T&I Looks at Street and Highway Safety
April 12, 2019
The House Subcommittee on Highways and Transit met April 9th for a hearing on street and highway safety.
The hearing came at a time when traffic deaths are rising, despite Vision Zero goals for zero traffic fatalities, and as Congress works to reauthorize the transportation surface FAST Act set to expire September 2020.
Subcommittee chairwoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) introduced the witnesses by first noting how the subcommittee received more requests to testify at this hearing than they were able to accommodate – a hopeful sign that the Nation is interested in roadway safety.
The witnesses included:
- Jennifer Homendy, Member, National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) (written testimony here)
- Fred Jones, Vice Mayor, City of Neptune Beach, Florida on behalf of Transportation for America (T4America) (written testimony here)
- Michael L. Brown, Chief of Police, City of Alexandria (written testimony here)
- Jay Bruemmer, Vice President, K & G Striping, Inc. on behalf of the American Traffic Safety Services Association (ATSSA) (written testimony here)
- Mike Sewell, Active Transportation Service Line Leader, Gresham Smith on behalf of The League of American Bicyclists (LAB) (written testimony here)
- Nicholas Smith, Interim President and Chief Executive Officer, the National Safety Council (NSC) (written testimony here)
Witnesses’ testimonies consisted of seven “most wanted” safety recommendations for U.S. highways from the NTSB, road design recommendations to protect all transportation modes, funding requests for the FAST Act and Highway Safety Improvement Program (HSIP), and a call for a change in the narrative around highway safety. These points, among others, were expounded upon in the question and answer portion of the hearing.
Chairwoman Norton kicked things off by asking, “What, in your view, is the single most important thing you think Congress can do to reduce the number of roadway fatalities, bearing in mind the state and localities are where the action is.”
For Bruemmer and Sewell, the biggest priority is investing in data collection so that states and cities can identify where crashes and fatalities are taking place, and therefore know where to invest their funding to make the most impactful changes. Jones wants accountability and prioritized funding for Complete Streets.
Both Brown and Smith emphasized the need to change the culture around highway safety. Smith said, ”Today over 100 people will die on crashes on our roadway. Yesterday over 100 people died in crashes. And tomorrow, over 100 people will die again in motor vehicle crashes. But there is no outrage. In every other mode of transportation this committee oversees, there is a different expectation of safety. For example, after two airplane crashes, countries across the world grounded all Boeing 737 Max 800 and 900 airplanes. In less than a week, a coordinated, global action was taken to address a potential risk to millions of people. This committee rightly held hearings to determine causation and next steps (read more here). We can all agree that this was the right decision. But every 72 hours we lose 328 people, nearly the equivalent of these two airplane crashes, on US roadways. Where is our outrage over these deaths? And where is our urgency to prevent them? We must demand safety for all, no matter how they are mobile.” Brown reminded Congress that traffic safety isn’t just about deaths and that even surviving a crash can come with lifelong effects.
Homendy declined picking one NTSB recommendation over another.
Brown, Sewell and Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D-NY) also stressed the need for municipalities to be able to determine where to spend funding from the FAST Act and for funding to be equitably distributed. Bruemmer, speaking of the HSIP, mentioned the problem with the current process of states being allowed to transfer up to 50% of their HSIP allocation to other, non-safety programs. “ATSSA calls on Congress to eliminate, or at very least, reduce the percentage of funds that can be transferred out of HSIP. Congress has previously ensured that funds from HSIP can only be used for roadway safety infrastructure projects. We urge the committee to continue this language as part of the FAST Act Reauthorization and Infrastructure Packages.”
Sewell agreed with Rep. Troy Balderson (R-OH) that passing laws is not enough – drivers need to be educated about such laws. Otherwise, laws like the safe passing law Rep. Balderson co-sponsored (which requires drivers to give cyclists at least three feet of space) don’t have the impact intended.
RURAL VS URBAN
Reps. Ross Spano (R-FL), Angie Craig (D-MN), and Mike Gallagher (R-WI) made sure the needs of rural communities were not overlooked. Spano asked witness how the next Surface transportation authorization should address the differing needs of both urban and rural areas. To this, Homendy frankly stated the safety recommendations of the NSTB are applicable to both, though the NTSB found more fatalities in urban areas. Brown said it is key to provide opportunity and framework for local governments to apply for funding but allow for flexibility in what issues they’re addressing. Jones pushed for incentives and opportunities to local jurisdictions to receive additional funding when they meet performance standards and demonstrate that they are improving safety.
