Michelle Malkin Smears Fuel Economy Standards As “Deadly”

In her syndicated column, Michelle Malkin depicted newly finalized fuel economy standards as dangerous to consumers. But in fact, standards have been reformed to remove incentives for smaller, potentially less safe cars, and technological improvements have made many smaller cars just as safe as larger vehicles.

Michelle Malkin Misleadingly Calls New Fuel Standards “Deadly”

Malkin: Newly Improved Fuel Standards Will “Cost Untold American Lives.”  In a column featured by Fox Nation, The Washington Examiner, and several other conservative outlets, conservative commentator Michelle Malkin called fuel economy standards a “draconian environmental regulation that will cost untold American lives.” In the column, titled “Obama's Sneaky, Deadly, Costly Car Tax,” Malkin pointed to research on previous fuel economy standards to claim that the new standards are “lethal” :

These lethal regulations should be wrapped in yellow police “CAUTION” tape. The tradeoffs are stark and simple: CAFE [Corporate Average Fuel Economy] fuel standards clamp down on the production of larger, more crashworthy cars. Analysts from Harvard to the Brookings Institution to the federal government itself have arrived at the same conclusion: CAFE kills. Welcome to the bloody intersection between the Obama jobs death toll and the Obama green death toll. [MichelleMalkin.com, 8/29/12] [Fox Nation, 8/29/12] [Newsbusters, 8/29/12] [CNSNews.com, 8/29/12] [Townhall, 8/29/12] [Washington Examiner, 8/29/12]

But Standards Were Reformed To Remove Incentives For Smaller Vehicles

Expert: New Fuel Economy Standards “Will Have Little Impact On Safety.”  Mark Jacobsen, an Assistant Professor of Economics at the University of California - San Diego, told Media Matters that, in accordance with a study he conducted, the new fuel economy standards “will have little impact on safety.” Jacobsen's 2011 study found previous standards had provided incentives for carmakers to simply build smaller and potentially less safe cars while continuing to produce the same amount of light trucks. But as Jacobsen explained in an email to Media Matters, the new standard will encourage automakers to use advanced technology to improve fuel economy, rather than simply building smaller cars:

Under the old standards automakers instead had to meet a constant, fixed fuel economy target and they could do that simply by building smaller cars, or, more likely, through a combination of building smaller cars and using better technology.  Under the new standard they will instead do much of the savings via technology alone; building smaller cars only gets them a tougher fuel economy rule to meet so [it] doesn't help them as much as it used to.  As a result, the size (and safety outcomes) of vehicles in our car fleet may remain much the same as they are today. (this is one of the findings in my paper)

In sum, the improvements in fuel economy under the new rule will likely come through technologies that are less visible, like hybrid engines and improvements in engine efficiency, and so will have little impact on safety. [Email exchange, 8/30/12, emphasis added] [American Economic Review2011]

CRS: Fuel Economy Standards Were “Reformed” To  Remove Incentives For Smaller Cars. The nonpartisan Congressional Research Service explained that the final fuel economy standards follow a “new system” under which “fuel economy targets vary with vehicle size, with smaller vehicles expected to achieve higher fuel economy than larger vehicles.” This removes the incentive for carmakers to split a model year fleet into lighter cars and pick-up trucks/SUVs:

Reformed Standards

Prior to the passage of EISA [the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007], one of the key criticisms of the CAFE [Corporate Average Fuel Economy] structure was that increased CAFE standards promoted smaller, lighter vehicles because fuel economy tends to decrease as vehicles get heavier. The concern was that fuel economy standards would be met to a great degree by decreasing vehicle weight. Because larger vehicles tend to offer greater passenger protection in accidents, and tend to be heavier, a fuel economy program structure that does not factor vehicle size into the setting of CAFE standards could promote the use of smaller, less safe vehicles. A corollary and further criticism of the program was that it favored producers of smaller vehicles that would tend to have higher fuel economy. Some proponents of higher CAFE standards responded by arguing that, through the use of new technology, vehicle efficiency can be improved without affecting size or performance.

Under the final rule, fuel economy targets vary with vehicle size, with smaller vehicles expected to achieve higher fuel economy than larger vehicles. Under the new system, each vehicle will be assigned a fuel economy “target” based on its footprint, which is the product of a vehicle's track width (the horizontal distance between the tires) and its wheelbase (the distance from the front to the rear axles). The sales-weighted average of the targets for a manufacturer's fleet is the CAFE average that the manufacturer must achieve in a given model year. In this way, no specific vehicle is required to meet a specific fuel economy, but the average fuel economy required will vary from manufacturer to manufacturer. [CRS, 4/23/10]

Lightweight Cars Can Be Built Safely With New Technology

Research: New Materials Help Reduce Weight And Increase Safety. In a 2006 study published in American Scientist, two researchers found that improving cars' fuel economy by making them lighter doesn't necessarily mean compromising safety, partly because the increased use of new materials “offers automotive engineers the means to fashion vehicles that are simultaneously safer and less massive than their predecessors” :

