Human Factors Still Paramount in Roadway Safety: House Hearing

July 20, 2017

The House Subcommittee on Highways and Transit held a hearing on July 18 to discuss the advancement of safety policy provisions in the Fixing American’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act that was enacted in December of 2015. Witnesses were:

Advancing safety requires an understanding of the underlying causes of vehicle crashes. Increases in vehicles miles traveled (VMT) clearly correlate with increases in roadway deaths, and various human factors (with alcohol, speeding, and distracted driving at the top) are the leading causes of vehicle crashes. The subcommittee focused on examining human factors, hardly addressing the other obvious safety mitigation technique, which would be to reduce traffic fatalities through reduced VMT. Though an increase in VMT is often seen as an indicator of increased economic activity, it is possible to decouple VMT and GDP allowing for a reduction in VMT by encouraging denser land use, leading to shorter trips or mode switches to transit, carpooling, cycling, or walking without the fear of negative effects on the economy.

“There is a well known correlation between fatalities and vehicle miles traveled.” – Jack Danielson, Acting Deputy Administrator, NHTSA

The discussion around human factors kept circling back to impaired driving. Rather than examine known safety risks such as people driving with high levels of alcohol in their blood or while on their cellphones, multiple representatives questioned the witnesses on how to stop people from driving while under the influence of marijuana.

While legislation already exists to deter people from driving drunk or while texting, the relatively new legalization of marijuana in several states (including megastate California), combined with the difficulty of studying schedule I drugs, leaves decision-makers with scarce resources to pass informed legislation. One of the reasons for the redundancy in the questions may have stemmed from the fact that many of them did not seem to understand the distinction made by Mr. Danielson that impairment while driving is different from general (or medical) use, and figuring out how to measure impairment is much more difficult than detecting use.

Setting policy to apply to driving under the influence of marijuana necessitates developing both a definition of impairment, and a means of measuring whether or not a driver meets the threshold. The FAST act defines “marijuana” as “all substances containing tetrahydrocannabinol” (THC).

Since THC can remain detectable in human systems for days, weeks, or years depending on the means of testing, and effects vary by person, laws akin to drunk driving laws where the level of alcohol is measured would not necessarily be effective in measuring impairment. Training officers to assess behavior as a means of determining impairment is unlikely to yield accurate enforcement, and could encourage counterproductive profiling and arrests.

Fatigue is also safety concern in the human factor realm, especially when the fatigued person is operating a particularly heavy vehicle such as a truck or bus for prolonged periods of time. Congress pushing Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCA) to enact regulations to discourage fatigued driving is certainly not a new endeavor and was addressed with the 2011 hours of service (HOS) rule. The rule is clearly still hanging heavily over FMCSA’s head, as debate ensued more than once over when exceptions would be made to the HOS rule (exceptions have already been established and will not change), and when they would apply to the requirement to equip vehicles with electronic logging devices (ELDs) (there are not exceptions to the requirement to log hours with ELDs).

Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) actually started off the hearing by citing NHTSA’s report that pedestrian fatalities increased by 9.5% from 2014 to 2015 yielding the highest number of pedestrian deaths in a year since 1996. The question of policies to increase pedestrian safety did not arise in the following two hours of discussion. As this was a meeting of the Highway and Transit Subcommittee, the failure to revisit the issue of pedestrian fatality rate increases might have to do with the scope of the committee. However, there is no subcommittee that specifically addresses pedestrians or pedestrian safety topics.

Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-AR) suggested that autonomous vehicles will bring the safety improvements we need. He either overlooked or disagreed with Norton’s earlier statement that although automation will likely reduce fatality rates, we just aren’t there quite yet with technology and need to address human factors in the meantime.

Even though the current administration hasn’t moved forward as quickly as expected with the $1 trillion infrastructure plan, FY18 budgeting is underway and some of the administration’s previously stated goals are addressed more strongly than others. Rep. Jeff Denham (R-CA) picked up on the Administration’s priority for cutting regulations and streamlining projects and pressed Waidlich for a timeline on the final rule on environmental protection act reciprocity.

Currently the State of California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) is more stringent than the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) at the federal level, yet companies still have to go through a duplicative process when preparing environmental documentation. Moving forward with regulations in one of the few instances that a law has already been passes presents a great opportunity to cut through red tape effectively and efficiently.

Maintaining and improving safety standards is one of the few areas in which congress can move forward quickly with new regulation since the January 30, 2017 executive order (EO 13771) stating that two regulations must be rescinded for every new regulation passed. Safety “may” qualify as an exemption – see question 33 in this OMB guidance document for federal agencies on how to implement EO 13771.


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