Highway fatalities are reaching record levels across the United States.
And the federal government has blood on its hands.
Austin, Portland, and San Jose all set new highs for traffic deaths in 2022. Last year was the deadliest year in a decade on San Francisco’s roads. Maine and Nevada saw their largest number of highway fatalities in 15 years.
Washington, Colorado, Connecticut, Ohio, and Louisiana all set records for traffic fatalities in 2022.
These skyrocketing death totals aren’t just because more people are driving more miles. Nationwide, roadway fatalities per capita and deaths per mile driven are at their highest levels since 2007.
The spike in traffic deaths comes just as the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) vehicle fuel efficiency requirements – more commonly known as CAFE standards – are aggressively increasing.
It doesn’t appear to be a coincidence.
CAFE standards began in the 1970s as a way to reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil. In recent times, the regulations have acted as a way to pacify environmental extremists hell-bent on reducing emissions, no matter the price.
Each automaker’s fleet of passenger cars manufactured this year have to average above 50.5 miles per gallon. That’s up from a minimum average of about 40 miles per gallon (mpg) in 2017 and 34 mpg a decade ago.
To meet those increasingly stringent fuel mileage standards, car manufacturers are making some vehicles smaller, lighter, less powerful – and, ultimately, more dangerous. At the same time, they’re also making other vehicles larger, heavier, more powerful, and less fuel efficient.
This confusing paradox is the result of a dangerous and ridiculous loophole in the way the federal government determines which vehicles must adhere to the strictest CAFE standards.
While auto manufacturers must average more than 50.5 mpg across their fleets of “passenger cars,” they only need to average 35.8 mpg with their “light trucks.” Rather than trying to make gas-sipping compact trucks and SUVs, automakers instead decided to make them bigger and heavier so they’d be regulated as light trucks rather than passenger cars.
Small trucks and SUVs have gone the way of the dodo. Some, like the Suzuki Sidekick, Chevrolet S-10, and Mazda B2300, were phased out. Others, like the Toyota Tacoma and the Nissan Frontier, were overhauled and bulked up so they would meet the light truck threshold.
For example, a 2005 Ford Ranger is 188” long, weighs 3,010 lbs., and averages 29 mpg. A new 2023 Ford Ranger is 211” long, can weigh as much as 4,441, and gets only 24 mpg.
As a result of automakers moving away from cars and towards vehicles not regulated by such strict mileage standards, 3 out of 4 new vehicles sold in the U.S. are “light trucks,” including minivans, SUVs, and larger trucks. Less than a quarter are considered “passenger cars.”
CAFE standards have forced the production of more large vehicles that get worse mileage and fewer small cars that go further on a gallon of gas. In other words, CAFE standards are actually responsible for additional emissions and the use of more fossil fuels.
There’s another unintended consequence; deaths.
CAFE standards have created two classes of passenger vehicles on American roads: Lighter, fuel-efficient cars and heavier, more powerful trucks and SUVs. When the two are involved in accidents, the smaller vehicles don’t stand a chance.
This appears to be a major reason for that troubling nationwide increase in traffic fatalities. But it’s not only drivers and passengers being killed at an alarming frequency.
Pedestrians are also dying at record rates in many cities and states in America. That shouldn’t be a surprise since pedestrians are more than twice as likely to be killed if struck by a truck or SUV than a car, according to a report in New Scientist magazine.
CAFE standards are a disaster. Not only are they increasing emissions and fossil fuel use by incentivizing automakers to prioritize less fuel-efficient cars, but the regulations are also inadvertently killing more and more Americans every year.
Unfortunately, things will likely get even worse. The Biden administration pushed the NHTSA to require passenger cars to be 10% more fuel efficient in the next two years, forcing them to be even lighter and less safe.
If the Biden administration and the NHTSA truly care about protecting the environment and saving American lives, they should reduce CAFE standards down to a level that encourages automakers to make larger, sturdier cars and fewer gas-guzzling large trucks, vans, and SUVs. The outcome would be safer cars – and more of them – resulting in fewer traffic fatalities and a reduction in emissions.
Drew Johnson is a government watchdog who serves as a budget, tech and energy policy expert at several free market think tanks. Read Drew Johnson's Reports — More Here.
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