Chairman Rockefeller's Remarks on NHTSA Oversight: An Examination of the Highway Safety Provisions of SAFETEA-LU

September 28, 2010

Chairman RockefellerWASHINGTON, D.C.—Thank you, Senator Pryor, for holding this important hearing. A major focus of our Committee’s work this year has been on oversight of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and legislation to improve vehicle and highway safety.

The Committee has so far passed two critical motor safety bills – the Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 2010 and the Distracted Driving Prevention Act. Both bills will help protect drivers, and prevent fatalities – and I will continue to work to bring both of these bills to the floor.

Today, our focus is on the federal and state safety programs authorized by Congress in SAFETEA-LU and administered by NHTSA. NHTSA Administrator David Strickland appeared before this Committee earlier this year, and I’m pleased to welcome him back today to share his thoughts on SAFETEA-LU and its results.

As we all know, one of the ways NHTSA makes our roads safer is by improving driver behavior. Every year, NHTSA distributes more than $500 million in grants to states as an incentive to pass strict safety laws, and to pay for enforcement, education, and other efforts to promote safety. 

Congress has directed the use of these funds to push states to enact primary enforcement laws on seat belt usage, promote the use of child safety and booster seats, and create harsh sentences for repeat drunk driving offenders. And we’ve seen real results. According to the latest data, the vast majority of drivers now use their seat belts, drunk driving has declined, and our roads are getting safer. However, there is still more to be done.

As we prepare for the next reauthorization of SAFETEA-LU, we need to carefully consider whether the programs and grants funded through SAFETEA-LU are being used as effectively as possible. We also need to ask whether there are new programs that need to be funded, or new safety concerns that need to be addressed.

One emerging safety issue I have focused on during my time as Chairman is distracted driving. Blackberries and cell phones have become commonplace. In this Internet-driven decade, everyone is trying to do more at once. As a result, people are typing while driving, talking while driving, and texting while driving. This behavior isn’t just foolish – it’s dangerous and deadly.

In 2009, approximately 5,500 people died in crashes involving distraction and nearly 500,000 were injured. According to NHTSA, 16 percent of all motor vehicle crashes are caused by distracted driving.

Teen driving is another area of increasing concern. Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for U.S. teens. In 2008, about 3,500 teens were killed in motor vehicle crashes. These drivers are young and inexperienced, and they are too easily distracted. Several states have adopted graduated driver’s licenses. These programs delay full licenses until teens have real-world experience behind the wheel, prohibit teens from using any electronic communication devices while driving, and limit the number of passengers they can have in their car. I expect this Committee to further explore this issue to determine if federal input will continue to help save teen lives.

While we must deal with new and emerging issues, we must also retain a laser-like focus on the lingering, but pressing issue of drunk driving. Last week I met with Margie Sadler, a West Virginian who volunteers with Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). She works with families that have lost loved ones in tragic crashes. Her heartbreaking stories serve as a reminder to us all of the human cost of drunk driving. I strongly support MADD’s goal of eliminating drunk driving, I honor their work, and will continue to do all that I can to advance that goal.

The third panel before this Committee today will focus on vicarious liability in the rental car industry. In 2005, as part of SAFETEA-LU, Congress preempted all state laws that held rental car companies liable for damages caused by drivers in their vehicles. Today we will hear from a young man, Ethan Ruby, who was paralyzed at the age of 25 when he was hit by a reckless driver in a rental car. Mr. Ruby has relied on a settlement from the rental car company to pay his medical bills and allow him to recover. If he had been hit by that same car after the passage of the 2005 law, he would have been able to recover little or nothing to pay for his care. This is an important issue worthy of consideration by this Committee. 

I want to thank our witnesses for appearing today to discuss these important issues that affect the lives of so many Americans. Through a continued focus on vehicle safety and highway safety, we can reduce the number of deaths and injuries on our roads.