GREEN BUT UNSAFE

April 19, 2007

Whatever the European Union's (EU) green vehicle plan's effectiveness is in slowing the pace of global warming, the regulatory impact assessment now being drawn up will need to consider a factor that is often overlooked: the safety of motorists.  Says John D. Graham, dean of the Frederick S. Pardee RAND Graduate School.

Nowhere in Brussels' 13-page plan is the word "safety" even mentioned.  There are lessons the EU could learned from U.S. regulatory mistakes:

  • In 1974, Congress mandated a doubling in car fuel efficiency to 28 miles per gallon from 14; the rules duly led to a cut of fuel consumption.
  • However, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences estimated that they also resulted each year in 2,000 additional traffic deaths and 30,000 nonfatal injuries.

Consequently, the United States suspended these fuel-economy rules in the 1990s for more than a decade.  Brussels can avoid a similar debacle by trying to anticipate the auto industry's response to regulation, says Graham:

  • When a car maker is subjected to carbon-emission or fuel-economy constraints, it will often begin offering smaller vehicles (since lighter cars consume less fuel) to comply with environmental rules.
  • Given that Europe's car fleet is already much smaller than the U.S. fleet, downsizing could have even more severe consequences in Europe than it had across the Atlantic.

More motorists die when two small cars collide than when two large cars collide.  If both small and large cars are reduced in size, the decline in crush space adds risk for occupants in both vehicles, says Graham.  Downsizing only the large cars is safer for the small cars, but it puts the occupants of large cars at greater risk in single-vehicle impacts (for example, when crashing into guardrails and trees) and in collisions with heavy trucks.

Source: John D. Graham, "Green But Unsafe," Wall Street Journal, April 18, 2007.

 

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