Could Fuel Economy Standards Be a Safety Hazard

If you’re buying a new car, chances are you’re looking for one which uses as little gas as possible in order to save money and/or help the environment. But you also want a car that you can feel safe in if it gets involved in a collision. There are other criteria as well (like price, interior room, and auto insurance premiums), but most people feel forced to choose between fuel efficiency and safety. Here’s the kicker … the government may already be making that choice for us.


“… to buy that car. No, not that one. The other one.”

At the behest of the White House, companies who build vehicles for American consumers have agreed to improve the overall fuel economy for their fleets of product offerings. The average fuel economy rating of every automaker must rise to 35.5 MPG by 2016, which marks a substantial jump from the 25.1 rating in 2009. So if a company has vehicles in its fleet with lower MPG ratings, it must balance them out by building models that are more fuel-efficient.

So what’s the simplest way to improve a fleet’s average fuel economy on a tight deadline of just a few years? Reduce the size of the cars being produced. (The federal government insists that the new rules don’t force automakers to make smaller cars – but that’s like saying that losing your job doesn’t force you to cut back on household spending.)

Many auto safety advocates worry that shrinking the overall sizes of cars will lead to a corresponding drop in automotive safety. Various studies over the last two decades conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the Congressional Budget Office, and the National Academy of Sciences have shown that tightening fuel economy standards has resulted in companies building smaller cars. And some people worry that if consumer tastes drift back toward larger cars and SUVs, automakers may have to compensate by pushing smaller cars onto dealer lots in order to meet the new standard.


“You don’t really want an SUV, am I right? How about this cute little number? Of course your six children will fit in it!”

But proponents of the stricter fuel economy standards say there’s no cause for alarm. They point out that when the new rules were implemented in 2009, opponents predicted a rise in the American auto fatality rate, which had reached an all-time low of about 1.28 deaths per 100 million miles traveled in 2008. In fact, the fatality rate has continued to fall – and was computed to be 1.1 for 2010. In addition, advocates of the new rules note that technology has advanced to the point where automakers can build safer vehicles without making them smaller if they use lighter, more durable materials (though at an additional cost of about $1,300 per vehicle to meet the government standard).

Of course, things like fuel efficiency standards can change if Congress or the White House decides to alter them. Plus, it’s certainly possible that the automakers would be granted an extension of the 2016 deadline in order to give them more time to modify their fleets to meet the fuel economy targets. In any case, it remains to be seen whether companies will indeed comply with the federal standards by reducing vehicle sizes — and whether passenger safety would suffer as a result.


Or maybe we’ll finally get those jet packs they promised us so many years ago.

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