Banking on Bipartisanship

Jackie Gillan, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, has high hopes for increasing highway safety through the pending surface transportation bill.

Congress could soon pass the nation's next big surface transportation bill with an equally large chunk of safety mandates included in it. The question is whether this can be accomplished in the face of a strong budget-cutting, anti-regulatory tide on Capitol Hill.

Jackie Gillan, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety in Washington, D.C., nevertheless said Aug. 24 that she remains hopeful S. 1449, the Motor Vehicle and Highway Safety Improvement Act of 2011, can be marked up and then enacted into law. The sweeping bill as introduced included these provisions:

  • Authorizes $139 million per year for states that adopt alcohol ignition interlock devices for first-time offenders
  • Permits NHTSA to issue a rule requiring advanced seat belt reminder systems in motor vehicles (a buzzer longer than eight seconds)
  • Authorizes $39 million per year to encourage states to adopt anti-texting laws and $22 million per year to encourage adoption of optimal Graduated Driver Licensing laws
  • NHTSA would review each state highway safety program every three years
  • Establishes a council to increase NHTSA's expertise on vehicle electronics and software
  • Sets a two-year requirement for DOT secretary to issue a final rule prohibiting entertainment screens from being visible to the vehicle's driver

U.S. Sens. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., and Jay Rockefeller IV, D-W.Va., introduced the bill July 29. Rockefeller chairs the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, to which their bill has been referred, and Pryor chairs the Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, and Insurance. Gillan said S. 1449 includes many provisions Advocates has sought, such as the grants to offer incentives for states to improve their driving laws.

"I think that there's a real strong, unfinished safety agenda," she said. "You know, we've had two years now of declines in motor vehicle crashes, which, of course, Advocates the organization and I personally were always very pleased to see: fewer deaths and injuries. But it seems like there's a lot of patting ourselves on the back for success which may be not permanent. If you track these things, whenever there are economic downturns, they're accompanied by decreases in motor vehicle crashes, deaths, and injuries. It makes sense. And we have always looked at these multi-year surface transportation bills as a golden opportunity to advance the safety of our infrastructure, but also the safety of millions of people who are using the roads every day. The two are linked.

"We still need to do more in terms of looking at driver behavior, as well as the safety of the vehicle and the safety of the road," she continued. "We can't just stop and congratulate ourselves and think there isn’t anything more to do."

A Bar Too High?
The last such bill, in 2005, set the bar because it was the most expensive surface transportation bill ever, and Congress included "a real strong safety agenda" in it, Gillan said. The $244.1 billion Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU) bill was signed into law in August 2005.

"When you look at some of the safety successes we've had, it didn't necessarily happen with Democrats in the majority or Republicans, either -– there was strong bipartisan support for the measures," she explained.

She said Advocates has long looked to Congress to take up the issues that aren't priorities for NTSHA, for whatever reasons. Gillan cited rollovers, long known to be a problem and at one time representing less than 10 percent of all motor vehicle crashes but one-third of all occupant fatalities.

"We just could never get NHTSA to move forward with a rulemaking," she said. "When Congress came in in 2005 and said, 'We want you to go ahead with a rule on rollover prevention, ejection mitigation, roof crush,' guess what? They did it, the auto industry is putting this technology in, and it's saving lives. And we have this issue outstanding with other regulatory issues, as well," she said.

"The reason that these things are important is that [U.S. transportation] secretaries come and go, and administrators come and go. And most of these rulemakings are two, three, four, or five years long. It's really important to get the agency focused on these.... Because of the long lead times, you really need to get them focused going forward. And I think that's what this bill [S. 1449] is focused on, and that's what this bill does.

"I'm really pleased and really commend them for doing that. I've learned long ago that these deaths and injuries don’t just happen in red states or blue states, they happen to everybody."

Gillan began working on highway safety issues during Jimmy Carter's presidency. She became Advocates' president just a few days after testifying before Pryor's subcommittee July 27 and endorsing his and Rockefeller's draft bill, while asking the panel to raise both the funding and the authority of NHTSA.

