Obamateurism of the Day

Give the President full marks for consistency on math — he almost always manages to get it wrong.  Last week at a speech in North Carolina to tout his energy policies, Obama told the crowd that his tougher CAFE standards had forced Detroit to produce more fuel-efficient cars, and that meant big savings for “a typical family.”  The figure he used would have really been big savings, too … but only if the family’s name was Unser or Andretti (via Pave France and Poor Richard’s News):

Now, because of these new standards for cars and trucks, they’re going to — all going to be able to go further and use less fuel every year.  And that means pretty soon you’ll be able to fill up your car every two weeks instead of every week -– and, over time, that saves you, a typical family, about $8,000 a year.

Eight thousand dollars a year?  Man, gas prices must be ready to hit those European levels or worsePolitico catches the error:

Except it’s not true.

The new White House CAFE standards would save owners about $8,200 over the life of the car in 2010 dollars, with the per-year savings in the high hundreds – nothing to sneeze at, but not quite eight large a year. In fact, all but the most voracious gas consumers spend a fraction of $8k a year on gas.

Of course, the bigger problem with this calculation is that increased CAFE standards make cars more unsafe, so that family might save a few hundred dollars a year, but might end up losing a family member who might have otherwise survived a crash.  Heritage noted this more than a decade ago:

The evidence is overwhelming that CAFE standards result in more highway deaths. A 1999 USA TODAY analysis of crash data and estimates from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that, in the years since CAFE standards were mandated under the Energy Policy and Conservation Act of 1975, about 46,000 people have died in crashes that they would have survived if they had been traveling in bigger, heavier cars.5 This translates into 7,700 deaths for every mile per gallon gained by the standards.6

While CAFE standards do not mandate that manufacturers make small cars, they have had a significant effect on the designs manufacturers adopt–generally, the weights of passenger vehicles have been falling. Producing smaller, lightweight vehicles that can perform satisfactorily using low-power, fuel-efficient engines is the most affordable way for automakers to meet the CAFE standards.

More than 25 years ago, research established that drivers of larger, heavier cars have lower risks in crashes than do drivers of smaller, lighter cars.7 A 2000 study by Leonard Evans, now the president of the Science Serving Society in Michigan, found that adding a passenger to one of two identical cars involved in a two-car frontal crash reduces the driver fatality risk by 7.5 percent.8 If the cars differ in mass by more than a passenger’s weight, adding a passenger to the lighter car will reduce total risk.9

The Evans findings reinforce a 1989 study by economists Robert Crandall of the Brookings Institution and John Graham of the Harvard School of Public Health, who found that the weight of the average American automobile has been reduced 23 percent since 1974, much of this reduction a result of CAFE regulations.10 Crandall and Graham stated that “the negative relationship between weight and occupant fatality risk is one of the most secure findings in the safety literature.”11

Harvard University’s John Graham reiterated the safety risks of weight reduction in correspondence with then-U.S. Senator John Ashcroft (R-MO) in June 2000. Graham was responding to a May 2000 letter distributed to Members of the House from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) and the Center for Auto Safety.12 Graham sought to correct its misleading statements, such as its discussion of weight reduction as a compliance strategy without reference to the safety risks associated with the use of lighter steel. For example, an SUV may be more likely to roll over if it is constructed with lighter materials, and drivers of vehicles that crash into guardrails are generally safer when their vehicle contains more mass rather than less. Further, according to Graham, government studies have found that making small cars heavier has seven times the safety benefit than making light trucks lighter.

The evidence clearly shows that smaller cars have significant disadvantages in crashes. They have less space to absorb crash forces. The less the car absorbs, the more the people inside the vehicle must absorb. Consequently, the weight and size reductions resulting from the CAFE standards are linked with the 46,000 deaths through 1998 mentioned above, as well as thousands of injuries. It is time that policymakers stop defending the failed CAFE program and start valuing human lives by repealing the standards.

Don’t expect the President to be doing that math in his speeches.

Got an Obamateurism of the Day? If you see a foul-up by Barack Obama, e-mail it to me at [email protected] with the quote and the link to the Obamateurism. I’ll post the best Obamateurisms on a daily basis, depending on how many I receive. Include a link to your blog, and I’ll give some link love as well. And unlike Slate, I promise to end the feature when Barack Obama leaves office.

Illustrations by Chris Muir of Day by Day. Be sure to read the adventures of Sam, Zed, Damon, and Jan every day!

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