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Mythbusters: Debunking The Claim That Fuel Economy Standards ‘Kill People’

By Stephen Lacey  

"Mythbusters: Debunking The Claim That Fuel Economy Standards ‘Kill People’"

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Only by considering the fatality risk to all drivers in an accident can an analysis determine the overall impact on safety of efficiency standards, as this Lawrence Berkeley National Lab analysis showed.

If falsely labeling fuel standards as job killers doesn’t work, why not call them people killers? That’s exactly what opponents of new fuel-efficiency targets are doing.  As we’ll see, the transportation community has moved beyond that tired myth with new analysis showing the overall benefit of well-designed standards to drivers, which in turn lead to well-designed cars.

On Fox Business last week, Sam Kazman of the Competitive Enterprise Institute and show host John Stossel used outdated figures to claim new fuel standards will kill 2,000 people a year. Kazman — whose organization has received considerable funding from oil companies over the years — compared fuel efficiency targets to killing soldiers in war, saying that “at least we admit we’re putting lives at risk” for access to oil in the Middle East.

Watch it:

These laws are pushed by the folks who always attack our military ventures in the Mid East as being “blood for oil” wars. We’re spilling the blood of American soldiers in order to preserve our access to foreign oil. But look, at least when we get into those military affairs, we admit we’re putting lives at risk. The folks who push the mile per gallon rule, what’s called the CAFE rule, I’ve never met a single one of them who’s admitted that’s putting civilian lives at risk.

Kazman’s claim has been repeated since the early nineties when the National Research Council reported that “the reductions that have occurred in passenger-vehicle size from model year 1970 to 1982 are associated with approximately 2,000 additional occupant fatalities annually.”

Although nation-wide deaths from auto accidents have fallen dramatically since the 1950’s (and continue to decrease), NRC concluded that the drop might have been even greater had fuel efficiency standards not been put into place. Why? Auto manufacturers started producing smaller cars to meet fuel standards; and so, because smaller cars weigh less, they are more easily crushed by bigger cars.  It should be noted that two members of the report panel dissented on this point.

Another study released by National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in 2003 also found that the fatality rate in very small cars (about 2,100 pounds) was seven times higher than in large SUVs (about 5,100 pounds). However, that same study found that mid-sized SUVs had a 50% higher fatality rate than small SUVs, even though they were 500 pounds heavier. This was due in large part because of design, not weight: roll-over fatalities for smaller SUVs were 65% lower than for larger ones.

“The previous findings have always been very debatable,” explains Anup Bandivadekar of the International Council on Clean Transportation to Climate Progress. “There has been a lot of work done showing that the previous analysis didn’t provide an accurate depiction of vehicle design changes. Design is really the most important aspect, not necessarily weight.”

In 2002, a Lawrence Berkeley National Lab analysis showed that smaller vehicles like the Accord and the Civic had some of the lowest fatality risk of any vehicles on the market — see Figure above. (And considering that large pick-up trucks and SUVs have the highest fatality risk to other drivers, one could also make the argument that big vehicles are the real threat, not small cars.)

Those earlier studies on traffic deaths have been disputed by numerous other analyses – including in a recent rule issued by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the very agency that Kazman and Stossel quote to back up their claims about these standards killing people:

Based on the 2010 Kahane analysis that attempts to separate the effects of mass reductions and footprint reductions, and to account better for the possibility that mass reduction will be accomplished entirely through methods that preserves structural strength and vehicle safety, the agencies now believe that the likely deleterious safety effects of the MYs 2012-2016 standards may be much lower than originally estimated. They may be close to zero, or possibly beneficial if mass reduction is carefully undertaken in the future and if the mass reduction in the heavier LTVs is greater (in absolute terms) than in passenger cars.

NHTSA explained that if there are more changes to larger vehicles than smaller vehicles, the safety benefits would be positive. And that’s exactly what the most recent light-vehicle standards would do. By giving automakers fleet-wide flexibility to meet the standards, companies are more likely to make efficiency improvements in larger vehicles where they’re easiest.

“Under the new size-based standards, companies don’t have an incentive to just make smaller cars, they actually have an incentive to make them across the board. So for anyone to claim that these new size standards will just make cars less safe and force consumers into small vehicles is inaccurate,” explains ICCT’s Anup Bandivadekar.

At the same time, the assumption that smaller vehicles will “kill people” completely ignores the myriad other design factors that play a role in fatalities: Today, companies are using high-strength materials and changing frame design to dramatically increase safety. Also, lighter vehicles can brake and handle better; smaller cars are more likely to avoid collisions; and taller vehicles are more likely to roll over — all factors that contribute to accidents.

“The claims about smaller cars causing deaths have been exaggerated,” says Bandivadekar. “Across the board, today’s vehicles are much safer.”

Indeed, we have come a long way.

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