Boosting Fuel Efficiency Can Increase Highway Safety; Public Citizen Debunks Auto Industry Safety Canard

Jan. 24, 2002

Boosting Fuel Efficiency Can Increase Highway Safety; Public Citizen Debunks Auto Industry Safety Canard

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Contrary to assertions by auto manufacturers, boosting fuel economy standards will not lessen highway safety and likely would save lives, Public Citizen told congressional lawmakers today.

Vehicle size and crash protection design are the key factors in safety, Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook said in testimony presented to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. Claybrook was the administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration from 1977 to 1981.

Although the auto industry has promoted a myth that heavier vehicles are always safer, they are not, Claybrook said. In fact, some lighter cars have a lower driver death rate than some heavy vehicles. For example, the GM Suburban four-wheel drive has a higher death rate than the Honda Civic. The key issue is vehicle crashworthiness, she said.

Not only do sport utility vehicles (SUVs) have high rollover rates, more handling problems and are often less crashworthy, but they cause more damage to smaller vehicles in crashes. Nor do fuel economy standards cause increased fatalities. Fuel economy is achieved primarily by technological improvements and to a small extent by weight reduction, which occurs only in heavy vehicles (it is not cost efficient to reduce the weights of light cars). Thus, new fuel economy standards would create a fleet of vehicles with fewer disparities in weight, which is safer for everyone on the road.

“The auto industry has argued, time and again, that raising fuel economy standards will adversely impact safety by causing the increased production of smaller vehicles or by reducing vehicle weight,” Claybrook said. “In fact, there is no evidence that establishes [this]. . . . The use of the timeworn safety canard by the industry is a cynical attempt to frighten consumers and Congress to deflect new fuel economy requirements, and appears most appallingly hypocritical when we consider that the industry itself has acted to obstruct safety improvements over the last 35 years.”

Claybrook noted that over the years, the industry has fought mandatory air bag laws on cost grounds and fought side impact and fuel system standards. It is now battling to prevent effective dynamic rollover tests, an improved roof crush standard and requirements for a tire pressure monitoring system, which would save fuel economy and improve safety.

Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards, instituted in 1975, raised average fuel economy performance in the United Sates by 82 percent between 1978 and 1985. Their primary feature is a 27.5 miles per gallon (mpg) statutory standard for passenger automobiles, with a regulatory minimum standard for light trucks – a category that includes minivans, pickups and SUVs – of 20.7 mpg. CAFE saves 118 million gallons of gasoline daily and 913 million barrels of oil each year, or about the total imported annually from the Persian Gulf.

CAFE standards have not been updated above the 1985 requirement, despite better technology and the increasing dominance of SUVs on the highways. One major deficiency in the current CAFE program is that it holds light trucks to a lower fuel economy standard than passenger cars. While this distinction may have been valid in 1975, when light trucks were not widely used as passenger vehicles, it is now badly outdated, Claybrook said.

The Union of Concerned Scientists last year released a report showing that technologies exist to make today’s vehicles far more fuel efficient while keeping vehicle manufacturing cost effective and having no negative impact on safety. These technologies include changing tire tread designs, increasing the use of aluminum and plastics, and allowing engines to turn off rather than idle.

Claybrook called for the following actions by Congress, which she said are necessary because the auto industry will not boost fuel efficiency or act to improve safety on its own:

· Require NHTSA to set new safety standards for rollover crashworthiness protection and limits on aggressivity, which could prevents thousands of deaths and injuries. The rollover protections should include a dynamic roof crush standard, roof energy absorbing protection to reduce injuries from contact with the roof, safety belt pretensioners that are triggered in a rollover crash, improved seat structure to keep occupants in position during a roll, side impact protection air bags that are triggered in a rollover crash;

· Close the light truck loophole in the CAFE standards. Fuel economy standards should be raised to 40 mpg for cars and light trucks over 10 years, starting with the model year 2005;

· Increase the accuracy of testing procedures used to predict fuel economy performance;

· End the dual-credit program, in which manufacturers are rewarded for building vehicles that can theoretically run on alternative fuels. In reality, only one percent of the miles driven in these vehicles are ever powered by alternative fuels;

· Eliminate CAFE’s “carryback” provision, which allows a manufacturer that fails to meet its CAFE requirement to submit a plan for improving vehicle fleet efficiency in three future years. This invites abuse and dishonesty by the manufacturers by effectively delaying the deadline by which manufacturers must meet their fuel economy targets;

· Clarify a provision that precludes state-run “feebate” programs, in which manufacturers and consumers are rewarded for selling cars that are more fuel efficient than required; and

· Immediately appropriate $5 million for fuel economy.

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To read Claybrook’s testimony, click here.