WASHINGTON — EFFORTS on Capitol Hill to boost automobile fuel economy are colliding head-on with White House concerns about safety on America's highways. Congress is debating several proposals, including one sponsored by Sen. Richard Bryan (D) of Nevada, which would require automakers to sharply boost fuel efficiency. The Bryan bill calls for a 20 percent increase in auto fuel economy by 1996 and a 40 percent rise by 2001.
The Bush administration, however, has erected a big stop sign in Senator Bryan's path. Officials say the Bryan bill would result in tiny cars - "puddle jumpers" - which would be terribly unsafe. Some critics label the Bryan bill "the Highway Death Act of 1991."
Jerry Ralph Curry, administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, angrily charges that Bryan's supporters are ignoring the dangers inherent in small, high-mileage automobiles.
General Curry, whose top priority is highway safety, speaks bluntly. Requiring a 40 percent boost by 2001 would be "immoral," he says. Claims that safety will not be sacrificed are "garbage." Supporters of the Bryan bill are "willing to concede ... that 1,340 people would be killed a year [who] shouldn't be killed" because of smaller cars, he says.
General Curry's views are disputed by Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety. Mr. Ditlow says: "Stringent auto fuel economy standards are fully compatible with increased auto safety."
Ditlow claims that during the past 15 years, cars got safer, even though they were getting better and better mileage. That's proof that safety doesn't have to be sacrificed for higher fuel economy, he says.
Sorting out these diametrically opposite positions will be the job of Congress as well as the National Academy of Sciences, which will report on safety questions in June.
But all sides are in agreement on some of the facts. Safety remains a major problem on America's roadways. The number of annual fatalities has ranged from 44,525 to 54,589 over the past two decades. Nevertheless, from 1974 to 1990, safety on the highways steadily improved, based on several measurements.
In 1974, for example, there were approximately 3.5 fatalities for each 100 million miles traveled. The death rate has fallen almost every year, and by 1990 was down to 2.1 fatalities for each 100 million miles traveled.
During the same period, auto fuel economy rose from an average of 14 m.p.g. in 1974 to 27.8 m.p.h. in 1990 - nearly double.
The safety question primarily concerns small cars. A study funded by Ditlow's Center for Auto Safety concedes that "the risk of death or catastrophic injury is twice as high in a small car as in a large vehicle." That is what worries Curry. He says the Bryan bill would result in more small cars.
Ditlow argues that even if cars got somewhat smaller, they could continue to improve their safety record. He explains:
"One of the best examples is the replacement of the Volkswagen Beetle by the Rabbit." Although the Rabbit attained 25 percent better gasoline mileage, it had a 44 percent lower fatality rate.
Likewise, "when Honda redesigned the ... Civic in 1981, its gas mileage improved by 12 percent and its fatality rate dropped by 44 percent," he observes.
Ditlow claims that 86 percent of the boost in auto mileage since 1974 has come from technological improvements, like multivalve engines and fuel injection. Only 14 percent came from weight loss and the preference of buyers for smaller cars.
But at that point, Curry and Ditlow diverge. Curry claims that half the improvement in auto efficiency over the past 15 years came from downsizing cars. The other half came from technology. And Curry says the smaller cars exacted a severe price.
The administrator points to federal studies for proof. They indicate that more than 2,000 fatalities and 20,000 serious injuries are occurring every year because of the smaller cars now on the road. Cars were reduced in size during the past 15 years because of the Energy Policy and Conservation Act of 1975, an earlier fuel efficiency law.
However, Donald Friedman, president of MCR Technology Inc. of Goleta, Calif., joins this argument on the side of Ditlow and the Bryan bill. Mr. Friedman's views could be important because he built a number of research safety vehicles in the 1970s under contract with the Department of Transportation.
Friedman admits that smaller cars have higher fatality rates. But he insists: "The disparity need not exist."
He says that with advanced air bags, seat belts, interior padding, and proper structural design, his research "demonstrated in four separate programs the capability of providing up to 50 mile-an-hour protection in small vehicles."
Friedman shows videotaped demonstrations of his 2,600-pound research vehicles in high-speed, head-on crashes from which persons could have walked away. From that evidence, Ditlow concludes:
"We can have vehicles that totally eliminate any disparity between a small car and a large car in crashes in America."
Curry retorts that Ditlow is being "totally dishonest." Larger cars are always inherently safer if built with similar designs, he argues.
Somewhat higher auto efficiency, perhaps half of Bryan's goal, is possible from technology, Curry indicates. But he adds:
"We ought to say we are not going to get the [other] 50 percent gain from killing people.... That is totally rotten."