The Trump administration EPA and Department of Transportation have announced their intent to change the Corporate Average Fuel Economy standard from what was decreed by their Obama administration predecessors. They were scheduled to reach 54.5 mpg in 2025. The new target will be 37 mpg.
The rationale being given the most attention is that reducing the CAFÉ standards would reduce automobile deaths. However, that is being panned by left-leaning critics.
For instance, Los Angeles Times columnist Michael Hiltzik characterized the plan as “dirtier cars are safer, so lets keep them dirty.”
Two days later, former Clinton and Obama administration member David J. Hayes was featured on the oped page (8/6/18) with a criticism titled, “Gas guzzlers won’t make us safer.”
However, while these (and similar) critical articles deride the possibility that reducing fuel economy standards from the much higher levels they would have been bumped to could increase automobile deaths (Hiltzik described it as “fatuousness” and Hayes termed it “baloney”), they not only misrepresent the arguments rather than examine them, they fail to consider the actual evidence for that “fatuous baloney.”
Consider the title, “Gas guzzlers won’t make us safer.” Not only is the conclusion asserted rather than demonstrated, but what gas guzzlers (a term Hitzlik also uses) is it referring to? Cars that averaged 37 mpg would be by far the cleanest vehicle fleet in American history. And the air is far cleaner than it was, meaning that the additional benefits from each further improvement is far less than in the past, undermining the argument for sharply more stringent standards.
Further, the logic such critics dismiss out of hand is hardly new or preposterous. It goes back to a famous 1989 Harvard-Brookings study that found that CAFÉ caused a 14–27% jump in traffic deaths due to the resulting car downsizing. An update for 1996 found that 2,700–4,700 automobile deaths, of 22,000 total, were attributable to such downsizing.
The arguments made in such studies are far from preposterous, either. When the higher costs of downsizing make newer cars more expensive relative to older, less safe cars, people buy fewer new cars, and increase the risks borne by such drivers and passengers. And if far better mileage lowers the cost of driving additional miles, the law of demand implies such people will drive more, other things equal. It is a matter of how large such effects are, demanding empirical research, not just a hand-wave of dismissal.
Both these writers echo the EPA’s January 2017 Final Determination, that the 54.5 mpg standard to be phased in “will have no adverse impact on automobile safety.” However, that contradicts the July 2016 Draft Technical Assessment Report finding that “mass reduction continues to be an important technology option … in meeting future … standards,” and the admission that there is a “relationship between vehicle mass and safety.” In fact, 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.
It is also important to consider evidence from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), whose research is intended to more accurately determine risks for companies with billions of dollars at stake, not justify a political agenda. Their April 2018, post on “Vehicle size and weight” focuses on the fact that “the bigger the crush zone … the lower the forces on the occupants,” in explaining the role of vehicle size and that, 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,” to explain the effect of weight (bigger vehicles are similarly 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 very large cars had 22 deaths per million registrations, but minicars had 62. Small cars also made up a vastly disproportionate share of high driver death rate vehicles for the 2011–2014 model years. Perhaps most dramatic, however, was a study comparing hybrid models with their conventional counterparts. The occupant-injury rate for the hybrids, which weighed substantially more (10% in the study), was one-quarter lower.
Those who would roll back CAFÉ standards from an eventual 54.5 mpg to 37 have a much better case, while their opponents offer much more bombast. But there is a further question that should be asked, but can get lost in the politics — why do we need CAFÉ standards at all?
Nobody knows better than those who buy and fuel their vehicles with their own money what kind of vehicles are most appropriate for the circumstances they face. In particular, I see no evidence that politicians and bureaucrats know us better or care about us more than we do. Why can’t we be allowed to make our own choices in the face of the tradeoffs between mileage, carrying capacity, safety, etc.? And as must always be asked about such nanny state intrusions into our liberty, if we are deemed incapable to make such automobile choices with our own money (much of which is sucked off by government as proof of how much they care), how can we be capable of intelligently determining who our political representatives should be?