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What The Media Tell Americans About Free Enterprise

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February 1998


Networks Fail to Report Safety Consequences of Fuel-Efficiency Regulations
CAFE Kills, Reporters Blame SUVs

Though increasingly popular among car buyers, sport-utility vehicles (SUVs) are decidedly unpopular among reporters. When they aren’t blaming SUVs for polluting the environment, reporters attack SUVs for being safety hazards for other drivers. But the federal Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards — which force car drivers into unsafe smaller cars or encourage them to buy bigger SUVs or pickup trucks (which have lower CAFE standards) — are never taken to task.

This month’s assault on SUVs was prompted by studies from Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the federal government which showed that in crashes between SUVs and cars, those in cars were much more likely to die than those in SUVs. For the networks, the problem was with the SUVs, not the cars.

"If you’re in an SUV, or one hits your car, look out," warned NBC’s Tom Brokaw on the February 18 Nightly News. In the story which followed, correspondent Robert Hager told viewers that "big sport-utility vehicles, pick-ups, and vans" pose "a growing threat to safety on the highways, according to a new study from the government."

He pointed out that "If you’re driving a car hit from the side by a sport-utility vehicle, you’re 30 times more likely to be killed than the driver of the sport-utility vehicle" and said that "with more than 25 million of these vehicles on the road today, and their popularity continuing to grow, it’s a problem safety officials say must be confronted to save lives."

According to ABC’s Kevin Newman, on the February 10 Good Morning America, "A new study is adding to the debate over the dangers of sport-utility vehicles and light trucks. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, when a car and a light truck collide, passengers in the car are four times more likely to die than those in the light truck."

NBC’s Matt Lauer, on the that morning’s Today, reported that "sport-utility vehicles are an increasingly popular choice for American drivers, but...there are troubling new concerns about their threat to other drivers."

Bob Orr, on the February 9 CBS Evening News, suggested that "the new findings could help trigger higher insurance costs. With many rates now under review, the report is strong ammunition for those who claim SUV and pickup owners are not paying their fair share of the risk."

Only Brokaw, on the February 9 Nightly News, pointed out that the problem might be with the smaller cars, and not the SUVs. "Insurers say design changes, especially to strengthen the size of cars, are now needed." But even he did not mention that federal fuel-efficiency regulations, by mandating smaller cars, stack the deck against car drivers.

According to the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s Environmental Briefing Book (located on the web at www.cei.org), "CAFE has a lethal effect on auto safety. Decades of research have made it clear that large cars are more crashworthy than similarly equipped small cars in all collision modes. CAFE, however, restricts large-car availability. According to a peer-reviewed Harvard-Brookings study, CAFE is responsible for a 500 pound downsizing of new cars, which translates into 2,200 to 3,900 additional traffic deaths per model year."

The institute also notes that the alleged benefit of federal fuel-efficiency standards may be illusory, arguing that "the correlation between fuel economy and vehicle emissions is far less direct than it appears to be. NOx (nitrogen oxide) emissions, for example, may actually increase when fuel efficiency rises."

Reporting about auto safety without mentioning CAFE standards is a bit like running a story about the Titanic without bringing up the iceberg.


Rich Noyes


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