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Safe cars versus fuel efficiency? Not so fast.

As Congress eyes a boost to fuel-economy standards, auto industry hints that safety could be compromised. Some experts disagree.

By Staff writer / June 12, 2007

In a high-stakes showdown over proposed fuel-efficiency standards, the auto industry is playing its ace: the "safety" card.

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In radio ads and over the Internet, it's pushing a message that implies that tougher standards will force automakers to make smaller and lighter cars that are not as crashworthy as today's less efficient models.

That's a message that has worked before. But this time, as Congress is set to begin debate Wednesday over whether to boost Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards for new cars and light trucks, some experts are not sure the argument holds water. Recent research suggests that new technology can make small cars safer and guzzlers more efficient. Some fuel-efficient cars are already safer than bigger, less less-efficient counterparts, a new study finds.

"There's no reason that higher fuel-economy standards would force automakers to change the size of the vehicle, [its] structural integrity or crash-worthiness," says David Greene, an Oak Ridge National Laboratory researcher and co-author of the study released last Thursday by the International Council on Clean Transportation. "It's unfortunate that manufacturers are trying to cast the debate in that way."

Instead, technology can help make cars and trucks lighter and more efficient without compromising their safety, says the report, which reflects a number of peer-reviewed studies in the past four years.


Today's cars can be designed with crumple zones to absorb shock and to encompass occupants with high-strength steel or aluminum. Lowered bumper beams, window-curtain air bags and other features could boost safety with little impact on weight. At the same time, 6-speed automatic transmissions, lower-rolling resistance tires, and other measures can boost efficiency without affecting size or safety, it says.

"The public, automakers, and policymakers have long worried about trade-offs between increased fuel economy in motor vehicles and safety," says the report cowritten by Dr. Greene; Tom Wenzel, a Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory expert; and other independent researchers. "The conclusion of a broad group of experts is that no trade-off is required."

Environmentalists are latching on the report to bolster their argument that CAFE standards should be raised.

Automakers "say the only way to improve fuel economy is to produce tiny little cars the size of thimbles," says Daniel Becker, director of the Sierra Club's Global Warming and Energy Program. "But there's so many things that can be done without even making a car smaller from better aerodynamics to engine technology to better transmissions."

The Senate is expected to begin debating Wednesday a bill that would require automakers to meet a fleet-wide average fuel economy of 35 miles per gallon by 2020 – a 10 m.p.g. jump from today's combined standard for cars and light trucks. Thereafter, the standard would rise 4 percent a year through 2030.

Many experts say that making a car lighter makes it less safe.