Smaller cars are safer but still Senate votes ‘no’ to increased fuel efficiency standards

Contrary to manufacturers’ claims smaller cars are not a greater risk to traveller safety, according to a report issued this week from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE). The report dispels claims made by car manufacturers that heavier vehicles are safer, an excuse they have been using to justify their opposition to increased fuel efficiency standards.


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Environmentalists in the US want to see an increase in the Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards (CAFE), which set the amount of mileage travelled per gallon of fuel used. Presently cars travel 20.7 miles per gallon (mpg) and light trucks at 27.5 mpg – the lowest for 21 years (see related story). Campaigners want to see miles per gallon increased with groups calling for standards to be set at 45 mpg for new cars and 35 mpg for new light trucks by 2015. Campaigners such as the Union of Concerned Scientists recommend that standards for new cars and light trucks should be at the same level.

Cars and lightweight trucks use 40% of US oil consumption. Increased CAFE standards would reduce dependence on Mideast oil – the US imports 19 million barrels a day – and have considerable environmental benefits. Since the 1975 introduction of CAFE standards, fuel consumption in the US has been cut by one third according to the National Academy of Sciences. Groups like the Sierra Club are campaigning for stricter fuel efficiency standards because it reduces carcinogenic hydrocarbon emissions – which will cut urban smog – and it will lower carbon emissions, therefore reducing greenhouse gas build up.

However car manufacturers and opponents to the proposals fear tough fuel economy standards will ‘restrict the auto industry to producing subcontract size cars’. Supporters of the new standards say that although higher CAFE standards will reduce the mass of heavier vehicles it need not change their size. In the past, manufacturers have claimed heavier ‘gas guzzling’ vehicles are safer on the road and claim they are hence reluctant to back any increased fuel efficiency standards.

The ACEEE report contradicts any such theories: “Our findings show how misleading attempts to attribute safety to vehicle weight can be,” says Marc Ross co-author of the study. The study, which analyses the performance of particular vehicle types and their risk to their drivers and other drivers on the road, found that pickup trucks are the most dangerous, whilst ‘most popular small cars have outstanding real world safety records’. These findings confirm a 2001 report from the Natural Resources Defence Council, which claimed that vehicle safety is a question of design not weight.

Yet despite these findings, the US Senate voted last month against any increase in standards (see related story). The Department of Transport have subsequently decided not to increase fuel efficiency standards for lightweight trucks, saying they were concerned over the effects on passenger safety (see related story). The decision has been handed over to the National Highway Traffic Administration to consider passenger safety with increased mileage standards over the next two years.

“The Senate ignored a chance to make real progress in reducing our oil dependence, saving consumers money, and cutting global-warming pollution,” commented Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club. The expensive anti-fuel efficiency lobbying campaign put forward by the car manufacturers seems to have been effective on the Senate vote.

Environmentalists see this decision as consistent with the Bush administration’s policy, which seems to favour business over environment. They claim that the Government’s energy plan, exposed earlier in the year through the US Freedom of Information Act, indicated that policies were made in consultation with big business leaders rather than environmentalists, for example producing energy through traditional fossil fuel methods rather than using renewable energies.

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