At first glance, there's some grim logic to this. To increase fuel efficiency, cars have to be smaller and lighter. And smaller and lighter cars are not as safe in a crash, primarily because the "crumple zones" (the parts of the frame built to collapse and take the energy from a collision, so the cabin doesn't have to) are not as big and can absorb less energy.
How much less safe? Well, Cecil Adams addresses that question in his Straight Dope column for Friday the 13th. Conservative think tanks are trumpeting numbers like 50,000+ highway deaths since the 70's directly attributable to fuel efficiency targets set by the government. Turns out that even the government's own numbers (through the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) estimated in 2002 that smaller cars have cost between 1300 and 2600 deaths per year.
But it's not like we didn't know that going in. Nobody thought, pace Krauthammer, that raising CAFE standards is a painless way to bring utopia on earth. All decisions about automobile and highway regulations are made in a cost-benefit analysis. Does Krauthammer like his 70-mph speed limits? They undoubtedly cost lives. And the small loss due to the increase in lighter cars is vastly offset by laws that mandate active restraints (seat belt laws -- 211,000 lives saved since 1975) and the inclusion of passive restraint systems in new cars (air bags -- 14,000 lives saved between 1987 and 2003).
Even more damning, it's not like big cars and their large crumple zones are providing a cost-free increase in safety. Crashes are one thing -- rollovers, to which SUVs are more prone, also kill. And the heavy cars are more dangerous to the occupants of other cars on the road than their fuel-sipping neighbors. Malcolm Gladwell masterfully deconstructed the myth of SUV safety in 2004, and like all Gladwell's work, it's well worth a half hour of your time. Here's Cecil's summary:
A 2002 study of 84 cars, trucks, SUVs, and minivans conducted for the U.S. Department of Energy concluded that SUVs and pickup trucks had the highest combined risk of any vehicles — that is, risk to both their occupants and occupants of other cars. True, the average SUV protected its occupants better than the average small car. However, some midsize cars protected their occupants just as well as SUVs without unduly endangering the occupants of other vehicles. The study also found that the safest compact and subcompact cars were as safe for their drivers as the average SUV, and safer from a combined-risk standpoint.Are CAFE standards sneaking in our homes at night and smothering us in our sleep? Not by a long shot. Buy a hybrid car with a high safety rating and the sun will shine brighter, food will taste better, the laughter of little children will bring more joy, and most important, fewer people will suffer on the road or in areas at risk for climate change.