Ranking Member, Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works
Hearing entitled, "Opportunities to Improve Transportation Safety."
Wednesday, April 14, 2010, 10:00 AM
We are making very good progress in reducing both the rate and overall number of fatalities on our nation's roads-but it is still not good enough.
In 2008, just over 37,000 people were killed on our highways. I think everybody knows somebody who has been killed or severely injured in an auto accident. This is clearly a tragedy that touches every American.
The good news is that highway deaths have been going down each year since 2005, when there were 43,500 fatalities. There are a number of critical ways to save lives on our roads by influencing driver behavior and increasing the safety of our roads.
Despite what some may think, this Committee does not have jurisdiction over the driver behavior side. However, it is important to work with states to reduce drunk driving, increase seatbelt use, and generally encourage safer driving. What I oppose is forcing a one-size-fits-all, Washington solution on all states. A perfect example of this is the sanction approach (favored by some on this Committee and some of the witnesses today) that withholds highway funds from states that do not enact specific laws. I support rewarding states for results (e.g. higher seatbelt use, decreases in drunk driving) and campaigns like Secretary LaHood's efforts against texting while driving.
This Committee has jurisdiction over the physical condition and design of our transportation infrastructure. It is estimated that from 1/3 to over 1/2 of all fatalities result from deficiencies in roadway conditions. We need to make our roads and bridges safer. One of the witnesses today, Dr. Miller, has conducted research that found roadway condition to be a contributing factor in over 1/2 of all deaths resulting from motor vehicle crashes and 38 percent of the non-fatal injuries. His research also determined that in terms of crash outcome severity, road conditions are the single most lethal contributing factor in roadway fatalities-greater than speeding, alcohol, or not wearing seat belts.
SAFETEA created a new core safety program-which I think is the single most important thing achieved in the $286.4 billion bill. The next highway bill needs to build on this success. I think this will go a long way to continue the historic declines in highway deaths.
The reason the safety program is so successful is that it requires states to examine data on where people are dying and where accidents are occurring, and to devise a plan to address the greatest roadway safety problems in the state. It has states determine the best solutions to address their most unsafe conditions. It is critical that we continue to follow this data-driven, flexible approach.
One example of how we deviated from this approach is the Safe Routes to School Program. This is NOT a safety program-it is a healthy lifestyle program. Its real goal is to encourage kids to walk and bike to school-a worthwhile goal, but let's remember: this not a safety issue and it shouldn't be paid for by road users as our infrastructure is crumbling around us. This program received over $600 million dollars in the last bill and was 14 percent of the size of the entire safety program in 2009.
Countless studies have proven the safest way for children to get to school is in a yellow school bus. If the goal of this program was truly to get our children to school more safely, it would be to encourage them to take the school bus. I believe we'd save more lives if the Safe Routes to School money was put back into the safety program and children were encouraged to ride school busses.
This next highway bill needs to focus on the core safety program and build on its successes. I'd like to see a much larger, more data-driven safety program. I'd also like to create a new safety performance measure that will highlight successful outcomes and assess how states are doing when it comes to saving lives.