Thank you Mr. Chairman. As a member of both Environment and Public Works and Commerce Committees, the Chair is well aware of the jurisdictional distinction between the two Committees when it comes to safety issues. EPW does the “hard side” or bricks and mortar and Commerce does the “soft side” or behavioral side. Thus, the issue of reducing drunk driving falls largely in the Commerce Committee’s purview as they have sole jurisdiction of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and drunk driving incentive grant program. Nonetheless, I welcome a discussion of the effectiveness of the nation’s drunk driving programs in preparation for reauthorization of SAFETEA.
More often than not, when discussing transportation issues we focus on problems with funding, congestion and the physical state of our infrastructure; but equally important is safety while driving on our nation’s roads. As Chairman of this Committee during the development of SAFETEA, I made safety a priority. A hallmark of SAFETEA is a comprehensive and unprecedented new core program focusing solely on addressing safety problem areas.
States must develop comprehensive safety plans that address their biggest safety hot spots. The Highway Safety Improvement Program, or H-Sip, targets funding to the greatest problem areas. As we get closer to reauthorization, I hope that as the Subcommittee Chair on safety issues, you will be scheduling oversight hearings on H-Sip so we can see how well the new safety core program is working. In fact, I have GAO examining that program as we speak.
While I applaud and support efforts to get drunk drivers off the roads, I have opposed and will continue to oppose efforts to achieve this through federal mandates or sanctions. As a former Mayor and State Legislator, I know that Washington does not have all the answers and certainly does not always have the right ones. States know best what is appropriate for them. The closer government is to the people the better the results.
SAFETEA provided $500 million in grants to encourage States to adopt and implement effective programs to reduce drunk driving. States are actively taking advantage of the incentives Congress has put in place. I am sure my colleagues would agree that it is far more effective to work with states and allow them to determine what works best in their case rather than dictating a one size fits all legislative prescription.
TEA-21 directed States to implement a 1 year hard suspension for repeat offenders, using the threat of reduced federal highway funds if they failed to comply. This one size fits all federal prescription had the effect of derailing efforts to develop interlock technologies, and handicapped State’s ability to put in place their own effective drunk driving laws. This well intentioned federal mandate set States up for failure, and denied judges the flexibility needed to most effectively sentence repeat offenders on a case by case basis.
Prior to TEA-21, many States were implementing their own repeat offender sentencing guidelines, using interlock technologies and other initiatives tailored to their needs, including my own State of Oklahoma. But all efforts stopped after the TEA21 mandate because States did not want to risk losing out on federal dollars for not following the new federal drunk driving mandate.
A SAFETEA technical corrections bill that would allow states more flexibility with their drunk driving laws by amending the existing repeat offender provision was approved twice by both this Committee and the full House. While the final bill awaits further Senate action, I think the message is clear, both Chambers recognize that leaving this decision to States is optimal. It is also important to note that this provision changes a previous mandate that we now recognize as being ineffective. I see this as proof of my point that Washington does not know best and should not impose its will on states.
The loss of life, especially due to a drunk driver, is not only tragic but unacceptable. However, to continue the practice of holding state transportation funds hostage while we force them to adopt federally imposed, one-size fits all solutions to combat drunk driving, should not be the answer. Each state has the right, and frankly the responsibility, to implement appropriate laws that meet the needs if its citizens. Mr. Chairman, while you and I differ on how to achieve the desired result, we both agree combating drunk driving must be a national priority. I look forward to working with you on this and other issues as we begin to think about reauthorization of SAFETEA.
I look forward to the testimony and of The Honorable Michael R. Fields, a criminal court judge who deals with DUI cases everyday and can provide a unique insight on this issue from a local level.
I want to welcome all our witnesses today and thank them for taking time out of their schedules to share with us their ideas on how to most effectively address drunk driving at the federal level.