The recent release of 2008 highway fatality figures by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration indicating nearly 4,000 fewer highway deaths last year compared to 2007 is welcome news. However, the reduction is more likely related to high fuel prices and the economic downturn than to specific safety advances.
Past historical trends have shown that this will almost certainly reverse itself as the economy improves and driving increases unless overdue and overlooked safety improvements are achieved. As Congress takes up the multiyear, multibillion-dollar surface transportation authorization bill, it has the unique opportunity to pass legislation that will not only save lives and taxpayer dollars, but will help achieve other goals of the Obama administration to reduce health care costs and protect our environment.
On average, about 40,000 people every year are killed on our streets and highways, with 2.5 million more injured, at a staggering annual economic cost to society exceeding $230 billion. This is equivalent to a “crash tax” of more than $800 for every person in the United States. Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for Americans between the ages of 3 and 34.
Any progress to significantly reduce motor vehicle deaths and injuries will require Congress to address these grim realities in the surface transportation authorization bill. Too many states have too few of the most successful, cost-effective traffic safety laws that preserve life, prevent serious injuries and save taxpayer dollars. Additionally, federal motor vehicle and truck safety standards that have the potential to save thousands of lives continue to languish at the Department of Transportation or are issued with only minimal, weak requirements.
At the same time, highway deterioration and potential catastrophic bridge failures across the country threaten the safety of motorists in every state, while trucking interests continue to prod state legislatures and Congress to increase the size and weight of big rigs.
The bipartisan Surface Transportation Authorization Act, unveiled a few weeks ago by the leaders of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, is a major step forward in addressing the unfinished safety agenda. The bill promotes state adoption of primary enforcement seat belt laws and ignition interlock requirements for drunken drivers by imposing a sanction of federal aid for states that don’t act within three years.
In the past, Democrats and Republicans in Congress and in the White House have supported the successful use of sanctions to accelerate state adoption of the 21 minimum-age drinking law, zero-tolerance blood alcohol concentration law for underage drinking and driving, the 0.08 percent BAC law, and minimum requirements for issuing licenses to commercial drivers. Whenever Congress has enacted a traffic safety sanction, every state has complied, no state has lost any federal highway funds, and tens of thousands of lives have been saved.
Additionally, the STAA contains an important provision to advance motor carrier safety by requiring DOT to issue federal safety rules requiring long haul trucks and motor coaches to be equipped with electronic on-board recorders to enforce federal driving limits. This technology already is required in Europe and Japan. Other measures will advance the safety of motor coach travel — now accounting for more than 700 million trips annually — by mandating stronger federal and state oversight. Common-sense and cost-effective safety features on motor coaches like seat belts, anti-ejection window glazing and improved roof strength also need to be required.
However, there are still several essential life-saving and money-saving measures that should be included in the bill, as well as anticipated attacks on safety that should be roundly rejected before Congress sends a final version to President Barack Obama for his signature.
Each year, more than 7,500 people die in teen-related crashes. Reps. Tim Bishop (D-N.Y.), Mike Castle (R-Del.) and Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) have introduced the Safe Teen and Novice Driver Uniform Protection Act. This legislation would establish minimum licensing standards for novice teen drivers largely based on recommendations by the National Transportation Safety Board and is supported by more than 110 national, state and local consumer, health, medical and safety organizations, as well as leaders in the insurance and auto industries.
Legislation has been introduced in the House and Senate, H.R. 1618 and S. 779, with more than 95 Democratic and Republican co-sponsors, to freeze truck size and weights on our nation’s federal-aid National Highway System. This bill is modeled after the successful 1991 safety law that stopped trucking industry efforts to push large double- and triple-trailer trucks in every state. The research is convincing and compelling — bigger trucks are bigger safety problems, do more damage to roads and bridges, are bigger polluters and fuel users, and are overwhelmingly opposed by the public.
Congress should reject any and all efforts by trucking and shipping interests to increase truck size and weights to allow 100,000 pound trucks across the country and to repeal the 1991 freeze.
A safe vehicle that protects its occupants is critical to surviving a highway crash. One of the major accomplishments in the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users legislation was Congressional direction to the NHTSA to move forward on several federal vehicle safety standards that had languished for decades. There is still more to be done to improve the safety of people inside and outside of the vehicle. As we encourage consumers to drive lighter, more fuel-efficient vehicles and to leave their cars at home and walk, there must be vehicle safety improvements in the areas of pedestrian safety, vehicle compatibility and occupant protection to save lives and prevent disabling injuries.
The quality of life for all Americans depends on a safe, reliable, economical and environmentally sound surface transportation system. However, tackling our nation’s transportation problems not only requires more money but sensible safety solutions as well. There are no acceptable excuses for delaying any longer the adoption of proven safety measures or for accommodating anti-safety special interests, as long as the shocking and costly death and injury toll continues to mount year after year after year.
Jackie Gillan is vice president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.