Don’t let the Trump administration put clean car standards in reverse

Here we go again.

The Trump administration, bent on rolling back safeguards that keep Americans safe and protect consumers, is accelerating its reckless deregulatory push to undo vehicle standards at the behest of the automakers.

It’s déjà vu. I am reminded of my time as administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) under President Jimmy Carter. At every turn we were met by automakers which — incorrectly — claimed that incorporating safety features like seatbelts and airbags was too costly.

{mosads}Their most recent target: fuel economy and greenhouse gas emission standards for vehicles, known as clean car standards. Today’s program is the result of a historic 2011 agreement between automakers and the Obama administration. It would nearly double fuel economy by 2025 and reduce 6 billion metric tons of climate pollution over the lifetime of new vehicles sold between model years 2017 and 2025.


Since the agreement took effect, the standards have saved consumers money, protected public health and led to impressive reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

Though monumental, the Obama-era clean car standards weren’t without precedent. As NHTSA administrator, I issued the country’s first fuel economy standards. These standards have been saving gas and saving consumers money since 1978 — 1.5 trillion gallons and $4 trillion. It’s gratifying to see what the industry can achieve.

However, ever since the 1970s, when consumer and health advocates began pushing for improved emissions standards, automakers have tried to thwart those attempts. It took more than 25 years for fuel economy standards to be updated, in no small part because of the automakers’ sabotage.

So here we are again. Just days after the 2016 election, automakers asked then President-elect Donald Trump to review the clean car standards. After multiple meetings with auto executives, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt announced plans to roll back the clean car standards. According to a review from the Environmental Defense Fund, that decision relies not on an EPA analysis of the standards but on 63 citations from the auto industry. Pruitt’s decision makes no mention of climate change — which was one of the key underlying rationales for the standards when they were issued.

Now, NHTSA and the EPA will begin to disassemble the clean car standards. It’s easy to predict what scare tactics they might use. In the 1990s, when Congress was considering improving fuel economy, the U.S. Department of Transportation claimed that greater fuel economy would produce less safe vehicles, a claim that belied the facts.

In reality, the vast majority of improvements to fuel economy came from improvements in technology, not by making vehicles that are less crashworthy. Nevertheless, efforts to torpedo improved fuel economy standards were successful for years.

Pruitt recently hinted in public comments that the administration would turn to refuted claims that fuel-efficient vehicles are less safe, don’t be fooled. Improved economy and improved safety are achievable together. Automakers have done it before. Now, they are producing the most technologically advanced and cleanest cars in history. Vehicle prices have stayed relatively flat, and automakers have seen profits boom.

A 2016 technical assessment by the EPA, NHTSA and the California Air Resources Board shows that automakers are meeting the standards more affordably and faster than predicted. According to an analysis by the Consumer Federation of America, many models already exceed the current Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) requirements.

The Obama standards push automakers to innovate and set mile-per-gallon targets based on vehicle size and not a fleet-wide average. This means that improved fuel economy will continue to come not only from improved technology in engines but also from advancements in metal alloys and composite materials that make modern cars stronger, safer and more fuel-efficient. This attack would be just the latest from an administration that misleads the public with no compunction.

The truth is that this administration isn’t pursuing regulatory rollbacks to help the American people. It is furiously undoing important safeguards at the behest of corporations and their friends who fill the highest posts in the Trump administration.

Automobiles on the road today demonstrate that increased safety and better fuel economy are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they are compatible and what the public wants.

Automakers should go forward, not backward. They should embrace the words of Robert B. Alexander, Ford’s then-vice president for car product development, which I often repeated to auto executives during my time as NHTSA administrator. In a 1977 speech sponsored by the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, he said, “The lion’s share of the burden of meeting these stringent standards and mandates will fall on the shoulders of the engineers. In fact, I like to call this the ‘age of the engineer’ — and I, for one, couldn’t be happier.” This statement is as true today was it was then.

Joan Claybrook was the administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in the U.S. Department of Transportation from 1977-1981 and is president emeritus of Public Citizen.

Tags clean car standards Donald Trump emissions EPA Joan Claybrook Scott Pruitt

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