Craig asked about speed, alcohol rates, and infrastructure approaches specifically for rural areas. Brown said, “A lot of it has to do with behavior. A lot of the things you see in an urban environment involving impaired driving, you will also see in a rural area. Sometimes even worse because it is easier to go fast in rural areas – hard to go 85 mph down a road in Alexandria.”
As with most hearings lately, a good portion of member questions were regarding advancing technology, in this case in the context of increasing safety.
Rep. Chuy Garcia (D-IL) brought up the automatic emergency braking technology NHTSA administrator Heidi King recently stated can help make cars safer on roads. Rep. Garcia asked, “are AEBs a sensible step in the right direction and why should they be considered for large and heavy trucks as well?” Smith’s answer was that all developing technology should be considered, but that AEBs are particularly important to reduce the rate of fatalities. At the same time, technological recommendations are not necessarily going to mean overnight change due to the slow process of the turnover and average age of cars.”
To this, Homendy interjected, adding, “Those technologies are available today and we know from research that they are proven to save lives and so what the NTSB has said is that they should be standard on all vehicles. Unfortunately, in many vehicles, you have to pay for safety upgrades in our view safety is not a luxury. Those should be standard on all new vehicles, whether it’s a heavy truck, a passenger vehicle, a motor coach, or a school bus, they can and should be implemented today.”
Rep. Salud Carbajal (D-CA) asked how we can start integrating AI and self-driving vehicle technologies into our road planning. Bruemmer commented that from an industry level, the positive trend is that the conversation of how AVs interact with infrastructure is becoming more open. From a Federal level, being aware of the major problems in your areas is the start. From there, representatives can talk with engineers and DOTs in order to rectify problems.
Many panelist pointed out many of the problems with road safety related to drugs and alcohol, with more than 10,000 people die annually due to alcohol-related crashes. Rep. Daniel Webster (R-FL) brought up the strong lobby against limiting what you can consume in order to solve impaired driving problems. He said, “For example, dram shop legislation, which keeps a bartender from serving alcohol to someone visibly intoxicated, is going to be shot down every time. Even though we’ve scraped the edges and done some things relating to impairment, we haven’t really hit the core. Do you have any ideas about that?”
For the NTSB, it’s not about limiting consumption, as Homendy stated, “you can drink, you just can’t drive in addition to it.” The NTSB recommends lowering the BAC limit from .08 to .05 or lower (global comparison of BAC limits here).
The NTSB also suggests requiring ignition interlocks for all offenders, not just repeat offenders, because research shows by the time a first-time offender is convicted they’ve likely driven impaired more than 80 times. Rep. Webster acknowledged that Homendy was only talking about alcohol, and then asked about other substances like marijuana. She explained that the data on marijuana is just not there and the result is no impairment standard to regulate. The first step may be guidance to states on how to test marijuana impairment because right now the states are all handling it very differently.
Bringing the law enforcement lens into the conversation, Brown explained that law enforcement essentially has a capacity issue due to pressing demands and understaffing, and that traffic safety isn’t always a top priority on the local level. This answered Rep. John Garamendi’s (D-FL) confusion with impaired driving arrests going significantly down according to FBI statistics over the last 25 years.
Brown furthered the explanation with a picture of how complicated law enforcement has become, “When I was a young officer in California in the seventies things we could get done in a four-page piece of paper now that document is 27 pages long. There are homicide reports that are prepared that are shorter than some DUI cases and we’re talking about a misdemeanor. There are opportunities to streamline that and still provide and protect the rights of the individual.”
Lowenthal and Homendy connected over sleep apnea as both Lowenthal, and Homendy’s husband, were recently diagnosed. The NTSB has identified that sleep apnea is a huge problem and “have issued a number of recommendations on the screening, diagnosis, and treatment for sleep disorders like sleep apnea… I don’t know that some of the carriers and the railroads are doing some of that but without a rulemaking it won’t occur industry-wide. So we are pushing that FMCSA and FRA adequately address this.” Smith was asked by Lowenthal if the NSCl supports the withdrawing of drowsy-driving efforts by the FMCSa or FRA, to which Smith answered in the negative.
Woodall asked Sewell if when thinking about safety from a bicyclist’s perspective and the folks he represents if he has the flexibility from his members to think about different angles or if it is a single-sided conversation when speaking on behalf of his members. Sewell responded, “I think you have to think of all users when you’re designing any roadway… we have to design systems that work for all users… you’re doing it for public betterment. And that includes drivers… You have to think through if you do move a mode of transportation to a different mechanism for transport is that going to negatively impact safety for other users on that roadway too… It’s a balancing act between all these modes of transportation.” As Congress tackles safety issues in the future, the subcommittee seems hopeful they can make improvements across all modes.