Safety vs. Fuel Economy?

Robert Norton is a former attorney with Chrysler, so he must know cars, right? Apparently not, for his recent National Review On-Line article about auto safety misses the mark.

Norton frets that Obama’s fuel economy standards, which require that the average car sold in 2025 gets 52 mpg, will lead to dangerous cars. His evidence is a thought experiment.

“Imagine a head-on collision,” he says, of “a Cadillac Escalade and the other a Chevy Volt. Which would you want to be in?” He thinks it is obvious that anyone would want to be in the Escalade. Yet many small cars are considered safer than many larger vehicles.

For one thing, head-on collisions are not the only type of accident to worry about. The National Traffic Safety Administration gives the Escalade just three stars (out of five) for rollover accidents and an overall rating of just four stars. The Volt gets an overall five-star rating, though only four stars for a frontal crash.

Several smaller cars, including the Honda Accord, Kia Optima, and Volvo S60, get five stars in all categories. By comparison, some SUVs, including the 2013 Jeep Compass, 2012 Ford Escape, and 2012 Hyundai Santa Fe, get only three stars overall, and several get just three stars in frontal crash ratings.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which does crash test ratings, agrees that several smaller cars are among the safest cars on the road, including the above three along with the Chrysler 200, Ford Fusion, and Suzuki Kizashi. While the group hasn’t rated the Escalade, it has found many large SUVs that provide marginal safety for their occupants.

It seems likely that actual data are more valid than thought experiments, mainly because there are many factors other than vehicle weight that influence safety. Crumple zones, vehicle stability controls, and collision avoidance systems can almost completely mitigate differences in vehicle sizes and weights.

Even when he relies on data, Norton gets it wrong. “There are approximately 42,000 motoring fatalities each year in the United States,” he says. “That is a large number, and it has remained stubbornly at that level.”

Actually, it hasn’t. The last year that saw 42,000 motoring fatalities was 2006. Since then, fatalities have declined to 32,000. That’s a large decline, and one reason for it is increasingly safer cars of all sizes. Another reason is fewer cars on the road, as miles of driving have declined 2.3 percent since their peak in 2007. That suggests that both safety and fuel economy could be increased with small increases in highway capacity that would reduce both fuel-wasting congestion and collisions.

The Antiplanner doesn’t like Obama’s fuel-economy standards because people don’t need to be forced to save energy. If energy prices rise, they will save it without regulation. If energy is cheap, they probably don’t need to save it.

It is possible to make cars both safer and more fuel-efficient, such as by replacing steel with aluminum, which is both stronger and lighter weight. It is also more expensive, so regulations requiring such a change will make travel less affordable. But when energy prices rise, manufacturers will gladly offer lighter, stronger cars to consumers who would rather pay more up front to save fuel costs later.

Though I don’t support regulation, arguing that safety standards will kill people is simply wrong. Such arguments reduce the credibility of critics of regulation by relying on emotions rather than facts.

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11 thoughts on “Safety vs. Fuel Economy?

  1. paul

    I agree with the antiplanner about the vastly increased safety of modern cars. See the video of the 2009 Malibu and 1959 Bel Air offset head on crash http://hazmat.dot.gov/riskcompare.htm (search terms “2009 1959 Chevy crash test”). Interestingly the Malibu only weighs about 200 pounds less than the Bel Air as the safety standards of new cars has caused a big increase in their weight compared to earlier models. For example a 2006 Volkswagen bug weighs almost 1000 pounds more than a 1966 bug, but gets about the same fuel economy with better acceleration. In the last 30 years if the emphasis had been put on fuel economy instead of engine power cars would already be getting 52 miles per gallon. Providing the increased fuel economy pays for the increased cost of the car then these fuel economy regulations may not be too onerous.

    Having said that the two reasons for better fuel economy are decreasing carbon dioxide production and decreasing oil imports from politically volatile areas. The former would be best accomplished by taxing carbon content at the point of production, such as per weight of coal or oil produced and then putting all of this revenue into research on producing less carbon dioxide. It is more debatable if importing less oil form politically volatile areas is a worthwhile goal and at what cost.

  2. Jardinero1

    Paul, Why tax CO2? It is a beneficial trace gas, vital to all life on earth. Why should we reduce emissions of it? In the last 100 million years CO2 levels have been as high as 2000 ppm. The planet was biologically more diverse at those levels than now.

  3. FrancisKing

    “Imagine a head-on collision,”

    Providing a median basically fixes that one.

    “The Antiplanner doesn’t like Obama’s fuel-economy standards because people don’t need to be forced to save energy. If energy prices rise, they will save it without regulation. If energy is cheap, they probably don’t need to save it.”

