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Better fuel standards aren’t making our roads more dangerous

By Sean Doyle
Democracy Digital Organizer

Last week, the Washington Times wrote an alarming editorial claiming that more Americans are dying on the nation’s roadways due to better fuel economy standards for vehicles – a centerpiece of the Obama administration’s efforts to combat transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions.

Unfortunately, not only is this claim ill supported by the available data, but it distracts from the real problem and proven solutions that can help save American lives.

Join us in telling The Washington Times, they got it wrong.

There is no doubt that traffic related fatalities are a huge problem which seems only to be getting worse. Between 2014 and 2015, traffic fatalities jumped more than seven percent, the largest annual percentage increase in nearly 50 years. And recently, the National Safety Council reported that in the first six months of this year, traffic fatalities have increased another nine percent from the same period last year. According to the NSC’s estimates, we’re on track to see more than 40,000 deaths on U.S. roadways this year, nearly 110 lives lost each day.

But why is it happening?

One major reason for this increase in deaths is that people are simply driving more. In 2007, driving peaked in the United States after decades of consistent growth and then began to decline. Since then, driving has remained relatively flat and well below the 2007 peak – that is until 2014 when global gas prices began to drop drastically.

So far this year, gas prices have averaged 38 percent below 2014 prices while driving has increased 6.5 percent from the beginning of 2014 through July of this year. This close chronology (gas prices drop and driving increases) has led many observers, from Time Magazine to the National Safety Council, to publicly support the view that more driving, likely spurred on by low gas prices, is most likely the main contributor to recent increase in traffic deaths.

So, if more driving is the problem, what then is the solution?

There are a number of available tools that can help combat this growing problem. Traffic calming and “road diets” can decrease the number of traffic crashes dramatically — up to 69 percent on some highways — as the Federal Highway Administration explains in this video.

Road design and engineering could also be part of the problem. Vision Zero, an approach to road safety designed to eliminate traffic fatalities and serious injuries, puts greater emphasis on designing roads that account for the possibility of human error. Quite simply, “In every situation a person might fail, the road system should not.” 

Public transit is another opportunity to reduce traffic fatalities. According to a recent study, taking public transit can reduce a commuter’s crash risk by 90 percent over driving, and cut a community’s crash risk in half, even for those who don’t use it. Yet the vast majority of federal and state funds are dedicated to building highways. By rethinking our transportation funding priorities and dedicating more resources to transit and its proven safety benefits, we can create a safer transportation system for all users.

The common thread in all of those ideas though is that they address a real part of the problem. They decrease the likelihood that a crash will happen, or that it will be serious if it does.

On the other hand, attacking fuel economy standards does not help solve the problem. Recent studies have found “there is little, if any, trade-off between improvements in fuel economy and in safety in light motor vehicles.”

Fuel economy standards have done a lot of good for the country. New Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards currently being reviewed for model year 2025 cars and trucks will save consumers $3200-$5700 and $4800-8200, respectively, depending on gas prices. And fuel economy standards also go a long way to reducing harmful emissions that make us sick and contribute to global climate change. These rules have already prevented 100 million metric tons of carbon pollution from being released into the atmosphere to date.

So what’s the bottom line? The truth is that the growing number of traffic deaths we are observing is a real problem, but there remain real, proven solutions. It’s important that we stay focused on those solutions if we want to fix the problem. Needlessly distracting people by attacking a policy that has only helped to reduce pollution, save Americans money and allow us to go further on a gallon of gas is not helpful.

We’re writing to the editors to tell them they got it wrong – if you want to add your name to the letter telling The Washington Times what the real issue is, you can do so here.

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