Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Safety Could Suffer With Small Cars

The Obama administration’s sweeping fuel economy and emissions initiative announced Tuesday reopens a fierce debate over tradeoffs between fuel economy and auto safety.

The government says no tradeoff exists because nothing in the new rules would force automakers to sell more small cars, which are more dangerous in crashes than larger ones. But some safety experts think otherwise.

“The deadlines are so tight that downsizing will be a tempting compliance strategy” for automakers, says John Graham, the former rulemaking chief in the Office of Management and Budget.

The plan requires automakers to sell cars that average 35.5 miles-per-gallon by 2016, a little more and a lot sooner than current law. It has been heralded as a brilliant solution to the nettlesome mix of problems related to fuel consumption and greenhouse-gas emissions.

The move is also an example of the clout environmentalists have with the Obama administration and comes as automakers’ dire financial straits are forcing safety to a back burner. It raises the risk that cash-strapped automakers will take the fastest and cheapest route to building more fuel-efficient vehicles: Make them smaller and lighter. Further, as General Motors and Chrysler rely on federal bailout money for survival, they are ill-positioned — and disinclined — to fight proposals that some say may not be just dangerously costly, but simply dangerous.

The National Academy of Sciences, Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, Congressional Budget Office and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration have separately concluded in multiple studies dating back about 20 years that fuel-economy standards force automakers to build more small cars, which has led to thousands more deaths in crashes annually. Even though the standards were updated in recent years to reduce the incentive for automakers to sell more small cars by allowing different fuel-economy targets for different vehicles, the fastest way to make cars more fuel-efficient is to make them smaller.

Some safety experts worry that the administration’s green focus could reverse progress made in reducing the highway death toll. The fatality rate in car crashes reached its lowest ever in 2007 and is projected to drop even lower for 2008 — to 1.28 deaths per 100 million miles traveled.

President Obama this month withdrew the name of his nominee to lead the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, longtime safety advocate Charles “Chuck” Hurley, after an outcry from environmentalists over Hurley’s statements linking fuel-economy rules to highway deaths.

But while U.S. automakers might not have made many of the most popular small and midsize cars, they did build and sell millions because they needed to keep their car and light-truck fleet fuel-economy averages over the number prescribed by law. The tilt toward smaller vehicles, which were often heavily discounted to sell, boosted the death toll, the studies say.

The Obama administration maintains the new fuel standards can be met without forcing more small cars into the market.

“Because every (size) category has to get more efficient, if the soccer mom wants to buy her minivan, it will be a more fuel-efficient minivan. If someone wants to buy a big SUV, it will be a more fuel-efficient SUV,” said Carol Browner, director of the White House Office of Energy and Climate Change.

She said companies can use advanced technologies to improve fuel efficiency without dramatically changing their fleets.

Former NHTSA chief Jeffrey Runge, now an auto-safety and biodefense consultant, applauds the administration’s decision to factor safety into its fuel-economy plan but worries automakers will still “do what is cheap and quick because the timelines are very short,” and that could lead to more small cars.

"Why do you say small cars are dangerous? A luau is a big party and lots of fun -- unless you're the pig. When a big car hits a small car and somebody gets hurt, why blame the small car? The big car is the one that caused the damage! BIG cars are dangerous.

Pickup trucks and large SUVs are especially dangerous because of their higher bumpers. They tend to cause lots of damage to other cars they hit. They also tend to run over bicycles (fatally) rather than having the bicyclist land on the hood (non-fatally) like with small cars.

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