No one should have been surprised by the Trump administration’s proposal today to eliminate Obama-era automotive fuel economy standards. This White House has long argued those regulations will cost Americans jobs and will raise the cost of cars. Even if both those things aren’t true, or are just marginally truthy, the Republicans are in charge. Therefore, big energy (with the help of the Big Three automakers) gets to dictate environmental policy. Same as it ever was.
But we should be doing more than just rolling our eyes and smacking our heads at the administration’s further claim that freezing, or even rolling back, proposed fuel-economy standards will actually prevent death. They make this claim on the basis that the Obama administration’s proposed tightening of the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards would force the manufacture and sale of lighter cars. Lighter cars, by their odd logic, means using less gas, which apparently translates to Americans driving more. So they’ve reached the arbitrary conclusion that the Obama-era rules would have caused 12,700 extra people to die on the roads.
“It could save up to a thousand lives annually by reducing these barriers that prevent consumers from getting into newer, safer cars,” Heidi King, the National Highway Traffic Administration’s acting director, told The New York Times.
Let’s follow that logic. Better fuel-economy means lighter cars, and lighter cars will inevitably be more expensive cars. So people will simultaneously drive more but buy fewer cars, so they won’t have access to better safety technology. That is Mummenschanz-quality human-knot twisting. It’s also total nonsense.
First of all, people don’t drive more, or at least not appreciably more, when fuel economy is better. People drive more if they live further away from work or if they have more kids. Those are basically the only factors.
Second, larger, less-fuel-efficient cars have never proven to be safer than smaller, lighter ones. Maybe they might be able to defend themselves better against getting rammed by a cattle guard. But larger cars are also more likely to flip over in an accident, so it’s a wash. The only way to really avoid getting into a dangerous car accident is to not get into a car at all.
Third, safety features tend to come standard whether cars are larger or smaller, fuel-efficient or gas-guzzling. And while those features in new cars have obviously been improved compared with a 2007, it’s not an extraordinary difference at the price points most people can afford. Also, safety features that really matter, like rear backup cameras, lane-departure warning, or automatic braking, almost never come standard and are always part of a several-thousand-dollar add-on package, tossing the “consumer savings” portion of the equation out the window.
In addition, despite these incredible advances in safety technology, automotive fatalities have been spiking dangerously in the last few years, reaching levels not seen since the mid-’90s. They topped 40,000 in 2016. Our roads have become grim abattoirs. This spike started before Obama’s fuel-economy rules went into effect, and doesn’t seem to be slowing down any time soon.
Car deaths cannot be tied to fuel economy—unless you want to tie them to Volkswagens spewing poisonous diesel fumes—and they cannot be tied to car size. The major factors leading to automotive fatalities are lax enforcement of speeding and traffic violations, drunk and drugged driving, texting and other electronic distractions, overcrowded roads, and the fact that, despite all available evidence, people still don’t wear seat belts. No one has yet come up with a solution to this complicated and bloody problem, but literally no one, except for the Trump Administration, has had the audacity to tie traffic deaths to fuel-economy standards.
If the Administration wants to throw sand in the gears of the electric-car revolution, that’s a regressive policy choice that can someday be altered or reversed. However, by doing the bidding of Big Oil, but claiming that they’re doing it for public safety reasons, they’re directly insulting the families of the hundreds of thousands of Americans who’ve died in tragic car accidents in the past decade. If they really cared about people dying in car crashes, they’d be working for underride protection in big rigs, or engaging in a national campaign to stop smartphone use in cars, or putting down the drunk-driving hammer.
But they don’t really care. They only care about making profit for the oil companies, and are using the tragedy of traffic deaths as convenient cover. We’ll all choke on the fumes of that irony.
I can safely (or dangerously) predict that fatalities will not only not decline, but will, in fact, continue to rise throughout this era of diminished fuel standards, because the two have nothing to do with each other. More than 100 Americans die every day in cars. No MPG freeze will drop the number. That’s a steep human price to pay for political revenge on California.