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Saving Gas Via Underpowered Death Traps

Research confirms that increasing fuel economy standards does cost lives on the road. But economist Mark Jacobsen explains how that doesn’t have to be the case.

After the Obama Administration unveiled new fuel-economy standards last week for cars, light trucks and SUVs – setting an average goal of 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025 – perennial critics of the policy pounced on one of its feared side effects.

“This will take away consumer choice,” warned Sterling Burnett, a senior fellow with the free-market think thank National Center for Policy Analysis, “and force all but the wealthiest drivers into small, underpowered death traps.”

The center’s press release even links to a terrifying chart illustrating, along a steep diagonal line, of the extra people killed per hundred-pound downsizing of new cars thanks to increased fuel-economy standards.

This worry — that more efficiency means more fatalities as we make gas-saving cars smaller and lighter – has dogged the program for years. But the reality isn’t so linear, in large part because those hulking trucks and SUVs that do such a good job of protecting their passengers also pose the greatest threat to everyone else on the road. Recent research that takes that into account, alongside other factors from driver behavior to vehicle model to weather conditions, suggests something else.

Yes, it’s true that the fuel-economy standards the U.S. has been using cost lives. Economist Mark Jacobsen has estimated that for every mile-per-gallon we raise the standards, 149 traffic fatalities occur per year. That would mean 1,490 deaths if the standards were raised from, say, 30 miles-per-gallon to 40. But this doesn’t have to be the case. It’s possible, Jacobsen has concluded, to increase fuel efficiency without also decreasing safety. And if government officials are smart, they’ll tailor the regulations behind the new standards to do this.

According to Jacobsen’s data, the worst accidents are those that pit the smallest vehicles against the largest ones. And, often, it’s the driver in the smaller vehicle who dies. If, for instance, a compact hybrid car and a large pickup collide, a fatality in the compact car is seven times more likely than one in the pickup.

Jacobsen also puts it this way: A vehicle that is 1,000 pounds heavier than the ones around it imposes about 40 percent more risk of fatality on other drivers in the area. A Ford F-150? It weighs 1,500 pounds more than a Toyota Camry.

Drivers intuitively understand some of this because they’ve been embarking on what economist Michelle White dubbed the “arms race” on American roads.

“This is people buying bigger cars than they might even really want just to try to protect themselves from everyone else,” Jacobsen said. “You get this inefficient outcome where everyone has a car that’s too big as a result.”

The concept suggests that we need a kind of “disarmament” — a policy to bring down the size of everyone’s vehicles. But even more important, Jacobsen says, is the need to bring the size of vehicles more in line with each other, reducing the likelihood of the worst accidents that occur when tiny cars crash into monstrous ones.

The fuel economy standards we’ve been using actually make that discrepancy worse. The government deploys a separate, higher standard for cars than for light trucks and SUVs. And this essentially encourages carmakers to make small cars even smaller — without doing the same to trucks and SUVs and without providing any incentive for drivers to downsize from an SUV into a car.

Jacobsen’s solution: one average fuel economy standard for all light vehicles (which is how the EPA now regulates auto emissions). Combining what engineers have learned about vehicle safety with what economists have studied about the auto “arms race,” Jacobsen’s model produces a startling result. Separate standards for cars and trucks lead to deadly accidents; a single standard for all vehicles would lead to almost none.

“If you just have a unified standard, cars do become slightly more similar, and that’s the most important thing for safety: how similar cars are in weight and size,” he said. “Our existing fuel economy standards don’t do that at all. They in fact do the opposite.”

Tom Wenzel, a research scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, concurs with this.

“Having separate fuel economy standards for cars and trucks encourages people to continue to use trucks as if they were cars,” he said. “They buy a truck, but they drive it as if it were a car. They don’t necessarily need the bed or the four-wheel drive.”

When fuel economy standards were introduced in the early 1970s, just about the only people buying trucks were those who really needed them — farmers, ranchers, construction workers. But by creating separate fuel economy standards for those vehicles — and making them less expensive than they would be if they had to meet the higher gas mileage of cars — the government may have encouraged more people to start driving them.

Unifying all light vehicles under the same standard today would inevitably hike the price of trucks and SUVs. That doesn’t trouble Wenzel or Jacobsen.

“My response to that is, ‘Well that’s fine,” Wenzel said. “If consumers still demand pickup trucks and all of those features, it’s not like we’re preventing them from buying them. They just will have to pay more.”

The government could give tax breaks to farmers and construction workers who really do need them, he suggests. Anyone else who simply wants one, Jacobsen adds, would now have to pay what economists would say is a more accurate price.

“When you buy a large SUV, you’re not paying for the risk you pose to everyone else on the road,” Jacobsen said. And in a framework where the government can increase fuel efficiency without also costing lives, he suggests you should.

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