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Safety, Fuel Efficiency, Infrastructure: Fake News and a Free Lunch

by Roger Lanctot | Feb 14, 2018

The Trump administration released its self-described $1.5T infrastructure plan this week, which is actually a $200B plan requiring $1.3T to be paid by states or private entities. The plan was described as a “vision” statement subject to revision.

Separately, Bloomberg reported on research being conducted at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration set for release in March and purporting to show a potential safety dividend in reduced highway fatalities from an easing of fuel efficiency requirements – thereby allowing heavier and presumably safer vehicles to be offered by car makers.

Let’s be clear. There is no $1.5T infrastructure plan. It is a $200B plan at best. This is well short of the spending necessary to bring the U.S. transportation infrastructure up to an acceptable level. It’s worth noting that the public-private partnerships touted as part of this plan are practically guaranteed to create more toll roads – just another form of taxation.

U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao told White House reporters Tuesday that an increase in the gas tax – a major source of infrastructure funding – was “on the table.” But the reality is that Republicans will never support an increase in the gas tax, which funds the Highway Trust Fund, which is on target to plunge into bankruptcy by 2021.

As for the highway safety dividend likely to result from a reduction in Obama era fuel efficiency standards, this too is ephemeral. Allowing cars to be less fuel efficient and therefore bigger or heavier has not been shown to be a mitigating factor in highway fatalities. In fact, research has shown either the opposite or has been inconclusive. 

This raises the question of whether the White House has asked the NHTSA to produce the findings it desires to justify its desired reduction in fuel efficiency requirements. The Bloomberg report indicates that the upcoming NHTSA findings will suggest an annual reduction of 1,200 highway fatalities from a lowering of Federal fuel efficiency standards.

In the words of one now-retired observer: “When the Obama era standards were adopted, there were a number of safety studies done with the bottom line conclusion that the higher fuel economy standards could be achieved without compromising vehicle safety. One conclusion was that in regard to safety, vehicle size was more important that vehicle mass.

“Also modern vehicle design includes taking advantage of things like crush space and techniques to absorb energy in crashes and divert it from passengers. Other safety aspects include lowering center of gravity to reduce rollovers and of course restraints like seat belts and airbags.

“Today's vehicles are giant steps ahead in safety compared to vehicles produced even 10 or 15 years ago.  Personally, I would have serious doubts that safety is much of a real concern in the discussion of improving fuel economy.”

It would seem that NHTSA itself concurs, according to its June 2016 preliminary report: “Relationships between Fatality Risk, Mass and Footprint in Model Year 2003-2010 Passenger Cars and LTVs:”

“The principal findings and conclusions of NHTSA’s 2012 report were that mass reduction in the lighter cars, even while holding footprint constant would significantly increase fatality risk, whereas mass reduction in the heavier LTVs would reduce societal fatality risk by reducing the fatality risk of occupants of lighter vehicles colliding with those heavier LTVs. NHTSA concluded that, as a result, any reasonable combination of mass reductions that held footprint constant in MY 2017-2021 vehicles – concentrated, at least to some extent, in the heavier LTVs and limited in the lighter cars – would likely be approximately safety-neutral; it would not significantly increase fatalities and might well decrease them.”

Until recently, fatalities have been coming down in spite of what some consider to be aggressive fuel efficiency standards that have contributed to lightweighting of vehicles large and small. (That lightweighting has had the collateral effect of saving consumers billions of dollars.)

In a July 2016 report (“Draft Technical Assessment Report: Midterm Evaluation of Light-Duty Vehicle Greenhouse Gas Emissions Standards and Corporate Average Fuel Economy Standards for Model Years 2022-2025”), NHTSA adheres to the prior conclusion after a review of all available data: 

“A large body of traffic safety literature exists that examines the relationship between vehicle mass and traffic fatality rates. Most of the literature estimates aggregate State-level time series correlations (Khazzoom, 19944; Noland, 20045; Ahmad and Greene, 20056; Evans, 20017) from various angles or on a specific crash type. In general, these studies come to varying conclusions regarding the sign (sic) of the relationship between average vehicle mass and overall fatality rates, but all conclude that the magnitude of this relationship is relatively modest.”

(As for the cause of recent increases in highway fatalities, our un-named retiree notes: “There are certainly vehicle improvements that are perhaps important, but I believe the bigger issues are vehicle distractions (due to cell phones and GPS), excessive speed coupled with inadequate enforcement, and impaired driving such as DUIs.”)

There’s no such thing as a free lunch or a low-cost infrastructure plan. Someone, somewhere, somehow is going to have to bite the bullet and either raise the gas tax – considerably – or find the Federal funds necessary to do the job.

And let’s get the fake news out of our heads that there is a tradeoff between safety and fuel efficiency as enforced in the U.S. through the Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards. Lowering fuel efficiency requirements will not save lives but it will cost consumers in the form of less fuel efficient vehicles. It will also undermine the competitiveness of U.S. automakers, at least one of which, General Motors, is already in full retreat in nearly every global market with the exception of China.

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