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.