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Proposal on Fuel Economy Likely to Be Christmas Gift to Auto, Oil Industries

Dec. 22, 2003

Proposal on Fuel Economy Likely to Be Christmas Gift to Auto, Oil Industries

Statement of Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook

The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) proposed redrafting of fuel economy rules, announced today, is not the gift of improved safety and efficiency of sport utility vehicles that the agency implies. The preliminary proposal is hazy on the specific changes and relies on faulty studies and data regarding the impact of vehicle weight on safety and fuel economy.

While the good news is that the agency is examining some of the loopholes in current rules, the close ties of the Bush White House to the auto industry suggest that industry will have disproportionate influence in this complex rulemaking, potentially just delaying meaningful increased standards.

Contrary to myth, current fuel economy rules actually foster weight increases in the heaviest trucks by dividing the fleet between cars and light trucks and SUVs, keeping mileage standards very low. While advances in technology yield steady yearly improvements in engine efficiency and other capabilities, throughout the 1990s automakers used this capacity to increase the bulk and acceleration of already-heavy trucks, not fuel economy.

The agency has indicated it may rewrite its standards based on vehicle weight or other attributes – but a weight-based system would encourage heavier SUVs and pick-up trucks. Weight-based systems are also founded on the fallacy that reductions in vehicle weight would occur across-the-board and thereby increase fatalities. In actuality, a weight-based standard would perpetuate and exacerbate the carnage from over-weighted SUVs and pick-up trucks, allowing automakers to continue ramping up sales of highly profitable behemoths at the expense of the environment and consumer safety.

Any rewrite of the rules should be measured against the benchmark of a substantial, rather than minimal, increase in the standard under the current program, which would both save oil and increase safety. A substantial hike in fuel economy standards would concentrate any reductions in vehicle weight in the heaviest vehicles, as that is the most cost-effective way to improve fuel economy for those vehicles, while using technology to achieve greater fuel economy in lighter vehicles. That is the historical pattern of fuel economy improvements through the 1970s and 1980s. Similar leadership today would greatly improve the safety of the occupants of those inside both SUVs and other vehicles.

Regulators should decisively raise standards under the current system, as was originally intended by Congress, rather than wrapping up a gift to the industry with false promises of consumer and environmental protection.


** Claybrook was administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration from 1977-1981.


Click here to see a critique of the administration’s study of weight and safety.