    There are also issues about CO2 emissions, and buying oil from certain countries which don’t uphold US values.

  4. FrancisKing

    “Paul, Why tax CO2? It is a beneficial trace gas, vital to all life on earth. Why should we reduce emissions of it? In the last 100 million years CO2 levels have been as high as 2000 ppm. The planet was biologically more diverse at those levels than now.”

    No human beings, civilisation or agriculture though. I think you are taking too much for granted.

  5. Jardinero1

    No Francis, human beings had not evolved yet. The world was still biologically more diverse. There is no case that increased CO2 levels adversely affect life on earth. CO2 is not a problem unless your wish is to stifle economic growth in both the near term and the long term.

  6. LazyReader

    No typical car is gonna get 52 mpg. Pickup trucks and SUV’s even small ones are not gonna get those numbers and have the power needed to do the hauling jobs a truck neds.

    I’m more curious as to what the government is gonna do regarding it’s vast automotive fleet of Crown Victorias and Chevy Tahoe’s. Even the Tahoe Hybrid gets a mere 22 mpg. The Government’s aim is to replace it’s vehicle fleet over time. last year they’ve announced the their future purchase of several thousand Chevrolet Volts, which doesn’t suffer from range limitation because of its internal combustion engine, which works both as a generator and prime mover as the charge in 400 pounds. Carrying a $41,000 base MSRP and a $7,500 tax break, the government literally paying people to buy them. And General Electric has put forth an order for 12,000 of the cars and taking advantage of the tax break for each one. Outside of that electric range, the Volt gets significantly worse gas mileage than a host of cars costing a lot less. Consumer Reports stated that the average mpg with the internal combustion engine on was a mere 29. GM a company that gets federal reimbursment for cars sold while it was already under federal life support to avert it’s bankruptcy. The purchase of Volt fleets by cash-strapped cities as municipal fleet cars, is a particular outrage. Besides the fact that Volts require 7-8 hours to charge.

    The federal government uses more gas than any entity, it begs the question how it’s employees will meet 52 mpg and if they cant stand by their own standard, why should anyone else.

  7. C. P. Zilliacus

    LazyReader wrote:

    I’m more curious as to what the government is gonna do regarding it’s vast automotive fleet of Crown Victorias and Chevy Tahoe’s.

    Ford no longer manufactures the Crown Victoria or any of the other “Panther” line of vehicles.

  8. C. P. Zilliacus

    The Antiplanner wrote:

    It is possible to make cars both safer and more fuel-efficient, such as by replacing steel with aluminum, which is both stronger and lighter weight. It is also more expensive, so regulations requiring such a change will make travel less affordable. But when energy prices rise, manufacturers will gladly offer lighter, stronger cars to consumers who would rather pay more up front to save fuel costs later.

    One option that improves fuel efficiency is to replace some vehicles in the fleet that burn gasoline with vehicles equipped with modern Diesel engines, which tend to get much better fuel economy than similar gasoline burners.

    Diesels do generally cost more to purchase, but because of their high engine compression ratios, they need to be built ruggedly, and tend to last a very long time. Unfortunately, this is something the nice people at General Motors forgot when they tried to market the weakly built and extremely unreliable Oldsmobile Diesel engines in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, which “poisoned the well” for Diesel automobiles in the North American auto market for many years.

    But if there is a need to reduce CO2 emissions from highway vehicles, one way to do that is with more Diesel vehicles.

  9. C. P. Zilliacus

    paul wrote:

    I agree with the antiplanner about the vastly increased safety of modern cars. See the video of the 2009 Malibu and 1959 Bel Air offset head on crash http://hazmat.dot.gov/riskcompare.htm (search terms “2009 1959 Chevy crash test”). Interestingly the Malibu only weighs about 200 pounds less than the Bel Air as the safety standards of new cars has caused a big increase in their weight compared to earlier models.

    I was not able to find the video of the crash test described above on the USDOT Web site, but I did find it on YouTube here. Makes for interesting viewing.

  10. Damian

    I am glad you posted this. I never liked the argument that CAFE standards led to more deaths because it ignored the positive aspects from getting smaller, as you say. I first heard this argument in college from Grover Norquist. I inquired more, and Grover told me to check out a paper that did indeed have the stat showing the accidents were caused at least partially by weight, but the econometrics are not convincing at all.

  11. prk166

    I’m not sure why we’d think that an ex-auto exec at —> Chrysler <— would be very good at knowing basic things about the industry. In less than 2 generations, they've gone belly-up twice. Not exactly an indicator of a company full of talented people at the helm.

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