Trump’s Fuel Economy Rollback Saves Lives! Or Not!

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The Trump* administration is moving forward with the rollback of fuel economy standards for automobiles, based partly on the idea that the stricter Obama-era standards are going to create more carnage upon the nation’s highways. Errr … okay!

Is there really a link between fuel economy and traffic fatalities? That’s kind of a tricky question, considering other factors involved in the years since the Obama standards were formulated, like the use of cell phones and other driver behaviors such as getting drunk or nodding off, and the range of transportation modes from foot, bicycle, and motorcycle on up to multiple-trailer trucks.

So, let’s pick that reasoning apart and see where the chain of logic leads us.

Fuel Economy Saves Lives…

Federally imposed fuel economy standards are not a new thing. They first cropped up in 1975, in response to the 1973 OPEC oil embargo. The standards were tightened in 2007 as “dependence on foreign oil” continued to be a political football.

Early in the Obama administration, policy makers realized that fuel economy could be a pathway for achieving greenhouse gas reductions, aka literally saving lives.

So, in 2009 government and auto industry stakeholders agreed on a phased-in schedule of combined fuel economy and air pollution improvements.

The first phase ended in 2016, which US automakers marked by setting a new record for fuel economy. That certainly was a nice testimony to the ability of the US business community to invest money and talent in innovative new technology.

The second phase is supposed to go from 2017 to 2025. However, the new Trump fuel economy standards would freeze the Obama-era standards at 2020 levels.

…Or Not!

Public health stakeholders excoriated the proposed rollback on grounds that it would lead to an increase in impacts related to air pollution including fatal impacts.

As justification, the Trump administration has countered that the Obama standards would lead to a sharp increase in traffic deaths.

Now, where did they come up with a cockamamie idea like that?

Here’s a hint. Back in 2016 our sister site took note of an op-ed that appeared in Newsday under the title, “Highway death tolls will skyrocket as 54.5 mpg standard takes effect.

Yikes! Here’s the money quote:

What EPA bureaucrats appear not to understand – or refuse to acknowledge – is that improved fuel efficiency also can generate rebound effects. Because the cost per mile of driving a 54.5 mpg car is lower than that of a 34.5-mpg car, consumers rationally may respond to tougher standards by driving more miles, offsetting the standard’s intended effect.

There’s also this tidbit:

Lighter cars and trucks are less crash-worthy than heavier ones. Stricter mileage standards therefore will lead to more injuries and deaths on the nation’s highways.

Keep that thing about rebound effects in mind. Is the author on firm ground?

No, wait — strike that!

Well, maybe. The author of the op-ed was William F. Shughart II, an economist billed as the “research director of the Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif., and the J. Fish Smith Professor in Public Choice at Utah State University’s Huntsman School of Business.”

Thanks to the intrepid googling skills of, we find that William F. Shughart II crosses a path or two with the climate change denial community. The Independent Institute is a conservative think tank that also backs the well known climate “skeptic” Fred Singer.

Shughart has also been affiliated with the Heartland Institute, a lobbying organization noted for transferring its long running tobacco industry playbook onto the fossil fuel industry, with substantial assistance from Exxon among others.

Here’s some additional info from

Economics professor William F (‘Bill’) Shughart II was a major figure in the Cash for Comments Economists Network primarily run by Robert Tollison out of the libertarian think-tank, the Center for Study of Public Choice at George Mason University…

Cash for Comments developed a strategy that involved recruiting professors at public state universities, who presumably had contacts and credibility with the editorial boards of local newspapers where they could pitch articles and op-eds based on boilerplates provided by the organization.

SourceWatch continues:

A core group (of which Shughart was one) were also given well paid speaking engagements, research projects, and book writing/editing and reviewing jobs and they often had some direct contact with the Tobacco Institute…The network economists also played a you-scratch-my-back/peer-review game where each would generate favourable “peer reviews” of each other’s work.

In the mid 1990s there appears to have been a break up of the larger network with most of the non-core members joining William Shughart in working through the Independent Institute…

The J. Fish Smith chair is also of interest. Shughart is the first person to hold the position, which appears to have a connection with the Menlo Smith Trust through Menlo Smith, the son of J. Fish Smith, and the Menlo fund appears to be affiliated with the Koch-affiliated “talent pipeline” of climate science deniers hub at George Mason University.

That’s a whole ‘nother can of worms!

Where were we? Oh right, thousands of highway fatalities. On August 2 the Trump administration pitched the rollback under the proposed “Safer Affordable Fuel-Efficient (SAFE) Vehicles Rule.”

To emphasize the safety issue, EPA and DOT created a joint fact sheet that cites “over 12,000 fewer crash fatalities over the lifetimes of all vehicles built through MY 2029.”

DOT, which is the umbrella agency for NHSTA, also cited “thousands” of lives saved in a press release announcing the proposed rule:

The agencies’ preferred alternative reflects a balance of safety, economics, technology, fuel conservation, and pollution reduction. It is anticipated to prevent thousands of on-road fatalities and injuries as compared to the standards set forth in the 2012 final rule.

So, there’s that.

Top Researchers Throw Down Fuel Economy Gauntlet

As for the methodology supporting the proposition that such a jump in highway deaths would occur under the Obama standards, funny you should ask.

In the December 7 issue of the journal Science, a group of experts from several top universities published a critique of the Trump administration’s cost-benefit analysis.

There’s a lot to chew on so do take a look at the source, which you can find under the pithy title, “Flawed analysis of U.S. auto fuel economy standards.”

For those of you on the go, the team starts by describing a rigorous protocol for a cost-benefit analysis. As compared to their protocol, the Obama-era cost-benefit analysis actually does fall short in some regards.

That’s cold comfort for team Trump. According to the research team, the new analysis falls much shorter.

Here’s what they have to say about the rebound effect (breaks added):

The 2018 analysis doubles the magnitude of the rebound effect despite recent literature estimating smaller rebound effects (see the SM for details).

Whereas in the NPRM [Notice of Proposed Rulemaking] analysis, the higher rebound effect hardly affects net benefits—as additional benefits from avoided car crashes under the rollback are offset by lost benefits from reduced VMT—it doubles the number of avoided fatalities generated by this effect, contributing to a total of 12,700 lives.

The assumption regarding the higher rebound effect may lead to unfounded concerns about unintended safety consequences of the current standards.

So, who ya gonna believe? If you have a background in consumer behavior and the rebound effect, leave us a note in the comment thread.

Who are all these people?

For the record, the researchers who contributed to the critique of the Trump analysis are affiliated with the following institutions:

University of Southern California, Los Angeles.
National Bureau of Economic Research, Cambridge, MA.
Yale University.
University of California, San Diego.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Resources for the Future, Washington, DC.
University of Maryland, College Park.
University of California, Davis.
University of California, Berkeley.
University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.
Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh.

We’re reaching out to Resources for the Future for some additional insights, so stay tuned for more on that.

Also for the record, the US auto industry seems to be on board with the rollback, probably because US auto buyers are clamoring for larger, less efficient vehicles.

Le *sigh.*

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*Developing story.

Photo (cropped): by Miguel Vera León via, creative commons license.

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

Tina Casey has 3244 posts and counting. See all posts by Tina Casey