Monday, February 20, 2006

Lower emission standards mean more dead people

From the Philadelphia Inquirer:

California, known for setting the cultural zeitgeist, deserves equal notoriety for exporting another dubious product: bad policy. A current example is a proposal to replicate California's vehicle emissions rules in Pennsylvania, which includes a provision aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Regardless of any merit in addressing the earth's climate - even Golden State regulators concede it will be scarcely marginal - the biggest effect by far will be an increase in activity for Pennsylvania's trauma doctors, grief counselors and grave diggers.

Here's why: The only way to reduce vehicular greenhouse gas emissions is to reduce fuel consumption. Reducing fuel consumption requires either building vehicles with much more expensive technologies or reducing their size. Contrary to wishful thinking and urban legend, miracle technology to dramatically improve fuel economy without major trade-offs neither exists nor is on the horizon. Larger vehicles - including full-size autos, trucks and SUVs - will be forced to go the way of the dodo bird. Physics and history both inform us that making vehicles smaller will result in significantly more deaths and injuries.

The wonderful-sounding chimera of trade-off-free vehicles that go farther on a gallon of $2.50 gasoline disappears into ugly reality when one understands that such a transaction is quite literally a trade of blood for oil.

That's because the laws of physics are enforced with brutal clarity when vehicles collide. Bigger is safer when all other factors, such as air bags and stability control systems, are held equal. What's more, nearly four in 10 small-vehicle fatalities are single-vehicle events, not collisions with other vehicles. What size vehicle would you rather be driving if you had the misfortune of smashing into a utility pole?

The unhappy reality that small cars are the most dangerous passenger vehicles on the road was just confirmed in a report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The study showed that the compact-car fatality rate is almost 50 percent higher than that for full-size SUVs.

No better summation of the inherent dichotomy of fuel economy and safety exists than was offered in August by the NHTSA's administrator at the time, Jeffrey Runge, himself a trauma doctor: "Every tenth of mile a gallon that we raise [vehicle fuel economy standards] beyond what is technologically feasible, we kill people."

Indeed, we now have decades of real-world experience analyzed by numerous academic, government and insurance studies. Consider:

In 2002, the National Academy of Sciences affirmed that earlier fuel-economy-driven vehicle downsizing resulted in 1,300 to 2,600 additional deaths annually, confirming a previous NHTSA report's conclusions.

Researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health and the Brookings Institution estimate the initial wave of vehicle downsizing in the 1970s and early 1980s increased occupant deaths by 14 to 27 percent.

A report using government and insurance data found that, by 1999, downsizing had caused the deaths of more than 46,000 Americans. Factoring in ensuing years, deaths now likely eclipse 57,000 - nearly the equivalent a sold-out Eagles game.

I can attest to the fact that smaller cars are unsafe in collisions. A couple of years ago, I was driving a Geo Prizm, a snappy little car which got great gas mileage. I laughed when I drove past gas stations. But I stopped laughing fast when the car was struck on the left side, just in front of the driver's seat, in the middle of an intersection. My car took a 180 degree turn, and pieces started to fly off of it: bolts, nuts, screws, portions of the hood and the radiator. The car was virtually cut in two. I tried to steer it to the side of the road, but it was imoperable. I got out of the car intact, without a scratch.

I was so gobsmacked that I couldn't even regret the loss of the car. Miraculously, I was totally unhurt. A few inches difference would have found me blogging from a far better place.

After the obsequies, the police, the tow truck, etc., my husband picked me up and we went shopping for an armored vehicle.

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