November 13, 2015

Dear Conferee:

As representatives of the nation’s leading consumer, public health, and safety organizations, and families who have had loved ones killed in preventable motor vehicle and motor carrier crashes, we are writing to express our continuing concerns and strong objections to the House and Senate highway reauthorization bills’ failure to advance needed public safety laws and programs. As you begin conference negotiations to harmonize the language in the two bills, we urge you to remove anti-safety provisions and include commonsense and cost-effective safety improvements. Without your efforts to ensure critical changes to address the rising carnage on our roads and highways, the next surface transportation reauthorization bill could turn out to be the most anti-safety transportation legislation ever enacted into law.

For 25 years, the surface transportation reauthorization bill has been a laudable, bi-partisan effort to advance sound, sensible and cost-saving proposals resulting in safer cars and trucks, safer drivers and safer roads. As a result, laws were enacted that: ensured airbags became standard equipment in the front seat of all passenger vehicles and a freeze on the spread of double and triple-trailer trucks in every state was achieved (1991); created a national zero tolerance blood alcohol content (BAC) law for underage drinking and driving (1995); required advanced airbags and initiated incentive grants for occupant protection and stronger drunk driving laws (1998); developed requirements for vehicle safety standards resulting in electronic stability control technology on every vehicle, improved roof strength, ejection mitigation, and mandatory truck safety improvements (2005); and, advanced motorcoach safety improvements for basic occupant safety protections such as seatbelts, roof crush prevention and occupant ejection protections (2012). In stark contrast, 2015 marks the year that the highway reauthorization bill does little to address the well-known issues and workable solutions to deadly safety problems, and also throws safety in reverse by omitting critically needed safety measures and including repeals of existing safety rules.

We urge you to remedy the following safety issues during Conference:

Commercial Motor Vehicle Safety: Teen Truck and Bus Drivers, Public Safety Scores, and Anti-Safety Exemptions: Provisions to allow teen drivers to get behind the wheel of an 80,000 pound rig or bus and operate in interstate commerce must be removed. This misguided idea was resoundingly rejected by DOT ten years ago because of overwhelming opposition and compelling research showing the unacceptable high crash risk of young drivers. Previous studies have shown intrastate CMV drivers under the age of 19 are four times more likely to be involved in fatal crashes, and CMV drivers between the ages of 19-20 are six times more likely to be involved in fatal crashes. A sensible outcome would be to strike the pilot program for teen bus and truck drivers and substitute it with a study of the safety of intrastate truck drivers before launching this program.

Additionally, provisions to hide from public view the safety scores of unsafe motor carriers including passenger bus companies benefit only carriers with poor safety scores. Keeping consumers in the dark about the safety of their families as they drive on roadways or as their children are transported on school field trips is unacceptable and must be stricken from the bill.

Moreover, we oppose all of the many exemptions to truck size and weight limits and truck driver hours of service requirements, as well as the burdensome regulatory roadblocks which impede safety advances.

Inadequate Penalties: There have been ten Congressional hearings on vehicle safety defect issues during the 113th and 114th Congresses, yet Congress has not taken any meaningful or corrective actions to stop auto industry cover-up and to hold corporations accountable. Manufacturers who knowingly conceal vehicle safety defects or sell a dangerously defective vehicle should be subject to criminal penalties, as is the case under many other federal consumer enforcement laws. Higher fines and criminal sanctions are needed to prevent manufacturers from viewing penalties as just another cost of doing business.

Increase National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) Funding Levels: NHTSA is drastically underfunded, receiving only one percent of the overall DOT budget even though 95 percent of transportation-related fatalities and 99 percent of transportation injuries occur on our streets and highways. There are few, if any, products on the U.S. market that have a greater impact on the public health of Americans than the automobile. In addition, their economic impact is extraordinary, with new and used cars representing over $1 trillion in sales and $14 billion in advertising. Yet with so many lives, injuries and consumer dollars at stake, Congress is choosing to underfund the one agency that has the potential to reduce the tragic toll vehicles take on America’s public health. Pending language slashes authorization levels for carrying out the mission of NHTSA by a total of $90 million over 6 years. There is an urgent need to correct NHTSA’s chronic underfunding, and not to further hobble the agency’s safety and oversight mission.

Eliminate Loopholes to Rental Car Recalls and Include Used Cars: It is necessary to fix loopholes in the bill language that limit consumer protection from defective vehicles only to companies that rent cars as their primary business. Customers of car dealerships that provide loaner or rental cars need the same safety recall protection, but dealerships would be exempted under this provision. Likewise, purchasers of used cars should not be imperiled by a safety recall the car dealer knows about but refuses to repair.

Remove Bureaucracy and Roadblocks to Safety Rulemaking: Mandating numerous wasteful studies and industry-stacked Councils, Regulatory Negotiation committees and additional bureaucratic hurdles and procedures impose roadblocks to needed safety rules by NHTSA and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA). The unnecessary impediments must be eliminated.

Advance Child Safety: The final bill should include provisions requiring NHTSA to issue safety rules to prevent serious injury or death to children and other passengers in rear seats of vehicles.  There is an urgent need to improve front seat back strength because seat backs have been shown to fail even in low speed crashes killing and maiming children in the rear seat who are restrained.  The current federal vehicle safety standard has not been changed since it was first adopted in 1967. Furthermore, it is time that NHTSA moves forward on a rule requiring a reminder system for children inadvertently left behind in a vehicle.  Children are needlessly dying while the adoption of available life-saving technology is delayed.

Considering the record recalls involving over 100 million vehicles over the last two years for vehicle defects which led to at least 200 preventable deaths, corporate cover-ups, and an unacceptable mortality and morbidity toll each year of 33,000 deaths and over 2 million injuries, this bill is a unique opportunity to advance bi-partisan safety solutions. Unless significant changes are made to the bill, it will seriously imperil public safety for the next six years and beyond. We urge you to take action that will save lives and spare families, and not succumb to special interest roll backs that jeopardize safety on our nation’s highways.



Letter pdf: Letter to Conferees