The purpose of today's hearing is to receive testimony on ISTEA's safety programs. As much as transportation benefits society through the movement of people and goods, it is not without its costs. Perhaps the most serious unintended consequence of mobility is the staggering rate of transportation fatalities and injuries. Although the fatality rate from motor vehicle crashes has declined some 10 percent since ISTEA's enactment, the number of fatalities has risen five percent within the last two years.
The economic cost of motor vehicle crashes is alarming -- more than 150 billion dollars annually. A significant portion of this burden is borne by Federal and State taxpayers in the form of publicly funded health care, increased public assistance, and reduced income tax revenue. As staggering as these economic costs are; however, they pale in comparison to the personal losses involved.
ISTEA went a long way toward reducing the terrible costs of motor vehicle crashes and fatalities. It provided strong measures to encourage safety precautions such as wearing seat belts and helmets. ISTEA also placed a "freeze" on the gross weight limits of the large "longer combination vehicles" or "LCVs." Regrettably, the National Highway System Act of 1995 undermined the strong national interest in this area by eliminating the national speed limit and the incentive for States to enact motorcycle helmet laws.
As we reauthorize ISTEA, the question of what we can do to reduce the horrible loss of life on the nation's highways persists. I think we can all agree that there is a strong federal interest in the smooth and safe operation of the nation's transportation system. Although significant progress has been made over the last twenty years with respect to seat belt use and other preventive safety measures, it is obvious that our efforts have plateaued. Ignoring these safety costs would be a terrible mistake.
The Department of Transportation has introduced a comprehensive safety reform initiative, with a strong focus on safety belt use. I look forward to learning more about the Administration's safety bill, Senator Lautenberg's bill, and other proposals during today's hearing. Thank you.