WASHINGTON, DC - The U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation today approved by unanimous consent the "Surface Transportation Safety Improvement Act of 2005", offered by Surface Transportation and Merchant Marine Subcommittee Chairman Trent Lott (R-Miss) and Full Committee Co-Chairman Senator Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii). This legislation includes four titles: Title I - Motor Carrier Safety; Title II - Highway and Vehicular Safety; Title III - Hazardous Materials Transportation Safety; Title IV - Household Goods; and, Title V – Sportfishing and Recreational Boating Safety. Below are some of the key aspects of highway safety that the bill addresses:
- SEAT BELT SAFETY: A new program in Title II, the Occupant Protection Incentive Grants, would grant money to states that enact a new primary seat belt law as well as those that already have a primary seat belt law. States that have already enacted a primary seat belt law would receive a one-time grant over the life of the bill equal to 250 percent of their FY03 grant from section 402 of title 23 U.S.C. States that enact a primary seat belt law after December 31, 2002, would receive a one-time grant over the life of the bill equal to 500 percent of their FY03 grant from the same section. Most of this grant money may be used for highway safety construction purposes. The Department of Transportation estimates that 1,200 lives would be saved each year if all states enacted a primary seatbelt law.
- VEHICLE ROLLOVERS: The bill requires the Department of Transportation to issue a comprehensive set of rules to reduce the death and injuries caused by passenger vehicle rollovers. The rules must reduce rollovers by using new technologies, reduce ejections of passengers from vehicles that do rollover, and protect occupants in rollover accidents.
- IMPAIRED DRIVING: The bill reauthorizes the Impaired Driving Program at an average annual funding level of $132 million for Fiscal Years 2006-2009. States can qualify for a grant by enacting four out of the seven criteria in FY06 and FY07, and by enacting five out of the following seven criteria in FY08 and FY09. States may choose from the following options: (1) impaired driving check points and saturation patrols; (2) outreach to judges and prosecutors to improve prosecution of drunk driving cases; (3) creation of an information system for government use that tracks drunk driving arrests and convictions; (4) the reduction, for two years in a row, the percentage of fatally-injured drivers with a blood alcohol content of 0.08 percent; (5) a program that returns fines from drunk drivers to local communities for use in comprehensive programs to prevent drunk driving; (6) enact a law that applies stronger sanctions against drunk drivers convicted of having a blood alcohol content of 0.15 percent or higher; and (7) creation of specialized courts for handling only impaired driving cases. The 10 states with the highest rate of impaired driving fatalities would automatically qualify for a grant, and could double their grant by meeting the criteria above.
- TRUCK SAFETY: The bill reauthorizes the truck safety programs administered by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) and more than doubles the amount of truck safety funding available to states through the Motor Carrier Safety Assistance Program (MCSAP) over the previous authorization, providing an average annual funding level of $200 million for the Program. Grants from this program are distributed via formula to states to enforce motor carrier safety rules and regulations. The bill also provides for improvements to Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) systems and programs and establishes a Medical Review Board to recommend standards for the physical examinations of commercial drivers and a registry for qualified medical examiners.
- HAZARDOUS MATERIALS SHIPMENT: The bill reauthorizes hazardous materials transportation programs, which are administered by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), and whose authorization expired on September 30, 1998. The bill authorizes $25 million in FY05, $29 million in FY06, and $30 million each for FY07 through FY09 for PHMSA's hazardous materials safety programs. The bill would increase safety and security by increasing the amount of money available for planning and training grants. PHMSA would fully fund planning and training grants through registration fees and states would be permitted to flex some of their planning money to training programs. In addition, the bill would allow training grants, at the Secretary’s discretion, to train private sector employees who handle hazardous materials. The bill would also require Mexican and Canadian commercial motor vehicle operators transporting hazmat in the U.S. to undergo a background check similar to that given to a U.S. licensed operator. It would also improve current procedures for hazardous materials background checks and require a study on background check capacity.
- HOUSEHOLD GOODS: The bill provides greater protections to consumers entrusting their belongings to a moving company. Among its provisions, the legislation requires a carrier to provide written estimates of charges, to give up possession of a household goods shipment if the shipper pays 100% of the estimate or 115% of the non-binding estimate, and creates new penalties for movers who hold customer's household goods hostage in schemes to increase their compensation. The legislation also allows a state authority that regulates the intrastate movement of household goods to enforce Federal laws and regulations with respect to the transportation of household goods in interstate commerce.
- BOATING SAFETY AND SPORTFISH RESTORATION: Title V of the bill provides for reauthorization of the Recreational Boating Safety and Sport Fish Restoration programs, two of the Nation's most effective "user-pay, user-benefit" programs, which are permanently funded through the “Wallop-Breaux” trust fund, also known as the Aquatic Resources Trust Fund. The reauthorizations will allow continued funding for activities that will improve boating safety, protect coastal wetlands, promote sport fish restoration, reduce water quality impacts from recreational vessels, and increase boating access. In addition, the title renames the Aquatic Resources Trust Fund as the Sport Fish Restoration and Boating Trust Fund and increases the federal match for boating safety grants to 3:1, and provides for more equitable annual distribution of the funds to the various programs by assigning each a percentage share of revenues deposited into the fund. The Sport Fishing Restoration Account receives approximately $450 million annually, and the Boating Safety Account receives approximately $70 million annually.