Lighter Cars May Save Fuel but the Tradeoff May Be Safety

Despite the current energy crisis, the Bush administration is urging automobile manufactures not to produce lighter, smaller and more energy efficient cars because of the potential danger of more accident-related deaths.
Instead, last week, the administration suggested new fuel economy regulations or CAFE standards for sport utility vehicles, pickup trucks and vans, which they believe will save 10 billion gallons of gas in the next twenty years.

Environmentalists balked at the proposals since, "at best, they’re proposing a system that will save a month’s worth of gas," said David Friedman, an analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

John D. Graham, who formerly did academic research financed by the auto industry which found lighter cars lead to fatalities, is a top official at the Office of Management and Budget and was involved in developing the new plan. He claimed that the CAFE standards would save fuel, reduce the unintended safety risks to motorists, and provide an equitable regulatory framework for all vehicle manufacturers.

In 2001, the National Academy of Sciences essentially supported his safety research claiming 1,300 to 2,600 fatalities in 1993 were the result of the fuel-economy regulations.

According to the new plan, auto manufactures would have to meet a fuel economy average of 27.5 miles per gallon (mpg) for cars and 21.2 mpg for light trucks on new models.

CAFE would also subdivide the light-truck group into six subcategories according to a vehicle’s dimensions and requirements for bigger vehicles would be lower.

Currently, the largest SUVs and pickup trucks, such as the Hummer H2, would not be included in the regulations. However, the administration says legislation may still be changed to include large SUVs when the final plan is announced in April 2006.

The plan promotes better technology including hybrid electric systems, more efficient transmissions, and less horsepower as opposed to reducing weight.

While safety clearly should be a priority, the prevalence of SUVs, which guzzle gas, contribute to pollution, and add unnecessarily to congestion in cities, is also a concern.

Consumers have raised this issue, saying that vehicles which are too fat, not too light are also dangerous by citing SUV crash studies.

Critics of the CAFE plan say the legislation may allow automakers to make their SUVs even larger, though soaring gas prices would hinder the marketability of such products and ultimately remove some of the allure enjoyed by SUVs.

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