We have also conducted our own analyses and come to the conclusion that the claim that lighter vehicles are inherently dangerous to those riding in them is flawed. For starters, all else is never equal; other aspects of vehicle design appear to control what really happens in a crash, as reflected in the safety record of different kinds of vehicles. What's more, the use of high-strength steel, light-weight metals such as aluminum and magnesium, and fiber-reinforced plastics now offers automotive engineers the means to fashion vehicles that are simultaneously safer and less massive than their predecessors, and such designs would, of course, enjoy the better fuel economy that shedding pounds brings. [American Scientist, March-April 2006]

A 2006 International Council on Clean Transportation report printed the following chart based on that research to illustrate the comparative safety risks of vehicles with high and low fuel economy:

[International Council on Clean Transportation, June 2007]

Report: “Average Midsize And Large Cars Are Just As Safe As The Average SUV.”  An American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy report prepared for the Department of Energy found that SUVs are “as risky as the average midsize or large car, and no safer than many of the most popular compact and subcompact models.” The researchers also determined that, when risk to other drivers is factored in, “the safest subcompact and compact models are actually safer than the average SUV,” and “pickup trucks are much less safe than all other types.” From the report:

Midsize and Large Cars. The safest midsize and large cars (Avalon, Camry, and Accord) are as safe as the safest SUV (Suburban); average midsize and large cars are just as safe as the average SUV. However, SUVs impose a greater risk on drivers of other vehicles than do all types of cars. The combined risk of the average SUV (129) is about 30% higher than that for the average large car (100) and 25% higher than that for the average midsize car (105), while the safest SUV (Suburban, 111) has at least a 40% higher combined risk than the three safest midsize and large cars (Avalon, 63; Camry, 72; and Accord, 79).

Subcompact and Compact Cars. The safest subcompact (Civic and Jetta) and compact (626 and Altima) car models are as safe to their drivers as the average SUV (see Figures 2 and 3, and Table A5 in the appendix). When one considers the combined risk, including those killed in the other vehicle in two-vehicle crashes, then the safest subcompact and compact models are actually safer than the average SUV. Moreover, the combined risk for the average subcompact or compact car (147 and 136, respectively) is only slightly higher than that for the average SUV (129).

A critical aspect of the dispute regarding whether light or small cars are relatively dangerous for their occupants is the very large range in the risk to drivers of subcompact cars (see Figure 2). At one end are the low-risk Jetta and Civic models, as just mentioned, but at roughly twice their risk are the Cavalier, Escort, and Neon models (and their twins). Those three very popular models are responsible for increasing the average risk to drivers of subcompact cars. Does the safety record of those three models prove that light cars are unsafe? We present evidence that there is no such simple rule. Might it instead suggest that relatively inexpensive cars tend to be unsafe? Perhaps. In any event, the argument that the low weight of cars with high fuel economy has resulted in many excess deaths is unfounded; that by paying careful attention to safety in vehicle design, smaller cars can be, and indeed have been, made as safe as larger ones. [Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, March 2002]

Heavy Vehicles Are More Dangerous To Other Drivers

Reducing Number Of Pick-Up Trucks And SUVs On The Road Would Improve Safety. Mark Jacobsen added in an email to Media Matters that the finalized “footprint” standard does not encourage a shift from trucks and SUVs to cars - which would improve safety:

I should note that the new [fuel economy] standards do very little to reduce the current high cost of accidents between small cars and pickups/SUV's; in order to fix this existing problem we would need to make the fleet more uniform, perhaps by getting a larger fraction of the population into sedans and reducing the number of pickups/SUV's.  If we had more of the population driving sedans then of course more accidents would also occur between two sedans (and the data show that this type of accident is much safer than accidents between a sedan and a pickup/SUV). [Email exchange, 8/30/12]

Economists: External Costs Of Vehicle Weight From Fatalities Total $93B A Year. A 2011 study from two economists published by the National Bureau of Economic Research concluded that, while heavier vehicles are somewhat safer for their drivers on average, they are more hazardous for the occupants of other vehicles on the road:

The authors find that being hit by a 1,000-pound heavier vehicle results in a 47 percent increase in the baseline probability of being killed in the accident -- roughly a one in one thousand increase in fatality risk, conditional on a collision. The fatality risk is even higher if the striking vehicle is a light truck (SUV, pickup truck, or minivan). These researchers estimate that the total external costs of vehicle weight that arise from fatalities alone are $93 billion per year. They estimate that the value of the external risk that is generated by the gain in fleet weight since 1989 is approximately 27 cents per gallon of gasoline and that the total fatality externality of heavier vehicles is roughly $1.08 per gallon. [National Bureau of Economic Research, November 2011]