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M.D. Harmon: Unintended consequences of Obama's new CAFE standards could be deadly


Can the Obama administration rewrite the laws of physics?

Of course it can’t, but it can pass laws and regulations under assumptions that, to achieve their promised results, will require such suspensions of natural law.

And then it can force them on American consumers, along with propaganda that tells them it’s all being done for their own good.

This time it’s being done through new Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) rules that double the fuel economy standards imposed on auto manufacturers selling cars in the United States.

According to people who understand physics and don’t have a leftist political agenda in mind, the results will be deadly.

One study showed that each 1,000-pound difference in vehicle weight in a collision increases the chances of a fatal result by nearly 50 percent — and cutting vehicle weights is one of the chief means available to improve vehicle economy.

LET’S START WITH John Stossel, the libertarian newsman who used to work for ABC before he moved to Fox News — in order, he said, to have more freedom to cover free-market topics.

In a May 29 column headlined “Gas Myths,” Stossel notes a number of things commonly believed about oil companies and gas prices that simply aren’t true.

For example, if you believe that oil companies make “excess profits” by making about 7 cents per gallon of gas, then what about state and local governments, who tax that same gallon an average of 27 cents?

Oil companies also have a total profit margin of about 10-12 percent, less than McDonald’s restaurants, which have a profit margin of 20 percent, or Apple computers, which run 24-25 percent.

But, Obama says, “Gas costs too much,” while ignoring just who it is who has blocked off federal lands from oil and gas exploration. He just expanded that prohibition to almost two-thirds of available land, an order that, some news sites reported, will lead many oil companies not to seek any federal leases at all.

SO OBAMA OFFERS his own answer for our energy woes, by telling us that his administration has put in place the toughest fuel economy standards in history. Over the life of a new car (beginning when the standards become fully effective in 2025) the average family will save $8,000 at the pump.”

Maybe, and maybe not. What Obama hasn’t mentioned is that the new CAFE standards, which raise the average fuel economy standard to 52 miles per gallon instead of the current 26 m.p.g., will incur a cost on both dollars and lives far beyond the current level.

Stossel quotes Susan Dudley, who runs the Regulatory Studies Center at George Washington University, as an expert who “points out that many car buyers care more about safety, style, power, etc. than mileage.

“The problem with the government’s rule,” she says, “is that they ignore all those other preferences … assuming the only thing we value is fuel economy.”

But it’s not that the government doesn’t know we value those things more. It’s that it doesn’t care what we want, because reducing fossil fuel use is the only thing that matters to the statists in power right now.

It’s not that they care about clean air, either. Current pollution control devices, such as catalytic converters, have cut emissions by 95-98 percent compared to cars of the 1950s. And, as any engineer knows, getting rid of the last 2-3 percent of emissions is harder than scrubbing the first 95 percent.

This is all about CO2 and “climate change,” the ephemeral cause to which Obama recommitted his administration during his recent speech in Berlin. (He fleshed the campaign out in a speech this week that will raise electricity costs and kill thousands of coal-industry jobs while doing little to improve either air quality or reduce world CO2 emissions.)

AND SO, STOSSEL NOTES, imposing a 52 m.p.g. CAFE standard will boost the cost of a new car by $3,000 or more in today’s dollars, a real cost that will eat up nearly half of Obama’s projected “savings.”

The other part of the cost will be paid in blood — because, Stossel says, “fuel-economy regulations kill.”

With most of the currently available fuel-saving technology, such as computer-controlled ignition and fuel-injection systems, along with much smoother transmissions, already in place, car manufacturers have two basic choices left to meet the new standards:

Either hope for some breakthrough not currently on the horizon to double the amount of output of a gallon of gas within the next 10 years — or cut the weight of current vehicles to make them easier to move down the road.

In order to meet current CAFE standards, much of that weight-reduction has already been accomplished. The average sedan today weighs about 1,000 pounds less than a generation ago, thanks to lightweight materials such as plastics and composites, thinner metal overall and tiny spare tires only good enough to get you to the nearest service station.

THAT LIGHTER WEIGHT comes at a huge cost, however — because telephone poles and bridge abutments and, most significantly, tractor-trailer trucks have not lost a single ounce.

So when a lighter auto meets a semi, the irresistible force meets an object that is most certainly not immovable.

As the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety said in a March report, “… an across-the-board cut of 100 pounds from every vehicle would cause fatalities involving cars weighing less than 3,106 pounds (about the weight of an average sedan) to rise 1.6 percent. The calculations included not only fatalities of people inside a given vehicle, but also occupants of other vehicles and pedestrians.”

In another report based on a study by two University of California economists, the online journal Freakonomics said in 2011 that, after “controlling for own-vehicle weight, being hit by a vehicle that is 1,000 pounds heavier results in a 47 percent increase in the baseline fatality probability.”

And the weight of cars and some other vehicles is set to be cut again. Here’s what Robert E. Norton, vice president for external affairs for the free-market-backing Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, and a former executive with Chrysler, said in a National Review Online column titled “Our Cars’ Weight Problem” on April 24:

“We can only get so far on the mileage front without affecting safety. … All these efforts (to date) are not nearly enough to achieve the mandated 52 m.p.g. So what else can be done? It’s what I call Jenny Craig engineering: reduce car weights, and reduce them massively.”

But, he adds, “size matters — and we all know it. … The force of something big and heavy crashing into something small and light leaves that something much, much smaller. The same goes for … crashing into something stationary, like a wall or a tree.”

NORTON TALKS ABOUT a test in which small cars made by Toyota, Honda and Mercedes were used in crash tests against the same manufacturers’ larger products — a Fit against an Accord, a Yaris against a Camry and a C class against a Smart car, all at 40 m.p.h.

“Do you think the small car performed ‘a little worse’? That would be a gross understatement. … The small cars were basically obliterated by their larger siblings.” (my italics)

And over the next decade, Obama wants to make more cars much smaller. But the semis, the pickup trucks and the buses will all stay the same as they are now — as will the deer and moose, the bridges and the utility poles.

Do we really want to force Americans to accept a greater risk of dying to meet a liberal ideological agenda?

It’s something to consider the next time we enter a voting booth.

M.D. Harmon, a retired journalist and military officer, is a free-lance writer and journalist. He can be contacted at: mdharmoncol@yahoo.com