Asked Aug. 24 whether she had ever seen as strong an anti-regulatory environment as the current one, she replied, "I don't want to sound Pollyanna-ish. I think you have to divorce the rhetoric from the reality. People say the House and Senate won't pass regulations, but what about issues such as child safety or teen driving, where we're losing around 5,000 teens a year? Or what about an issue like distracted driving, where people are texting while driving? That's when you find that there is strong support. I don't think anyone would describe [former Sen.] Trent Lott as pro-regulation, but he was an unbelievable champion of getting those provisions enacted that mandated NHTSA enact those provisions."

Vehicle electronics are an important issue because of the complexity of modern motor vehicles. For instance, unintended acceleration concerns have not entirely been resolved, she said. Because there is no NHTSA standard covering it, we really don't know whether there are interference problems and what the in-vehicle systems’ interactions are within the vehicles and with the outside environment, Gillan said. "The bill does direct NHTSA to do an electronics standard, and I think what we have to look at is that, after the auto industry has gone ahead and used these technologies, we don't want to find out there is interference with the brakes or with the navigation or the drive unit. What this provision does is put NHTSA in front of the ball, rather than behind it."

Following a Proven Strategy
"The number of deaths that occur on our roads is obscene," Rockefeller said when the bill was introduced. "We have given the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration the essential and difficult mission of reducing this number and making our roads safer. This legislation will strengthen NHTSA and focus attention and resources on the most pressing safety problems."

Graduated Driver Licensing (GDL) is an issue that could be left up to the states, and in fact most states have some elements of a comprehensive GDL program in place. Trying to make it a federal mandate via a surface transportation bill follows the same strategy that was used to bring about laws in every state making age 21 the minimum drinking age and .08 the national blood alcohol legal limit. Advocates and numerous public health groups (including the American Public Health Association, MADD, SADD, and the American Academy of Pediatrics) believe states should have, at a minimum:

  • A three-stage licensing process (learner’s permit and an intermediate stage before an unrestricted license)
  • A prohibition on nighttime driving during the first two stages
  • A limit on the number of passengers during the first two stages
  • A prohibition on non-emergency use of cell phones and other communication devices
  • Age 16 for obtaining a learner's permit and age 18 for lifting all restrictions on newly licensed teen drivers

"Those provisions in GDL laws have a dramatic impact in reducing teen crashes," said Gillan. "In fact, Illinois recently upgraded their GDL law, and in the first year they had a 40 percent reduction in teen driving deaths. There aren't even any public health interventions that can claim that kind of success. Our goal is to try to set minimum standards so that every teen in every state is protected. Almost every state has one of these or more ... but very few have all of them."

She pointed out that there are Republicans and Democrats in this 112th Congress backing a stand-alone GDL bill –- the Safe Teen and Novice Driver Uniform Protection Act, H.R. 1515/S. 528 -– that is supported by Advocates and allied groups. Similarly, a pending motorcoach safety bill has bipartisan support in the U.S. Senate.

During visits to Capitol Hill, Gillan sometimes mentions the pitched battles over airbags that were fought in the 1970s before vehicle manufacturers finally were required to install them, as Congress had directed. She said congressional staffers frequently are startled because airbags, as far as they know, are and always have been standard equipment.

"People forget that there was a time when you only had lap belts, and for a time automakers tried to say these weren't going to work very well," she explained. "We're still killing 33,000 people on the roads, even in a good year. Today, in these rulemakings, you're really promoting making these technologies standard equipment. It's not as though we're asking the automakers to develop new technology to address a safety problem. What we're saying is, 'Here's a safety problem. You already have technology to address it, and you're offering it as an option. Why wouldn't you make it standard equipment for everybody?' "

"I would say that the legislation that's been introduced would really be an important step forward in addressing these issues," she added. "I'm reluctant to choose between a traffic safety issue and a vehicle safety issue because you need to do everything. You need to make sure the drivers on the road are safe, and you also need to make sure their vehicles are safe."

This article originally appeared in the October 2011 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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