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Trump Plan Would Save Lives by Making It Too Expensive to Drive

Finally, the Trump administration has come up with a way to relieve traffic congestion and improve public safety: It proposes to saddle us with cars that burn so much fuel that we will be deterred from driving, thus reducing traffic and saving lives.

That is not a joke.

The administration last week issued a proposed rule that would halt progress on clean car standards by freezing targets at 2020 levels. Fortunately, the administration is required to justify the rollback because the law requires fuel economy standards to be set at the “maximum feasible” level. The case that the authors of the proposed rule put forth is truly bizarre, even by Trump administration standards.

First, the authors promise to save consumers money. But to get there, they more than double estimates on how much it would cost the automakers to meet the standards currently on the books. The Obama administration said in 2016 that it would cost about $900 per vehicle to meet the 2025 mark. The Trump administration has conjured a price of $1,850 to $2,260 per vehicle.

This pessimistic prediction directly contradicts recent experience. The automakers exceeded requirements for the first round of standards, which began in 2012, at or below the costs forecast by the Obama administration and there is nothing to suggest that they would not continue to do so.

The authors rely on this highly suspect forecast to arrive at a conclusion that their rule would yield benefits because the savings from buying cheaper, dirtier cars would exceed the extra cost of driving them.

It gets worse from there. The authors also promise $85 billion in “savings” in the form of intangible benefits due to reduced traffic congestion and noise. We would enjoy this peaceful respite, they say, because Americans would be deterred from driving due to the worse gas mileage the administration’s plan would leave us with.

That tortuous logic provides about half of the basis for the rule’s marquee claim: that it will save 12,700 lives over a dozen years.

The proposed rule devotes considerable space to promising that the less stringent fuel economy standards will save lives by enabling cars to be heavier. But this long discredited theory is mostly irrelevant to the administration’s ultimate case because the rule attributes only 1 percent of averted fatalities to heavier vehicles.

The authors attribute about 49 percent of these lives saved to more people buying new, safer cars, because vehicles would be cheaper under their plan. This claim is fraught with many problems, not the least of which is the proposed rule’s reliance on a greatly exaggerated assumption of how much cars would cost if we stay the course.

That leaves the truly precious part: How the rule would achieve the other 50 percent of averted fatalities. Employing the same logic as used to predict reduced traffic congestion, the authors promise that their plan will save 6,340 lives because it will make driving more expensive, causing us to drive less.

If such a result is something to be proud of, the 4.1 percent economic growth figure that sent Trump and his boosters into orbit last week would have been cause for mourning. Faster economic growth is directly correlated with more miles driven. If reducing driving is a desirable outcome, the administration should be seeking to plunge us into a crippling recession at once.

Milton Friedman, the deity of conservative economists, was once told that a team of roadway workers was given shovels instead of tractors in order to create more construction jobs. “Then why not give them spoons and create even more jobs?” Friedman reputedly asked.

One can only wonder what he would have said if told the Trump administration wanted to make driving more expensive to save lives.

Why not ban cars and give us hiking boots?