America's highways are safer than they have ever been. But they could be safer still, and they may become more dangerous than they have to be down the road.
The good news out of Washington last week was that highway fatalities fell in 2006. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reported that 42,642 Americans lost their lives in traffic accidents last year, down from 43,510 in 2005. "To me, that is 868 families that didn't get the terrible call that a loved one was killed in a motor vehicle accident," said NHTSA administrator Nicole Nason.
The new numbers are part of a long-term decline in the number of deaths per miles driven. The fatality rate of 1.42 deaths for every 100 million miles traveled is the lowest on record, and down from 1.46 in 2005.
But one exception to the overall cheery picture provides a cautionary tale: U.S. motorcycle deaths increased for the ninth straight year, jumping by more than 200 to reach 4,810 in 2006. It turns out that not all vehicles are created equal when it comes to highway safety. Motorcycles are more dangerous than small cars, which are more dangerous than large automobiles.
This is not a lesson that Congress seems to be heeding. The Senate this summer passed legislation that would likely force more Americans into less crash-worthy cars, and the House is poised to pass a similar measure soon.
The legislation deals with the corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards, which impose mileage regulations on new cars and light trucks. Right now, the government requires passenger cars to average 27.5 miles per gallon and light trucks to average 22.2 mpg. The energy bill that the Senate passed in June would increase both to 35 mpg by 2020.
The political forces behind the CAFE increase are strong. Environmentalists want higher mileage standards to conserve energy and fight global warming, while others support a stronger CAFE as a way to reduce American dependence on foreign oil.
But the main way that the automobile industry can meet these requirements is by building smaller and less powerful cars. CAFE supporters say that this isn't a problem. They note that the decades-long decline in highway fatalities occurred with CAFE standards in place, and say that the program doesn't kill.
"But that's like saying that since lifespans have been increasing, we can say that Lyme disease and HIV don't kill people," said Sam Kazman of the Competitive Enterprise Institute. Kazman and other CAFE critics say that there would be even fewer highway deaths without CAFE, and they can point to research backing up that claim.
The National Academy of Sciences, in a 2002 study on the impact of CAFE standards, found that "the downweighting and downsizing that occurred in the late 1970s and early 1980s, some of which was due to CAFE standards, probably resulted in an additional 1,300 to 2,600 traffic fatalities in 1993." Data from other sources, such as the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and even NHTSA itself, lead to a similar conclusion-that as many as 46,000 Americans have died in CAFE-induced downsized cars.
CAFE critics hope the House can derail the Senate's CAFE increase, but right now, Kazman says, the debate in the House is over "massive increases in CAFE and even more massive increases." Rep. Baron Hill (D-Ind.) and Lee Terry (R-Neb.) have been gathering co-sponsors for a bill that would hike mileage standards to 35 mpg for cars and 32 mpg for trucks by 2022. Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) wants to move faster, raising mileage standards to 35 mpg for both cars and light trucks by 2018.
None of this will likely stop the yearly improvements in highway safety, but critics say it will slow them down. And that would mean thousands of families getting that terrible call about a loved one.