Industry Market Trends

Is Higher Auto Fuel Efficiency a Cause of Death? One Group Thinks So

Nov 27, 2012

Credit: NHTSA

It's no secret that with each rise in government mandated fuel efficiency standards for vehicles, a corresponding rise in blood pressure among opposition groups occurs.

In August, the Obama administration did something that was largely lost in the noise of the presidential race: It issued cleaner auto standards that will raise fuel efficiency to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. That's roughly twice the average mileage of cars on the road today. The standards are expected to save consumers $1.7 trillion at the pump and cut U.S. oil imports by one-third, in addition to reducing the nation's greenhouse gas emissions.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates auto emissions under the auspices of the Clean Air Act, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has the authority to boost Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards for passenger vehicles.

It's not the first time the Obama administration has raised fuel efficiency standards. In 2009, the administration raised fuel economy standards to 35.5 miles per gallon by 2016. It didn't turn out to be some pipe dream: There are now at least 57 car models that meet the standards (versus 27 in 2009.)

These standards are not some kind of a draconian mandate that is misaligned with consumer preferences. Given the long-term continuous rise in gas prices, not to mention the vulnerability of the nation's fuel supply chain, as demonstrated by the gas shortages in New York and New Jersey after Superstorm Sandy, consumers are keener than ever to buy cars that go longer on a tank of gas.

A Consumer Reports study in May found that when it comes to picking a new car, fuel efficiency is the number-one selling point for buyers. In a $4-per-gallon environment, trading in an SUV that gets 15 miles per gallon for a vehicle that gets 20 miles per gallon alone can save the owner about $1,000 each year. For vehicles that get 30 to 40 miles per gallon, the cost savings multiply dramatically (meaning buyers can break even in their first year of ownership even if high-efficiency vehicles may come with higher sticker prices.)

Not everyone is for raising fuel efficiency standards, most notably the Independent Women's Forum (IWF), which recently issued an opinion piece declaring that improved auto fuel efficiency standards kill people. Why? Because automakers, in striving to meet those standards, reduce the weight of their vehicles further, according to the group. And how? By using lighter but weaker materials to make their cars, making them more vulnerable in crashes.

The IWF, like many groups that find government regulation expansion distasteful, relies in part on a study conducted by USA Today in 1999 that examined crash data from 1975 to 1999 and found that 7,700 deaths supposedly occurred for every mile per gallon gained in fuel economy. According to that study, in the years since CAFE was implemented (1978 to 1999), "46,000 people have died in crashes they would have survived in bigger, heavier cars." It's important to note that the USA Today study failed to take into consideration that the national maximum speed limit was increased to 65 miles per hour on many U.S. roads in 1987 and 1988.

So do the numbers hold up? A 1995 Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) report found that 56 percent of all crash deaths in small cars were due to either single-vehicle crashes or small cars impacting each other. The percentage of deaths attributed to smaller cars being hit by larger cars was about 1 percent. (Ironically, it was USA Today that carried the story.)

So it seems to be more about a car's design and safety features than its weight. In 2006, the IIHS found that some of the smallest cars actually have good crash safety, while others do not, depending upon their design. It's true that the tiniest of cars aren't good places to be in a crash, and while the risk of death is higher in them than in bigger vehicles, the report found that a car's size and weight don't tell the whole story. The Nissan Versa, a small car, received "good" ratings in all three crash categories in the IIHS report: front, side and rear impact.)

The UCS's high fuel efficiency Vanguard minivan design.

There are also ways to improve fuel efficiency that don't involve changing the weight of the car. Several years ago, the Union of Concerned Scientists designed a minivan, the Vanguard, that hit higher fuel economy marks and lowered greenhouse gasses without changing the weight of the vehicle. The group used a package of existing technologies, such as cylinder deactivation, turbocharging and tires with lower rolling resistance, which it said can be applied to vehicles of all kinds without major cost increases.

Laura Schewel, an environmental engineer at the Rocky Mountain Institute, in an MSN article, said that after the first fuel-efficiency standards were introduced in the 1970s, the average weight of new cars did drop, but as car companies began to achieve better fuel efficiency by improving engines, the average weight of automobiles began to creep back up. She said the average American vehicle is now 29 percent heavier than it was in the mid-1980s and has a far better fuel standard. And Schewel was quoted in the article as saying, "American automakers historically have improved engines to meet CAFE standards, not reduced weight."

Putting weight issues aside, it's worth looking at the cost in lives of pollution from automobiles and how many lives could be saved by better fuel standards; burn less fuel, make less emissions. There is no question that auto pollution threatens public health: Soot, smog, ozone-forming volatile organic compounds, nitrogen oxide and carbon all contribute to poor air quality, which directly results in increased levels of asthma, heart attacks and premature deaths in the population.

There is even data suggesting a correlation between vehicle pollution and autism. A child who lives near a highway is at twice the risk for autism compared with other children, according to a study that appeared in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives. Links between pollution and delays in childhood cognitive development have also been found.

The World Health Organization (WHO) describes air pollution as "a major environmental risk to health" and has estimated that it causes about 2 million premature deaths worldwide each year. An article published in the British medical journal Lancet found that living in a polluted city increases the risk for heart attacks to a point where it resembles the risk for cocaine use.

A WHO report published in 2011 determined that air pollution levels in some Asian cities that exceed the organization's air quality guidelines result in more than 530,000 premature deaths each year -- orders of magnitude higher than any death rate from lighter cars.

In the announcement of its report, the IWF noted, "Regrettably, the cost of fuel efficiency is often human lives." From a true health and safety perspective, one wonders if the IWF will come up with a follow-up report that covers how many human lives are actually saved, rather than lost, from each percentage improvement in fuel efficiency standards.