by Jennifer Bradley
Buried in the 9th Circuit's dismantling of NHTSA's rule on CAFE standards is a remarkable sentence: "The assertion is also based on the controversial assumption that higher fuel economy standards for light trucks causes adverse safety effects from downweighting." (p. 14883). The assertion in question is that the benefits of GHG reductions would be canceled out by the safety losses from lighter, smaller (but more fuel efficient) cars.
Why is this sentence so important? Because it dumps cold water on the main industry contention against increasing fuel economy standards, which is that higher standards kill people. Industry has said for years that stricter CAFE standards "force" manufacturers to reduce vehicle weight, and that lighter cars are less safe.
The court deftly guts this argument, pointing out that once vehicles get past a certain weight, making them lighter actually makes them safer:
The NAS committee found that weight reduction in vehicles greater than 4,000 lbs. curb weight would result in a safety benefit: "total fatalities in a hypothetical fleet of relatively modern passenger vehicles would be reduced by about 0.26 percent if all pickups and SUVs weighing more than 4,000 lbs. were replaced with pickups and SUVs weighing 3,500 to 4,000 lbs."
(More after the jump...)
At worst, reducing the weight of 4,000-5,000 lb. SUVs is a wash from a crash-safety perspective:
The study by Dr. Charles Kahane, cited by the NAS committee and NHTSA did not find a safety benefit resulting from reducing the weight of light trucks between 4,000 to 5,000 lbs. but it found that "[o]verall, light trucks weighing 3,870 pounds or more are involved in fatal crashes that result in a total of 14,705 fatalities per year. A 100-pound reduction would not significantly change those fatalities." (Emphasis in original).
And the court goes out of its way, in a footnote, to cast more doubt on the light-equals-deadly notion. (See footnote 55).
This opinion, taken together with Judge Sessions' rejection of car manufacturers "we just can't do it" argument against lower emissions, suggests that judges are probing car makers' old, reflexive protests against innovation and technological advances and finding them lacking. This is great news.
(For readers just dying for more on this subject: The question of fuel economy, vehicle weight, and safety was the subject of litigation more than a decade ago in the D.C. Circuit. The final outcome was a decision that NHTSA was reasonable to assert and act on the notion that manufacturers can bolster fuel efficiency in a variety of ways, not just by reducing vehicle weight, and that CAFE standards were not "forcing" manufacturers to change their mix of vehicle offerings. See Competitive Enterprise Institute v. NHTSA, 45 F.3d 481 (D.C. Circ 1995), which was written by Judge Douglas Ginsburg, a long-standing foe of regulation. Even better is Judge Mikva's careful, calm dissent in a prior case, Competitive Enterprise Institute v. NHTSA, 956 F.2d 321 (D.C. Cir. 1992)).