Americans Driving More, Having More Accidents--in Gas Guzzlers

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Apr 06, 2016

Picture a fully laden, V-8-powered luxury SUV (let’s be generous and say 15 miles per gallon) heading out for a week-long vacation road trip with the whole family aboard. They’re driving from Cambridge, Massachusetts (Our Fair City) all the way to New Orleans, a journey that would have been unthinkable a few years ago when gas was $4 a gallon. Back then, they’d have taken the Prius, and driven from Cambridge to, well, New Hampshire.

That image fits well with where America is at today. We’re rediscovering the road and, according to new Federal Highway Administration figures, we covered a whopping 3.148 trillion miles in 2015 (264.2 billion in December alone). The yearly total shatters the previous record of 3.003 trillion miles—set in 2007, before the recession and the big jump in gas prices.

And you bet we’re buying those big SUVs. According to a Truthout op-ed by Daniel Becker and James Gerstenzang, sales of SUVs and light trucks is up almost 10 percent in the first two months of 2016. It's not surprising, then, that SUVs dominated the New York Auto Show introductions.

The pair blame the auto industry’s $15 billion annual marketing budget for convincing us bigger is best. “If low fuel prices alone sold gas-guzzlers,” they say, “the automakers wouldn’t have to devote to truck sales an increasing portion of an advertising budget that rivals the national budget of Uruguay.” They add that Americans are taking home vehicles designed to haul lumber, but they “aren’t lumbering along with anything larger than a couple of 20-ounce lattes.”

The public’s preference for gas guzzlers is giving the auto industry ammunition to weaken fuel economy standards that now call for fleet averages of 54.5 mpg by 2025. If the rules do get watered down, it’s a real shame. According to Becker and Gerstenzang, if the standards stay in place:

The government projects that the nation would gain between $350 billion and $450 billion in fuel savings—roughly three times the cost of the fuel efficiency technology. Consumers would pocket more than $4,000 in individual savings, even after paying the higher up-front costs for cleaner cars. If gas prices rise—and who thinks they won’t by 2025—the savings would be even greater.

The connection between SUVs and global warming is pretty clear. Becker told me:

Driving pumps 25 pounds of carbon dioxide pollution into the atmosphere for every gallon of gas consumed. Driving an SUV consumes more gallons therefore pollutes more.  So consumers must resist automaker marketing pressure to sell more gas-guzzling SUV's .

There's another big negative about the current trend—more people are dying on the highways. As the Detroit Bureau reports, road fatalities (down to 32,000 in 2014) had declined a lot since the worst years in the 1970s. But new data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) shows the carnage up eight percent in the first three quarters of 2015. The increase in driving is a likely cause.

Is SUV overconfidence another reason? I’ve noticed that people drive these road hogs with more abandon than regular passenger cars because they’re convinced—erroneously—that they’re safer. But rollover risk kisses off any advantage from driving around in a heavy armored tank.

The trends aren't great. Because of SUVs and trucks, fleet fuel economy--which should be soaring in anticipation of 2025--is essentially stagnant. At 25.3 mpg in March, it was unchanged from February. Fleet economy is actually down 0.5 mpg from August 2014, says the Transportation Research Institute at the University of Michigan. 

All those cars on the road is leading to epic congestion and tie-ups. A Transportation Department report, Beyond Traffic, imagines the year 2045:

A driver sits in traffic for hours, which may have been common in Los Angeles a generation before. But this particular driver lives in Omaha, Nebraska. In 2045, Omaha is the new LA.

It's possible, the report says, that we'll avoid this fate because self-driving cars will create a paradise where "car crashes are as much a part of the past as horse-and-buggy accidents." But unfortunately, it says, we're behind Europe in paving the way legislatively for that to happen.


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