May 22 2003


U.S. Senator Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala), Chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Treasury, and General Government, chaired a hearing to discuss 2004 highway safety initiatives. The following is Senator Shelby’s opening statement:

“Good Morning. The Subcommittee will come to order. I want to thank each of the witnesses for being here today to discuss fiscal year 2004 highway safety initiatives. As we approach Memorial Day, one of the most dangerous weekends for highway travel, I cannot think of a better time to discuss what I believe is a very important, yet all too often overlooked issue.

Last year, 43,000 people died on our nation's highways and roughly 18,000 of the deaths were in alcohol-related crashes. Just as troubling is the fact that 4.5 million people visit the emergency room each year as a result of a motor vehicle accident. As the leading cause of death in the United States for Americans ages 1 to 35, I believe that this problem has reached epidemic proportions.

Much like the medical community treats cancer or heart disease, we need to develop a plan to research and enact effective, data driven programs to reduce the number of highway fatalities.

I am struck, however, by the lack of scientific method or comprehensive rational approach to combating drunk and drugged driving, to increasing seatbelt use in those demographics that under-perform the national average, or to changing dangerous behavior where we can identify it and isolate it.

Dr. Runge, as a physician you can not possibly subscribe to doing the same thing for an extended period of time if the patient did not improve - you would discontinue treatments that didn't work, prescribe treatments that did work, and try new treatments for conditions that you could identify and diagnose. That is all I am asking you to do here - identify, diagnose, and treat. We must start saving lives.

This year, the Department of Transportation has declared safety to be its number one priority for its current budget request and for its reauthorization proposal, SAFETEA as well. Highway deaths have increased every year for the past four years and alcohol related deaths increased for the third consecutive year, and I agree that there is no greater priority than reversing these alarming trends.

When I look at this budget proposal, I see no new initiatives that help us improve our poor highway safety record. The data tells me that what we are doing is not working, and it is preposterous to believe that we can continue to do the same thing each year and expect a different result. Too many lives are lost while many states, with NHTSA's approval, use their safety grants to use bobble-head dolls, key chains and air fresheners to get the message out without any results. It is beyond me how these trinkets are increasing seat belt usage or deterring impaired driving. I support state flexibility, but trinkets don't save lives. We must change our course if we expect to reduce the carnage on our nation's highways.

The Administration's goal is to reach a 78 percent usage rate by the end of 2003. However, the budget proposes nothing specific to further increase usage rates and despite the remarkable success of the Click or Ticket mobilizations, NHTSA has never requested specific funding for the program. It may not be a silver bullet, but I am not aware of another program that is as effective as these campaigns in increasing seat belt usage. To me, that goal rings hollow unless the budget justification outlines the steps we must take to achieve a 78 percent usage rate. This budget does not meet that test.

On the other hand, we are making modest improvement in large truck crashes which continued to decline this year, but much more needs to be done. I think that the data derived from the large truck crash causation study will provide an important blueprint to guide FMCSA in the future.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration was granted additional authorities with the enactment of the Motor Carrier Safety Improvement Act. FMCSA has a major new management challenge at hand to fully implement the new entrant program, and the first year will be the most difficult in identifying the riskiest operators and monitoring their safety records. I urge FMCSA to work with stakeholders and state enforcement authorities to coordinate and implement the new entrant program. I also encourage you to look into the possibility of designating a federal tiger team to augment the efforts of the states to investigate the carriers who pose the greatest risks.

Again, I will say that I am disappointed by what I perceive to be a lack of innovative and creative thinking to allow our government to improve highway safety numbers. I appreciate that the responsibility to make our highways safer does not rest solely with your two agencies. In fact, everyone who gets behind the wheel shares some accountability.

Nevertheless, it is important for all agencies within the Department to work together to identify strategies for improvement and implement programs that are effective. If programs have reached a plateau or outlived their usefulness, then we must create and implement new approaches. We cannot sit idly by and hope that highway safety will spontaneously improve.

I look forward to hearing the testimony and am hopeful you will provide additional insight that will prove more promising than what I have seen so far.”