The roadside cross, displaying a name, perhaps plastic flowers and sometimes a teddy bear attached with duct tape, is a symbol of the broken hearts left behind by someone who died on that spot. After years of declining traffic fatalities, the number of lives lost on the nation’s roads and highways is rising again. As authorities search for a cause of the mounting human toll, one factor likely won’t be considered: the regulations mandating higher engine fuel efficiency that compromise vehicle safety.
The National Transportation Safety Administration calculates that 35,092 persons died on U.S. roadways in 2015, a 7.2 percent increase over 2014, and the largest increase in 50 years. “Despite decades of safety improvements, far too many people are killed on our nation’s roads every year,” says U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. “Solving this problem will take teamwork, so we’re issuing a call to action and asking researchers, safety experts, data scientists, and the public to analyze the fatality data and help find ways to prevent these tragedies.”
Unless Mr. Foxx’s problem-solvers can repeal the laws of physics, the uptick may foretell a worsening trend. The U.S. Department of Transportation has cranked up fuel economy regulations, called the Corporate Average Fuel Economy program, or CAFE, forcing auto manufacturers to redesign their cars and trucks with lighter weight — some say “flimsy” — material. Plastic is a poor substitute for steel.
Government-ordered CAFE standards had been slowly rising since they were first imposed with the Energy Policy and Conservation Act of 1975. The rationale was to reduce oil consumption during the Arab oil embargo, and more recently to reduce consumption of fossil fuels that are said, with scant evidence, to cause “global warming,” which is conveniently blamed for everything but the heartbreak of psoriasis. Fuel efficiency reached 30.2 miles per gallon for passenger vehicles by 2011, and a tougher regulatory standard was imposed in 2012 that will require the U.S. automobile fleet to average 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025.
When strong steel disappears, travelers face greater danger on the highway. A study by researchers at Harvard University and the Brookings Institution calculates that shaving 500 pounds off the weight of a car or truck results in an additional 2,200 to 3,900 traffic deaths per year. There’s only so much that the most imaginative safety engineers can do with seat belts and airbags to protect passengers when a ton-and-a-half car challenges a 40-ton eighteen-wheeler.
Stricter CAFE rules are driving up the price of cars and trucks, too, persuading drivers to hang onto their older cars longer, defeating the push for greater fuel efficiency. The average cost of a car has jumped $6,200 since 2009, according to studies by the Heritage Foundation, and is projected to rise another $3,400 by 2025.