAFE; it’s bad policy and simply doesn’t work, but cars can be light, reasonably efficient and safe.

        1. The supercompacts popular in Europe are perfectly safe. But because they dont have 150lb bumpers on either end,or 75lb bars in the doors, they don’t meet US regulations.

          US rules when it comes to cars are as arbitrary and retarded as their rules when it comes to anything else.

          1. Those super compacts are likely to be involved in accidents at MUCH lower speeds, and with like sized cars.
            Apples and oranges.

            1. We prefer kiwis and strawberries.

              *ta ta*

    2. What’s really ironic is that Ford builds a gas sipper that they won’t sell in this country.

      A quick google yielded this.

      1. Do you have the SLIGHTEST idea how much it costs to add all of the US-mandated safety junk, or to get EPA approval of a new car model? And how about the cost of training all of those hundreds of mechanics from around the country? The cost of supplying spare parts and marketing materials? If they don’t sell hundreds of thousands, they won’t make enough profit to break even.

  10. Because even if it passed emissions/CAFE nonsense, IT WOULD NOT SELL. Americans aren’t willing to pay over $25k for a basic subcompact. This has been going on for decades and as much as Americans like to bitch about awesome European vehicles of which we are deprived, when manufacturers DO bring EU models here, no one buys them (Saturn Astra, anyone?) because they go against our typical consumer behavior of “I want the biggest thing I can get for X amount.

    And again, the 65mpg figure is IMPERIAL, meaning its efficiency compared to other cars in the US would be about 54mpg. Great, sure, but not as stratospheric-sounding as 65.

    1. many merikans are too fat to fit into a sub-compact

      1. I heard from a lot of people that the last incarnation of the VW Beetle was quite comfortable for the larger set.

        1. Owned a 1966 VW “Bug”. Also rode a motorcycle for a number of years. VW was safer than riding a motorcycle. Driving an M1 tank would be safer than anything (except maybe a freight train) Too many people lack the driving skills to drive at the speeds they drive at. Was a professional driver for a number of years too. Drove in all sorts of weather here in Michigan. A lot depends on the skill of the driver. Paying attention to what you’re doing. Too many people talking on cell phones, texting (which is even worse). Driving too fast for conditions. Unaware of what is going on around you. These are the major causes of accidents…

      2. I’m 222 pounds, 6’2″ and I fit fine into a 1959 Fiat 1100. What you’re saying is oft-repeated bullshit mostly spread by hipster douchebags who need to feel superior to the proles.

  11. I wish government would get out of requiring safty features, why? Because there are some great micro cars in Europe that get great mileage and are real cheap but their not allowed. once again regulation getting in the way of regulation.

  12. [because they go against our typical consumer behavior of “I want the biggest thing I can get for X amount.]

    Rather, they are designed and built for a narrow twisty road system on which going 50 mph can be hair raising, as opposed to wide, largely straight highways, built to accommodate speeds in excess of 80 mph, on which driving a european skate is tedious and time consuming.

    1. Not to mention harrowing when a wind kicks up. Ever seen a Smart Fortwo on a freeway in Texas? They skitter laterally to a frightening degree.

      1. Recall the Yugo that was lifted up and pitched off the Mackinac Bridge in Michigan a few years back??

        1. Michigan is not friendly to import autos. I guess even the bridges are staunch union supporters.

          1. Rather, 70mph February bridge winds are not friendly to 2100 lb “automobiles”.

            Or were you speaking of the “union” of automobile and 5′ thick Lake Michigan ice some 550 feet below?

  13. Why don’t all you gooks drop dead and stop yapping, bunch of moronic micks and kikes.

    1. Yeah. Moop smart! ARF!

  14. It seems to me that CAFE ignores basic physics. The energy in a crash is kinetic energy, and kinetic energy is more a function of velocity than mass (K = mass times the squared velocity). On the other hand, the enertia of a vehicle (it’s ability to absorb energy, thus there being less energy imparted to passengers) is a direct function of mass. So, two light vehicles crashing may well be more dangerous to passengers than two heavy vehicles crashing, all else being equal.

    1. K = 1/2 mass times the squared velocity.

      My bad.

  15. “But engineers can squeeze only so much efficiency out of engines before the law of diminishing marginal returns kicks in.”

    While that is true of any device, do you really think that’s the case here? Do you really think that we’ve just pretty much mastered the combustion engine? That we’ve perfected the technology so completely that we can’t eek out even one more MPG? We’re that good at engineering?

    Please. The Hyundai I drive today gets about the same mileage as the VW van my parents had when I was a kid.

    No progress in 30 years. Computers are a billion times faster, but the internal combustion engine hasn’t improved at all in that time, because “engineers can only do so much”?

    You really believe that?

    1. [“But engineers can squeeze only so much efficiency out of engines before the law of diminishing marginal returns kicks in.”]

      Consider F1 6 cylinder engines producing over 800 bhp and shifting at 18k rpm or DPT protos coaxing 700 bhp from diesel engines, both showing much greater fuel efficiency and horsepower than ever. Never underestimate gear head engineers and never, ever, underestimate the combustion engine.
      No progress in over 30 years??

  16. Covered this issue at length in my book, Bike&Chain;, free on-line at…

    You almost hit the nail on the head. More have died in motor collisions in last 100 years than all wars combined. WHO estimates 1.3 million/year die from motoring. Only cancer, cardiovascular disease and infectious diseases surpass motoring as killers. No, it’s not “just” bad vehicles, but inattentive operating, lack of standards for controls/signals, poor civic/road planning, substance abuse, too many incompetents licensed for revenue sake, urban decay, and whatnot.

    1. [ WHO estimates 1.3 million/year die from motoring.]

      ALWAYS proceed with caution when citing the World Health Organization..ALWAYS.

      There are always political considerations taken with every citation by WHO who are famous for the politics of nutty numbers.

      In this case, the motoring deaths are from every death involving a motor vehicle; heart attacks while driving, pedestrian deaths, even CO suicides involving a vehicle. George Will devoted several tirades on their fishy AIDS and drug related related casualty numbers a while back.

      There is a reason the UN uses WHO numbers exclusively.

      1. Not just crashes, practically all deaths are directly related to oil use. Cardiovascular disease from automotive convenience, cancer from 3/4 of all known carcinogens found in oil, petroleum pesticides accounting for untold number of diseases, pulmonary disease from exhaust fumes, and, not the least of which, wars over oil, oil being the most profitable business on earth.

        That Big Oil is a bad actor is a given. A “smart government” would be funding research into safer alternatives, but who do you think fills the campaign war chests?

  17. But this is a rhetorical head-fake. True, a small car with crumple zones and airbags is safer crystal jewelry than a big car that doesn’t have them. But a big car with those same safety features is even safer than that.

    Thank you for sharing…

  18. There is no doubt that what we need is a smart government

  19. There is no doubt that what we need is a smart government

  20. There is no doubt that we need is a smart government

  21. Bah… you know those Chinese and Indians are just going to burn up all that oil if Americans don’t – so burn it baby, burn.

  22. But I think the rise in the price of oil can’t blame in China, India.

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