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Trump Officials Link Fuel Economy Rules to Deadly Crashes. Experts Are Skeptical.

Trump Officials Link Fuel Economy Rules to Deadly Crashes. Experts Are Skeptical.

WASHINGTON — Can we improve fuel economy without sacrificing vehicle safety? That’s one contentious issue at the center of the debate over federal fuel economy standards for cars and light trucks.The Obama administration concluded the answer was yes and issued strict rules in 2012 that would have required automakers to roughly double the fuel economy…


WASHINGTON — Can we improve fuel economy without sacrificing vehicle safety? That’s one contentious issue at the center of the debate over federal fuel economy standards for cars and light trucks.

The Obama administration concluded the answer was yes and issued strict rules in 2012 that would have required automakers to roughly double the fuel economy of new cars, S.U.V.s and pickup trucks by 2025.

But the Trump administration, in its big new proposal to roll back those rules, is now arguing the opposite: Forcing automakers to build cleaner cars will lead to more highway accidents and deaths.

The administration contends that scrapping the Obama-era standards after 2021 wouldprevent more than 12,700 deaths from road accidentsover thefollowingdecade, compared with keeping the standards in place. To support this claim, the proposal makesthree main arguments.

concluded that the rebound effect was fairly modest: For every 1 percent increase in vehicle fuel economy, people would drive about 0.1 percent more.

The Trump administration, in its new proposal, reworked that analysis and concluded that the rebound effect was essentially twice as large. People with more efficient cars would drive more miles than previously assumed, and hence were likely to get into many more accidents.

Some economists are questioning the Trump administration’s newer, higher estimate of the rebound effect. Kenneth Gillingham, a Yale economist, points out that theTrumprollback proposal cited one of his papers, which inferred a larger rebound effect from changes in oil prices, butignored some more recent studies, including one that he led, that found a much smaller effect.

There’s also some evidence, Dr. Gillingham said, that the rebound effect shrinks as Americans get richer, which suggests that this should be less of a problem in the future — an argument that the Trump proposal rejected.

“I think it’s fair to say that their number is at the high end,” Dr. Gillingham said. “And there are several arguments they dismissed that could bring it down.”

The ‘pricier vehicles’ argument

The Trump administration also argues against the Obama-era fuel economy standards by estimating that theywould add about $1,900to the average cost of a new car. That, in turn, will deterpeoplefrom buying newer vehicles with advanced safety features like automatic emergency braking systems and keep them in older, less-safe vehicles for longer.

The Transportation Department laid some groundwork for this argument in April, when it published a report showing that more vehicle fatalities occurred in older cars than in newer cars. And the agency developed a new model to quantify this effect.

estimates by the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, could increase prices of American-produced vehicles by $2,000 and imported vehicles by up to $5,800.

“It’s strange that the administration only uses this safety argument on fuel-economy standards and not for trade,” said Daniel F. Becker, director of the Safe Climate Campaign. “Even though the trade effects could be much bigger.”

The ‘lighter vehicle’ argument

The Trump administration argues that strict fuel economy rules could also hurt vehicle safety by forcing automakers to produce lighter vehicles that are less capable of withstanding crashes.

There’s little question that automakers have been improving fuel economy by reducing the weight of their vehicles over time. Ford, for instance, shed 700 pounds from its popular F-150 pickup by switching from steel to high-strength aluminum.

This can potentially affect road safety in two big ways: On average, smaller, lighter vehicles can be worse at protecting their occupants in an accident. But lighter vehicles also cause less damage to other cars on the road. The big question is which effect dominates.

Experts who have looked at this question have developed a rule of thumb: If automakers are mainly reducing the weight of their largest vehicles, like S.U.V.s and pickup trucks, then that makes the roads safer overall. But if manufacturers were to focus more on reducing the weight of their smallest passenger cars, that could be worse for overall auto safety, since those cars would be more vulnerable in crashes with bigger vehicles.

mostly cutting weight from their larger vehicles in response to fuel-economy rules — one reason that why they found no harm to overall vehicle safety. But the Trump proposal argues that this might not necessarily be the case in the future, and suggests that smaller cars could be negatively affected.

It’s worth noting, however, that this particular argument accounts for only about 1 percent of the Trump administration’s fatality estimates.

That’s because, in recent years, experts have found that the size of a vehicle is more important to safety than its weight. And as the National Research Council concluded in 2015, the Obama-era standards were designed to encourage automakers to make their vehicles lighter without making them smaller, a change that had alleviated their earlier safety concerns.

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