Feb 27 2002

HIGHWAY SAFETY HEARING

STATEMENT OF SENATOR RICHARD SHELBY

WASHINGTON, DC -- U.S. Senator Richard C. Shelby (R-AL), Ranking Member of the Senate Transportation Subcommittee, today commented on highway safety issues:

"No part of our oversight responsibilities has a more immediate and real impact on transportation fatalities than the safe movement of the vast majority of Americans to and from their homes and jobs. And that is why I want to focus my remarks on NHTSA."

"Our goal must be to discern what improves safety on our highways and what does not and then invest in those approaches with the greatest safety benefits. We should not be hesitant to experiment with solutions, but we must be willing to pull the plug on failed experiments and redouble our investment on those programs and initiatives that do work. And toward that end, I am encouraged by the comments of the new Administrator, Dr. Runge, to put great emphasis on program evaluation.

"Just as we should re-engineer intersections that contribute to vehicle crashes or to vehicle/pedestrian conflicts, we should refocus and re-engineer highway safety programs to optimize the payback in terms of lives saved. It may not be the most glamorous or the most press-notable work, but, I believe, it will result in fewer deaths on our highways -- which should be the only real measure we use to guide our funding decisions in this account.

"The Department's recent history in trying to meet its highway safety related performance goals is, at best, mixed. Although, we are still waiting for the Department to release the 2001 highway safety data and publish its performance plan for 2002, we have heard rumors about the 2001 safety data. While the fatality rate per vehicle mile traveled may decline negligibly for 2001, the total highway fatalities increased for the third year running. Similarly, alcohol-related fatalities increased as well.

"As we review the budget request and analyze the performance data, we must assess the direct and indirect contributing and causal factors in highway accidents and fatalities. Too often that assessment is sidetracked in pursuit of marginal factors and the agency loses focus on more significant factors.

"What sense does it make to focus to distraction on mitigating a factor that is relevant in 1% of accidents, while at the same time not developing programs to address factors that annually contribute more significantly to the highway fatality rate? Accordingly, I believe that we must constantly review the research and consumer information programs with a keen eye and a deliberate hand. It may be controversial to shift resources away from the 'flavor of the month' highway safety program to a proven program or to an innovative safety initiative, but those are decisions we should not shy away from.

"For example, a couple of years ago, I pursued language in this bill to prohibit NHTSA from publishing rollover safety recommendations for consumers based on Static Stability Factor (SSF) calculations. My concern was that the SSF calculation was not as reliable as a crash test and that it would be confusing and misleading to consumers. After substantial demagoguing of the issue by NHTSA and the media, I agreed to allow the SSF calculation approach to proceed with the requirement that the National Academy of Sciences would assess the SSF approach and address my concerns.

"While the National Academy study found that the SSF measurement valid at the 'out-of-control phase,' the study noted that SSF calculation did not take into account driver behavior, environmental conditions, or crash-avoidance technologies within vehicles that mitigate or exacerbate the propensity for rollover. In addition, the National Academy of Sciences study agreed that safety ratings based solely on Static Stability Factor calculations were likely to be of limited use in presenting practical information to the public.

"In short, the National Academy of Sciences validated all my concerns and recommended that NHTSA 'vigorously pursue' a dynamic rollover testing regime and that recommendations based on SSF calculations should be revised based on dynamic testing results.

"Let me equate that to recent events -- the National Academy of Science recommendation is equivalent to saying that calculations conducted before the Winter Olympic Games about who should win the Olympic skating medals should be validated by the actual competition. I'm actually surprised and disappointed that the National Academy wasn't more candid about the irrelevance and danger of recommendations based on Static Stability Factor calculations.

"This is an instance of a poorly conceived program being worse than no program at all. There needs to be a recognition at NHTSA that there is a real downside to providing inaccurate or incomplete information. We simply must not disseminate recommendations based on an invalid or incomplete research approach no matter how politically correct it might seem at the time.

"With that in mind, let me make a few observations about the Administration's budget request and some general recommendations for NHTSA and its safety programs. I'm disappointed with this budget request. I would not expect many new initiatives in the initial budget request from a new administration, but this is the second request, and I see virtually no difference in this request as compared to last year's. Should I read that to mean everything is satisfactory concerning highway safety? I wonder if NHTSA's program performance data for 2001 will push us to the same conclusions?

"Last year, I told Secretary Mineta at his first hearing before this subcommittee that he would be well advised to take a fresh look at NHTSA's safety programs. This budget requests tells me that after 12 months no one has taken the time to review these programs and that concerns me. If the Office of the Secretary, the National Highway Safety Administration, and the Office of Management and Budget have virtually no changes to make to the NHTSA program and the highway accident and fatality numbers continue the past two years' trend of heading in the wrong direction — I think some changes might be in order.

"Over the last 8 years, we've seen the administration propose some new approaches, designed as much, if not more, to garner media attention than to actually improve safety on our highways. At a minimum, I would expect you to review the program initiatives initiated over the past several years and evaluate whether they merit continued funding. Unfortunately, this budget request does not do that.

"Dr. Runge, you have inherited an organization that is failing in its mission. And, still there is little, if anything new in the budget request that gives me hope. Focus on your core mission, but do not be afraid to experiment and take a new approach. But please, do not try to defend a trimmed down, warmed over Clinton Administration budget and tell us that the highway death statistics are going to magically turn around. At least, if you must come forward with a flat budget request, make choices about which programs work and which do not. We simply cannot afford to waste money on programs that do not show results — results in terms of lives saved.

"I don't doubt that the people at NHTSA are as committed as any in government — but what good is that if the programs and initiatives that they are working one don't show results. Too often in government people confuse activity with progress. I have less patience for people working really hard and failing in their mission than I have for people working more efficiently and in a focused fashion on programs that work.

"I used the word, 'experiment' a number of times this morning. Let me explain what I mean. NHTSA's core seat belt program, Buckle Up America, has probably run its course in terms of increasing seat belt usage. In turn, your budget justification states as fact that 'an intense selective traffic enforcement program can significantly increase seat belt use to high levels.' I would consider that approach innovative and experimental. I'm disappointed that there are no resources identified in the budget request to continue that initiative.

"Dr. Runge, You have a limited time to review programs and personnel and make changes before the performance of those programs will become part of your stewardship and legacy. This budget request does not auger well for that stewardship. I hope you will tell us today what your vision is for the highway safety program and what tools you truly need to achieve your mission."


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