On the heels of Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt’s announcement this month that his agency will weaken the 2012 vehicle fuel-economy standards set by the Obama administration, The Wall Street Journal published an op-ed celebrating the rollback and arguing that President Barack Obama's standards would have led to more vehicle crash fatalities. Other news outlets, both right-wing and mainstream, have also published pieces pushing the message that ambitious fuel-economy rules kill people. But it’s an unsupported claim based on decades-old data. More recent research has found that strengthening the standards can actually improve road safety and save lives.
WSJ and other outlets push outdated claim that efficient, lightweight cars lead to more fatalities
On April 2, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) head Scott Pruitt announced his intention to revise the Obama-era Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards, which would have required new cars and light trucks sold in the U.S. to get an average of 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. In doing so, he ignored demands from many states, environmental groups , and consumer protection organizations to keep the Obama-era standards in place.
Two days later, The Wall Street Journal published an op-ed titled “Coffee Won’t Kill You, But CAFE Might,” written by Sam Kazman, who's identified under the piece as “general counsel of the Competitive Enterprise Institute.” The Journal failed to note that the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) has funders with an economic interest in fuel-economy rules: the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers and auto companies like Ford and Volkswagen; the American Petroleum Institute and oil companies like ExxonMobil; and the Koch brothers.
“CAFE kills people by causing cars to be made smaller and lighter,” Kazman asserted. To make this point, he relied on one study published in 1989 and another study from 2002 that analyzed 1993 data. Kazman wrote:
A 1989 Harvard-Brookings study estimated the death toll [from CAFE standards] at between 2,200 and 3,900 a year. Similarly, a 2002 National Academy of Sciences study estimated that CAFE had contributed to up to 2,600 fatalities in 1993. This was at a relatively lenient CAFE level of 27.5 miles per gallon. Under what the Obama administration had in store, CAFE would soon approach levels twice as stringent.
After citing these outdated studies, Kazman tried to make the findings seem relevant today:
Advocates of stringent standards claim that automotive technologies have advanced since that 1992 court ruling, making vehicle mass less significant. But the basic relationship between size and safety has not changed. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which closely monitors crashworthiness, still provides the same advice it has been giving for years: “Bigger, heavier vehicles are safer.”
Other news outlets have also given industry-friendly voices a platform over the past two weeks to claim that CAFE standards boost fatalities, often citing the same outdated research and CEI staffers. These outlets include: the San Francisco Chronicle, which published an op-ed by CEI senior fellow Marlo Thomas; the Washington Examiner, The Epoch Times, and the Media Research Center, which published pieces by their own contributors; and conservative websites Townhall and CNSNews.com, which published versions of the same piece by Paul Driessen, a senior policy analyst at the oil industry-funded Committee For A Constructive Tomorrow.
Latest research undermines claim that CAFE has increased road fatalities
The National Academy of Sciences revised its view in 2015. The arguments from Kazman and others hinge on a 2002 study by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), which analyzed deaths in 1993 -- a 16-year-old study based on 25-year-old data. Basing their claims on such dated information is highly questionable; automotive safety technology and design have advanced substantially in the past quarter century.
Also, the 2002 NAS study included an appendix with a dissent by two of the report’s authors who argued, “The relationship between fuel economy and highway safety is complex, ambiguous, poorly understood, and not measurable by any known means at the present time.” As such, the two wrote, the study's conclusions on safety were “overly simplistic and at least partially incorrect.”
Kazman and his fellow CAFE critics also ignored how the government adjusted rules to improve safety after the 2002 study was released, and they neglected to mention a more recent 2015 National Research Council study. The 2002 NAS study recommended tying fuel-economy goals to vehicle attributes such as weight, and the federal government implemented these recommendations in 2009. By 2015, researchers concluded that these changes had yielded appreciable benefits to highway safety.
As a February 12, 2018, Bloomberg article explained:
The [2002 NAS] study recommended several changes to the efficiency regulations, including basing fuel economy on an attribute such as vehicle weight. That would mitigate an incentive for automakers to sell smaller, fuel-sipping cars to offset sales of gas-guzzling trucks.
That change was made in 2009, when NHTSA [the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration] began tying fuel economy targets to a vehicle’s “footprint,” the area between an automobile’s four wheels.
In 2015, the academy released a new study that concluded the change to a footprint measurement had satisfied many of its safety concerns.
From a press release describing the 2015 study conducted by the National Research Council, the principal operating agency of the National Academy of Sciences: “Manufacturers are likely to make cars lighter in their efforts to improve fuel economy. The most current studies support the argument that making vehicles lighter, while keeping their footprints constant, will have a beneficial effect on safety for society as a whole, especially if the greatest weight reductions come from the heaviest vehicles, the report says.” Still, researchers recommended that NHTSA monitor and mitigate safety risks as automakers transition to lighter cars.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety supported Obama's CAFE rules. Kazman also cited the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety as he tried to argue that Obama-era fuel-economy rules were dangerous. But a spokesperson for the institute, Russ Rader, said that it supported the Obama plan. “The Obama-era changes to the rules, essentially using a sliding scale for fuel economy improvements by vehicle footprint, addressed safety concerns that IIHS raised in the past,” Rader told Bloomberg in February.
A 2017 study found that CAFE standards can cut down on deaths. Research released last year found that fuel-economy standards could actually decrease fatalities. The 2017 study on pre-Obama CAFE standards, conducted by the National Bureau of Economic Research, concluded that “on net CAFE reduced fatalities.” The Washington Post summed it up with this headline: “Scientists just debunked one of the biggest arguments against fuel economy standards for cars.” The Post article explains how lighter cars might lead to fewer deaths:
Say you observe a crash between two SUVs, both around the same size. If you downsize one of those vehicles to a Smart car, the chance of its passengers being injured or killed may increase. On the other hand, if you downsize both vehicles, the overall risk of fatality might actually become smaller than it was to begin with.
The researchers argue that, in the past, critics have only examined the effects of reducing an individual vehicle’s weight and not the standards’ overall effects on all vehicles in circulation — an important distinction.
“I think one of the findings of this study is that these [safety] concerns have been drummed up as the reason to get rid of this standard,” [study coauthor Kevin] Roth said. “We’re essentially showing that these concerns are probably overblown.”
Another coauthor of the study said that the safety benefits on their own are a good argument for maintaining fuel-economy standards, even without considering environmental benefits.
Because the science underpinning vehicle efficiency and safety is complex, industry-aligned organizations such as CEI are able to cherry-pick and manipulate specific data to meet their predetermined conclusions. For those who want to obtain a comprehensive understanding of vehicle efficiency standards and their myriad benefits, there are many useful resources, including a 2012 report jointly produced by the EPA and NHTSA, which details how the agencies took safety into account as they formulated the CAFE standards that the Trump administration intends to roll back.