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The Selfish World View Behind Trump Rollback Of Fuel-Efficiency Standards

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The Trump Administration is proposing to roll back car and truck fuel-efficiency standards that were imposed by the Obama Administration to cut down on the burning of petroleum and reduce the greenhouse gas pollution driving climate change.

The main public argument the Trump EPA is making for this de-regulation is the suggestion that smaller, lighter, more fuel efficient vehicles are more dangerous to their drivers in crashes than larger, heavier gas guzzlers like SUV’s, crossovers and pickup trucks.

Here’s Bill Wehrum, chief of the EPA’s air program, testifying before a U.S. House committee on June 20 about the Trump Administration’s so-called SAFE (Safer Affordable Fuel Efficient) vehicles rule proposed for the years 2021 through 2026.

“The proposal would revise existing fuel economy and greenhouse gas standards to give the American people greater access to safer, more affordable vehicles,” Wehrum said. “The proposal estimates that the preferred alternative would prevent thousands of on-road fatalities and injuries.”

It should be noted that Wehrum resigned six days after this testimony amid ethics investigations into his former work as a lobbyist at a firm that represented polluting industries, including clients – petroleum refiners – who would profit from the more relaxed fuel-efficiency standards Wehrum was promoting.

But beyond this ethical issue, what about the broader assertion that bigger vehicles are safer?

“That argument doesn’t really hold any water,” said Michael Anderson, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley.

Anderson studied millions of vehicle accident records and concluded that bigger, heavier vehicles are safer to their own occupants in two-vehicle collisions, but more deadly to the occupants of the other vehicles they hit and often crush.

“What we found is that, essentially, when we’re looking at these two vehicle accidents, when the weight of the first vehicle goes up by 1,000 pounds, then the fatality risk in the second vehicle increases by about 40 to 50 percent,” Anderson said.

Michelle J. White, an economist and professor at the University of California San Diego, said that larger vehicles are not even necessarily safer to their own occupants, because they are more likely to be involved in deadly roll-over accidents.

White also said that pedestrians, bicyclists and people riding scooters are more often killed by SUV’s or pickups than cars. This is because cars tend to hit people in the legs, throwing them up on the hoods of vehicles. SUV’s, crossovers and pickups ride higher on the road and so strike people in the head or roll right over them.

Professor White ‘s peer-reviewed article in the Journal of Law and Economics found that for every one million SUV’s and light trucks that replace cars on American roads, between 34 and 93 additional people are killed every year in cars, on motorcycles or bicycles, or on foot.

White said the Trump Administration is essentially promoting the selfish viewpoint that the only lives that matter are those of the individual SUV and pickup truck consumers behind the wheel, not the lives of the other motorists and pedestrians they kill.

“It’s a very selfish viewpoint,” White said. “And it may even be wrong for the people who are in those vehicles. So it completely ignores the kind of carnage that these vehicles do to occupants of smaller vehicles when they are involved in two vehicle crashes, and it ignores the cost when these vehicles hit pedestrians and bicyclists and motorcyclists and scooter riders.”

The more rational public policy would be to financially discourage the purchase of big gas-guzzlers, except for people who actually need them for their work, farms, or large families. The federal government should provide financial incentives for everyone else to buy modern, fuel-efficient, smaller vehicles that save lives, reduce parking congestion, and help protect the global climate.

Tom Pelton, a national award-winning environmental journalist, has hosted "The Environment in Focus" since 2007. He also works as director of communications for the Environmental Integrity Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to holding polluters and governments accountable to protect public health. From 1997 until 2008, he was a journalist for The Baltimore Sun, where he was twice named one of the best environmental reporters in America by the Society of Environmental Journalists.