Rockefeller Remarks on Reauthorization of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

July 27, 2011

Chairman Rockefeller asks Sec. Locke questions about strengthening manufacturing in America.WASHINGTON, D.C.—I want to thank Senator Pryor for holding this hearing and for taking on the challenge of reauthorizing the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).  NHTSA is a vitally important agency whose job it is to reduce deaths and injuries on roads.  More than 30,000 people are killed on the road each year and approximately 2 million injured. 

In West Virginia alone, 356 people died in motor vehicle crashes in 2009.  The sad reality is that nearly everyone in this room either has been in a car accident or knows someone who has been in an accident.  In my state as well as the rest of the country, traffic crashes are the number one killer of people aged 5-34.  Too many lives are cut short due to drunk driving, distracted driving, and the failure to use seat belts.  

While motor vehicle deaths have declined, we need to reduce the number even further.  We must improve the federal highway incentive programs to build on the success of NHTSA and target new and growing risks such as texting while driving. 

In addition to NHTSA’s highway safety efforts, this Committee has focused a great deal of attention on NHTSA’s investigative and enforcement capabilities.  

Last year, we found that NTHSA lacked the authority and the resources to truly challenge automakers in an investigation into auto defects.  Subsequently, this committee approved legislation to strengthen NHTSA’s enforcement authority, require greater accountability from automakers, and provide the agency with the resources it needs to accomplish its vehicle safety mission.

I am pleased Senator Pryor has taken so many of the key policy provisions from that bill and incorporated them into his draft legislation.  I believe these provisions will improve vehicle safety.

I also focused attention last year on the growing problem of distracted driving.  Senator Pryor also included in his draft bill an incentive grant for states that enact tough laws to ban the worst kinds of distracted driving.  

The draft bill under consideration is broad and makes important changes to NTHSA’s authorities and programs across the board.  It puts greater emphasis on performance and accountability in the management and disbursement of grants to states to improve driver behavior in areas such as drunk driving and seat belt use.  It establishes a funding stream for promising research into alcohol detection devices that could, in milliseconds, determine if a driver is over the legal limit, and prevent that car from starting.  It provides NHTSA with new authorities to monitor the safety of vehicles and vehicle equipment imported into the country.  And it calls on NHTSA to prioritize long-delayed child safety protections as it conducts rulemaking. 

It’s important to note: a reauthorization is about more than policy changes.  We must also consider the resources an agency needs to do its job.  NHTSA’s vehicle safety programs have been underfunded for years.  The agency is frequently unable to complete safety rulemakings in a timely manner and it cannot always conduct thorough defect investigations due to a lack of staff.  

With this bill—and with the Motorcoach Enhanced Safety Act sponsored by Ranking Member Hutchison that I have been pleased to support—we will be asking NHTSA to do even more.  

I understand that increased spending is challenging when we are looking to cut budget deficits, but we can’t compromise on safety.  The number of deaths on the road is still too high.  We need to do more to save lives. 

I look forward to working with my colleagues to strengthen this critical safety agency.