Major problem with Consumer Reports citation

Major problem with Consumer Reports citation

PE Bias Grade : C+

By: Allen Nitschelm on September 19, 2019 | Article Review, Investigative Journalism

This is a review of the following Boston Globe Article:
Article Title Trump assailed on car-pollution move
Date 09/19/2019
Article Link Boston Globe ( Page A12 )
Syndicated From New York Times
Journalist Coral Davenport
Article Summary

President Trump stops California from issuing auto emissions standards which supersede the federal government’s.

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The Boston Globe ran a story about the Trump administration’s plan to stop allowing California to set vehicle-emission requirements. This had the effect of forcing manufacturers into complying with stricter California emission rules, thereby increasing vehicle costs for consumers. These state-standards called CAFE were followed by several other states, creating a two-tier system of emissions for cars sold nationwide.

California was granted this authority in the 1970s when it was suffering from smog, caused by vehicle exhaust. That problem has been solved, but now the standards are switching to a non-pollutant called carbon dioxide, which is a global-warming gas. California is requiring higher average MPG ratings for vehicles but relaxing these requirements would save consumers money and probably make the average vehicle safer in a crash because it would allow greater vehicle weights than future vehicles might have in order to meet emission requirements.

I was struck by a paragraph near the end, which quoted a Consumer Reports researcher who co-authored a study on this issue. She claimed in the article that when President Trump said that eliminating future increases in efficiency would be safer, he made that claim “without basis.” Here is the full paragraph from the Globe:

“The president’s claim that high fuel economy negatively affects safety is baseless,’’ said Shannon Baker-Branstetter, coauthor of an August Consumer Reports analysis concluding that the Trump administration’s rollback of fuel economy standards would have no statistically significant effect on highway safety.

As an aside, I get Consumer Reports and I carefully looked through the August issue and there was no such study reported. But an Internet search found it…and more. It gave information about the “coauthor” of the analysis, who evidently is some sort of lobbyist for Consumer Reports. She was labeled an “advocate” and works for a branch (?) of Consumer Reports that does advocacy. This type of activity is opinionated and biased, not non-partisan and objective like the reputation of Consumer Reports. And their mission in this instance is to advocate for higher fuel efficiency, so they don’t support President Trump’s move. (Here is a link to this organization: https://www.consumerreports.org/cro/about-us/what-we-do/advocacy/index.htm).

None of this “advocacy” angle was disclosed in the Boston Globe article, nor was the co-author’s dual role as a researcher and advocate explained. That dual role calls into question any conclusions her study reached. It would be like someone who works for the oil industry releasing a report denying climate change…and not disclosing how the researcher was funded.

Now I’m not going to get into a big argument about the science of higher mileage standards, but to claim that President Trump’s statement is “baseless” is simply incorrect. Only a true advocate would make such a statement and believe it.

As most people know, cars can get better MPG ratings by reducing their weight. In the past, this was clearly a safety tradeoff, whereas now, newer cars use lighter components and better engineering for safety. So while it may be true that a lighter car today is probably safer than a heavier car of yesterday, when comparing two new vehicles, the heavier vehicle will be safer than the lighter one. That’s just physics.

I did a very quick Internet search asking whether heavier vehicles were safer than lighter vehicles and I have included two photos showing the top result, from Edmunds, which is a car review website. Just cursory readership of these links shows that President Trump certainly has a basis to claim that heavier vehicles are safer. Edmunds cites research by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which I trust more than the Consumer Reports Advocate. So that answers that question. (See photos three and four for my screenshots.)

It’s not covered by the article, but my reading of the study cited claimed that consumers would save thousands of dollars if the higher mileage standards were applied, which directly contradicts what President Trump said. The reason behind this claim is highly suspect, but I can tell you what it argued. It claimed that fuel savings over time would save so much money that the consumers would end up with thousands of extra dollars.

Now assuming they counted the up-front savings in the cars’ sale price that Trump suggested (and if there is any integrity to their research whatsoever, they would have), that would mean that consumers would save say $5,000 or $6,000 over 10 years, or $500 per year, in fuel savings. Let’s assume their math is correct.

I find this argument disingenuous. It assumes that people would purchase the same vehicle, even if it gets lower miles-per-gallon. That is not a given.

For example, when I  bought my car five years ago, I got a hybrid Prius. I now enjoy going to the gas station to spend $20 to fill up my tank. (The Prius has a small tank, but I am definitely saving money on gas.) But this choice cost me more money upfront, money I was willing to invest for a long-term payback.

Had the car cost me $2,000 less up-front, but I would have had to pay $21 to fill up my tank because of slightly lower gas MPG, it would take 2,000 fill-ups to equal the upfront cost-savings. But if my car were safer, I might prefer that option. Or maybe the car would have been slightly larger, giving my passengers more leg room. There are lots of factors to consider, and MPG rating is just one. Up-front cost is probably much more of a factor than most.

So for Consumer Reports Advocacy to conclude that the government knows what consumers want, and they want higher car prices so that they will get better gas mileage, and this choice should be forced on people because they cannot make those buying decisions themselves, is an example of big-brother government that most Conservatives reject.

Anyway, the Globe and the journalist from the New York Times who wrote this story should have properly identified the Consumer Reports “coauthor” and disclosed her advocacy role at the organization. And, of course, it would have been nice if the Times or Globe had fact-checked this advocate’s statement which I believe is false and certainly misleading.

 

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