Friday, May 22, 2009

Making Cars Less Safe

We all learned in our introductory economics course in college that "there is no free lunch." Life is full of tradeoffs that cannot be ignored or wished away. In today's Wall Street Journal, former Environmental Defense Fund trustee Robert Grady makes a key point about the push to increase fuel efficiency in U.S. automobiles:

"The Obama fuel efficiency plan may also contribute to a significant increase in highway deaths as vehicles are required to quickly meet the new CAFE standard and will likely become lighter in weight as a result. According to a study completed in 2001 by the National Research Council (NRC), the last major increase in CAFE standards, mandated by the Energy Policy and Conservation Act of 1975, required about a 50% increase in fuel economy (to 27.5 mpg by model year 1985 from an average of 18 mpg in 1978). The NRC study concluded that the subsequent downsizing and down-weighting of vehicles, "while resulting in significant fuel savings, also resulted in a safety penalty." Specifically, the NRC estimated that in 1993 there were between 1,300 and 2,600 motor vehicle crash deaths that would not have occurred if cars were as heavy as they were in 1976.

The president now proposes a fuel economy increase of similar magnitude in an even quicker time frame -- to 39 mpg by model year 2016 from 27.5 mpg now. Given the time it takes for new technologies to be developed, tested and incorporated into new car models, it is likely that down-weighting of cars will be an important means of meeting the new standard. And one result again could be highway deaths that might otherwise not have occurred."