Americans could end up with less safe cars in the years ahead if, as expected, the Obama administration decides to increase fuel efficiency standards. In 2010 automakers were required to meet a fleetwide average of 29.2 miles per gallon. That target goes to 35.5 mpg by 2016. The Environmental Protection Agency is reportedly considering a target of 56 miles per gallon for sometime between 2017 and 2025.
The higher standards have the potential to induce automakers to make lighter vehicles that are more fuel-efficient, but also less crash-worthy. Indeed, according to a 2002 report from the National Academy Sciences, that tradeoff has already been made. The NAS estimated that increases in fuel economy standards in the 1970s and 1980s led to less safe vehicles and an additional 1,300 to 2,600 auto accident fatalities per year.
See: Effectiveness and Impact of Corporate Average Fuel Economy Standards, The National Academies Press, 2002.