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Status Report, Vol. 38, No. 3 | March 15, 2003 Subscribe

California's emissions plan could hurt safety, Institute tells court

California's zero-emissions requirements "could increase the risk of serious injury in motor vehicle crashes," the Institute has pointed out to a federal appeals court. If the requirements are met, "an inevitable consequence will be an increase in motor vehicle crash deaths and injuries. This is because most [low- and zero-emissions vehicles] are small, lightweight vehicles that cannot provide effective crash protection for their occupants."

The emissions requirements were scheduled to begin phasing in this year. But last June General Motors, DaimlerChrysler, and several auto dealers won an injunction that delays the requirements for two years. The state of California appealed, and now the matter is before the federal appeals court in San Francisco.

The automakers argue that the emissions requirements California plans to impose would illegally impinge on federal authority to set fuel economy standards for passenger vehicles. The brief submitted by the Institute doesn't dwell on this dispute. Instead it focuses on the safety implications of the California program. Specifically, the Institute objects to regulations that, in effect, push manufacturers to somehow subsidize sales of small, lightweight vehicles in order to meet the state's zero-emissions requirements.

An especially dangerous option available to meet the requirements would be to increase sales of low-speed vehicles, which basically are modified golf carts. Such vehicles are subject to only limited federal safety requirements — basic equipment like a windshield, mirrors, headlights, signal lights, tail and brake lights, reflectors, safety belts, and a parking brake. Lowspeed vehicles don't have to have doors or bumpers, and they're not required to meet any crashworthiness tests.

To make matters worse, California law allows motorists to drive low-speed vehicles on roads with speed limits up to 35 mph. The Institute has previously said such vehicles should be confined to controlled environments (see "Souped-up golf carts hit the streets," April 6, 2002).

Low-speed vehicles "will offer essentially no protection to their occupants in many crashes that occur daily on urban roads," the Institute told the appeals court. State officials "ignored occupant safety" when setting the requirements. The state efforts "should not be allowed to thwart the goals of the federal fuel economy and safety programs," the Institute said.

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