Opinion: Easing fuel standards risks driver safety

David Friedman

Our nation’s roads continue to be more dangerous than they can and should be.

Over 8 million Americans were injured, and more than 100,000 killed, in traffic crashes over the past three years — including more than 3,000 lives lost right here in Michigan.

Yet, during that time, the government agency tasked with saving lives on U.S. roads failed to propose even one single significant standard to prevent these tragedies. Instead, the Department of Transportation says it is close to finalizing a long-delayed proposal with the misleading name of the “SAFE” rule — a rule that actually takes aim at money-saving fuel economy standards, not safety.

Despite the name, this rule could actually put lives at risk. Weakening our nation’s fuel economy program would, at best, have no effect on safety, and at worst would actually slow the sale of new trucks and SUVs with advanced safety technology. It should really be called the "Un-SAFE" rule. That’s because it would cost Americans money: $2,100 in additional costs over the life of each new vehicle over the coming years. That means the cost of owning cars for Michigan residents would go up about $10 billion due to the rule, while nationwide the cost would reach $300 billion.

And with less money in their pockets, consumers will buy fewer things, including new cars, which are safer thanks to a mix of automaker innovation and past government actions. Of course, that also spells trouble for the heart of the U.S. auto industry. Lower investment in new technology in the coming years could cost the industry as many as 60,000 jobs over the next decade, according to NHTSA.

More than three thousand lives were lost to traffic accidents in Michigan in the last three years, Friedman writes.

Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao should ditch this whole misguided and costly enterprise. The proposal for the rollback is filled with mathematical mistakes, and even still the administration’s own calculations reportedly show consumer harms.

Instead, Chao should move forward with sensible safety rules that would actually help protect the public. Stronger protections for children in the back seat, automatic emergency braking that stops for pedestrians and works on highways, and on-board systems to detect drunken drivers are just a few existing technologies that have the potential to save thousands of lives every year.

The department should also finalize a long-delayed, automaker-requested proposal that would require vehicle-to-vehicle communications technology, which could save over 600,000 lives by ensuring cars can talk to one another to warn drivers of impending crashes.

Current fuel economy standards are achievable, gradual, and pragmatic. Automakers agreed to these standards back in 2012, and they are meeting the mark. Beginning in 2025, new SUVs and pickups only need to achieve a fleetwide average of 32 miles per gallon in real-world driving, while new cars would need to reach 44 mpg. The savings outweigh the costs of the fuel-saving technology by a terrific $3-to-$1 ratio — saving drivers money in their very first month of ownership when financing, as more than 8 in 10 new car buyers do. 

This really is just common sense: rolling back fuel economy standards does nothing to improve highway safety. The only way to guarantee the safety and efficiency of your next car is by requiring continuous improvements to both. Most major automotive safety features we have today, including seat belts, air bags and backup cameras, were widely installed only after the Department of Transportation made them mandatory. And fuel economy is at record highs today because of standards that were put in place n 2012.

Just like in the past, the technology to make our cars even safer is already available, thanks to impressive innovations developed by the auto industry. Now we need leadership from the top of our government agencies to raise the bar. But it's just not happening. Instead, we’re left paying through the nose for safety technology because it is all too often packaged with luxury features you may not even want. Safety should never be a luxury. It should come standard on every car.

Every day, more than 100 of our friends, neighbors and loved ones die in traffic crashes. To stem this tide of tragedy, DOT must be held accountable to its mission of saving lives.

That means setting safety standards that protect drivers, passengers and pedestrians instead of rolling back consumer protections and leaving us all spending more money on gas. Unless we reverse course now, consumers will be paying far too heavy a price for decades to come.

David Friedman is the vice president of advocacy at Consumer Reports, the nonprofit consumer membership organization. He previously served as both deputy and acting administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Agency.