GAO warns of automobile fuel economy-safety tradeoff

The US General Accounting Office has warned that a sudden tightening of federal fuel economy standards could jeopardize vehicle safety. The effect of increasing CAFE standards on vehicle safety is hard to quantify, however, because it depends on such variables as the amount of lead time given to manufacturers, the severity of the increase, and the strategies manufacturers use to achieve fuel economy gains.


Washington, DC�The US General Accounting Office has warned that a sudden tightening of federal fuel economy standards could jeopardize vehicle safety.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Commerce Committee chairman, requested the study last spring when gasoline prices were high.

Under the 1975 Energy Policy and Conservation Act, automakers� corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards are currently set at 27.5 mpg for passenger cars and 0.7 mpg for light trucks. The GAO report said raising fuel economy standards would reduce fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions, but the impact on vehicle safety is less certain.

�Three recent studies project that improving the fuel economy of new vehicles would reduce the annual fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions of cars and light trucks by between 6% and 37% over a 15-18 year period," said GAO. �The wide variation among these forecasts results from different assumptions about items such as the costs and effectiveness of new fuel saving technologies and the rate at which new technologies penetrate the marketplace.

�The effect of increasing CAFE standards on vehicle safety is harder to quantify because it depends on many variables, such as the amount of lead time given to manufacturers, the size of the CAFE increase, and the strategies manufacturers use to achieve fuel economy gains. In addition, there is little current research linking CAFE increases and vehicle safety.�

GAO explained the major concern about safety is that manufacturers might produce smaller, lighter cars to meet more-stringent CAFE standards and thus sacrifice some level of protection for occupants.

�We found consensus among safety experts and auto manufacturers that, as long as there is sufficient lead time to meet higher CAFE levels, they could use fuel saving technologies [such as continuously variable transmissions or lean-burn engines] instead of simply building smaller, lighter cars, thereby minimizing any negative impact on safety.�

GAO said auto makers have had little incentive to improve fuel economy because gasoline prices have been low over the past decade, prompting consumers to buy larger, more powerful cars. It said more stringent Environmental Protection Agency tailpipe emission standards may inhibit the use of certain technologies that could improve fuel economy but not meet the standards.

Some analysts contend that raising CAF�standards is not as cost effective as other policy measures, such as increasing gasoline taxes, because CAFE wold not affect older vehicles already on the road, said GAO.

The National Academy of Sciences also is preparing a report on the subject.

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