Apr 3, 2020 - Economy

Safety analysis questioned in new emissions rules

Bad highway traffic jam

Photo: David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

The Trump administration's final rules weakening Obama-era vehicle mileage and emissions standards through the mid-2020s include some surprising safety claims.

Driving the news: In what is shaping up to be a major legal battle with environmentalists, the federal government said it will require 1.5% annual increases in fuel efficiency through 2026 — far weaker than the 5% increases under the previous rules that the industry said it couldn't meet.

  • Instead of Obama's requirement for a fleetwide average of 46.7 miles per gallon, vehicle fleets will average 40.4 miles per gallon by 2026, per Reuters.
  • The new rules will save automakers upward of $100 billion in compliance costs.

Context: It's important to note that conditions have changed dramatically since Obama crafted the original rules in 2012.

  • Consumers are buying many more trucks and SUVs than the Obama rules had anticipated, while fuel prices are much lower.
  • Hence, automakers asked the Trump administration to reconsider the standards.

What they're saying: The government claims that by making newer, safer, and cleaner vehicles more affordable for American families, more lives will be saved and more jobs will be created.

  • While it admits consumers will pay about $1,000 more in fuel costs over the life of their vehicle, cars will be cheaper — about $1,000, conveniently, the administration says — without the huge regulatory burden on carmakers.
  • Overall, the total cost of ownership over the vehicle's life will be $1,400 lower, the administration claims.


  • The administration argues cars will be safer because automakers won't be pressured to reduce vehicle weight and because people will be able to afford newer vehicles, which have more safety features.
  • The change in CO2 standards will result in 3,269 fewer fatalities, the analysis shows.

But, as Reuters' David Shepardson points out on Twitter, most of the safety gains from the new rule are not from improved vehicles but from Americans driving less.

  • With a projected 605 billion fewer miles traveled under the new rule, there will be 2,584 fewer highway fatalities.
  • Less driving accounts for 80% of the lives saved.
  • Less driving also means cars won't need to be replaced as often, undermining the government's argument.

My thought bubble: I'm a journalist, not a mathematician. But something doesn't add up.

Go deeper: Battle lines are drawn over Trump's weakening of emissions rules

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