Gary M. Galles – July 3, 2020
California and other state and local governments have filed suit to stop the Trump administration’s SAFE (Safer Affordable Fuel Efficiency) rule. That rule replaced the outgoing Obama administration’s rule requiring five percent annual increases in Corporate Average Fuel Economy, reaching 54 mpg by 2025, with 1.5 percent annual increases, reaching 40 mpg in 2026.
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra justified the lawsuit because SAFE is supposedly a “public health hazard.” But that claim misrepresents the issues and ignores important evidence.
Cars averaging 40 mpg would be vastly cleaner than ever in America. And the air is far cleaner than when CAFÉ was first implemented, so that the added benefits from further improvement is far less than in the past, while meeting sharply more stringent standards is substantially more costly.
But while the lawsuit claims improving our health as its rationale, it ignores how the Obama standards actually threaten our health by downsizing cars, making driving more deadly.
This mechanism has been noted for more than 30 years. The lowest cost way to meet sharply increased fuel economy standards is to make cars lighter. This led to a famous 1989 Harvard-Brookings study that found CAFÉ caused a 14-27 percent jump in traffic deaths due to car downsizing. An update for 1996 found 2700-4700 automobile deaths that year were attributable to such downsizing.
The challenge to SAFE depends on omitting this increasing danger. So it relies on the EPA’s January, 2017, Final Determination (just before Obama left office), stating that its standard “will have no adverse impact on automobile safety.” However, that contradicts the same EPA’s July 2016 Draft Technical Assessment Report, which found that “mass reduction continues to be an important technology option” to satisfy future regulatory standards, and that there was a “relationship between vehicle mass and safety.” Which is more believable might be informed by the fact that, in 1992, a federal appeals court held that “the 27.5 mpg standard kills people,” but that the EPA had broken the law, using “fudged analysis,” “statistical sleight of hand,” and “bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo” to keep from admitting demonstrated increases in safety risks.
Vehicle Safety Factors
If we are actually interested in reducing deaths, we should also research the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, whose research goal is determining accident risks for companies with billions at stake. Their April, 2018 post, “Vehicle size and weight” explains that “the bigger the crush zone…the lower the forces on the occupants,” in explaining the role of vehicle size. In a collision, “the bigger vehicle will push the lighter one backward during the impact. As a result, there will be less force on the occupants of the heavier vehicle and more on the people in the lighter vehicle” Bigger vehicles are also safer in single-vehicle crashes.
In summary, “All other things equal, occupants in a bigger, heavier vehicle are better protected than those in a smaller, lighter vehicle.” Supportive evidence includes that in 2016, 1-3-year-old large cars had 22 deaths per million registrations, versus 62 for minicars. Small cars also made up a vastly disproportionate share of high driver death rate vehicles. Perhaps most dramatic, however, was a study comparing hybrids with their conventional counterparts. The occupant-injury rate for the hybrids, which weighed ten percent more, was only three-quarters than for the regular models.
Those challenging the SAFE regulations want to turn people’s heads away from issues and evidence that undermines their case.
A further question should be asked. “Why should we have CAFÉ standards at all? Nobody knows better than those who buy, drive, fuel and insure their vehicles with their own money what sorts of vehicles are most appropriate for the circumstances they face. Why shouldn’t we be allowed to make our own choices in the face of the tradeoffs between mileage, carrying capacity, safety, etc., rather than obeying nanny-state intrusions into our liberty?
Originally published at Fee.org. Gary M. Galles is a professor of economics at Pepperdine University. His recent books include Faulty Premises, Faulty Policies (2014) and Apostle of Peace (2013). He is a member of the FEE Faculty Network.
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