Senate Committee Looks at NHTSA Programs on Eve of Reauthorization

The Senate Subcommittee on Transportation and Safety held a hearing titled, “Safety on Our Roads: Overview of Traffic Safety and NHTSA Grant Programs,” on June 30, 2020.

The hearing examined the implementation of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) highway safety grant programs, as well as key highway traffic safety issues. Witnesses provided testimony on the effectiveness of the safety programs, which is essential because the subcommittee’s parent committee (Commerce, Science and Transportation) is currently drafting the safety sections of surface transportation reauthorization legislation.

Chairman Deb Fischer (R-NE) contextualized the purpose of the meeting, beginning with statistics relating to car crashes and fatalities. She explained the intent of the 402 and 405 grant programs (named for their section numbers in title 23, United States Code) is to support states in their effort to reduce such traffic fatalities. She summarized, “402 highway safety grants provide states with formula grants for a range of traffic safety programs, including those to reduce spending, prevent impaired driving, and other important efforts. The 405 National Priority Safety Program is a combination of seven incentive grants designed to encourage states to take specific traffic safety actions such as adopting laws that prohibit texting while driving and requiring graduated driver licenses for teens.” Fischer then pointed out limitations of these grants, acknowledging they are not effective if they are too difficult for states to access. As an example, in the last year, no states qualified for graduated licensing incentive grants.

Fischer also asked witnesses to speak to the impacts of COVID-19 on traffic safety, noting that while vehicle miles-traveled (VMT) have decreased during the pandemic, the rate of fatalities and aggressive driving have gone up.

Prior to the witnesses’ testimony, ranking member Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) brought another issue to the forefront of the conversation. She framed Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS) technologies as a solution for saving lives on the road, technology that includes features such as automated breaking and blind spot detection. Duckworth demanded these not be luxury items, but standard features for all cars.

The first witness was Chris Peterson, Captain of the Lincoln Nebraska Police Department (written testimony here). Peterson noted the traffic trends of Lincoln, most notably stating an upward trend in distracted driving related crashes. Peterson later said in the question and answer session that it is very difficult to record distracted driving because at the scene of a crash people do not want to admit they were distracted. However, as a department they believe the increase it is related primarily to cell phones.

The Lincoln Police Department is an example of an NHTSA grant beneficiary, having received more than $183,000 in section 402 grant funding and more than $92,000 in section 405 grant funding since 2013. Example of spending use from 402 funds was “Click it or Ticket” campaigns and an example of 405 grant use included DWI campaigns. Peterson briefly described the process of application and did not site many challenges as a department in accessing funding, though did note on the state level that obtaining 405 funding has been met with issues as Nebraska does not have a primary seat belt law.

The second witness was John Saunders, Region Three Representative, Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA), and Director of Highway Safety, Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles (written testimony here). Saunders spoke to the regulatory flexibility granted to states from Congress through the CARES act but urged Congress to extend NHTSA’s waiver authority for states that continue to need extra flexibility. Saunders also pressed for a conversation that addresses the intersection of traffic safety and traffic enforcement, considering its role in systemic racism in policing, saying the conversation is “long overdue.” He stated that the GHSA “supports the collection and use of data on inappropriate disparities in policies driven by race and other factors.” However, GHSA supports the role of traffic enforcement “as an effective countermeasure in the lifesaving work being done by the vast majority of traffic officers.” GHSA hopes to reform problematic factors, while regaining public trust of such enforcement.

Saunders, on behalf of GHSA, presented Congress with two general recommendations. The first was to remove constraints and administrative burdens that limit effectiveness of the existing safety programs. GHSA recommended greater investment in the 402 grant and proposed eliminating the 405 grant altogether, reallocating funds completely to section 402. The basis given for the 405 elimination was that the as the programs are subdivided further, states are receiving less money while dealing with more complicated application processes. The 405 grants also dive into details of state policy and Congress should “grant eligibility more achievable,” according to Saunders. Furthermore, even if states are granted funds, states often have trouble spending the funds due to the specificity of the grant requirements.

Fischer later asked if the third witness agreed with Saunders funding recommendations and elimination of the 405 grant. Terry supported greater transparency on the decisions NHTSA makes, which transparency would guide States on the changes they need to make.

As a second broad recommendation, GHSA urged Congress to increase highway safety funding across all modes. Saunders stated, “the current level of investment will not move us anywhere near zero,” while traffic crashes are preventable.

The final witness was Jane Terry, Vice President of Government Affairs of the National Safety Council (NSC) (written testimony here). Speaking of the coronavirus pandemic, Terry stated, “for the second month in a row fatal crashes rates are up by double-digits, even though Vehicle-Miles-Traveled are down.” At the height of the quarantine in April, crash rates increased by 36%. This was later attributed to lower traffic volumes allowing to people speed at greater rates. While the choices drivers make are factors in these crashes, policy can influence their choices. Terry quoted 90% of American drivers wear their seatbelts, while 40% of crash fatalities are from drivers that are unbuckled. Fewer people wear seatbelts in states without primary seatbelt laws and enforcement. Terry gave continued her position on traffic safety giving graduated license laws, as well as a speed provisions as further examples of policies that improve safety.

The question and answer session touched on several subjects, including those not addressed in the opening remarks or witness testimonies.

Duckworth pressed Terry for a position on seatbelt wearing on school buses, and Terry affirmed that “seatbelts save lives” applies to buses as well. NHTSA currently defers to a cost-benefit analysis as the reason why they are not willing to require seat belts on buses (though some cities and states are moving forward their own belt mandates for school buses regardless of this analysis).

Duckworth also asked if any of the witnesses had seen data that supported racial profiling increases traffic safety, which all witnesses declined. Duckworth asked for suggestions at how to achieve the just enforcement of traffic laws, which witnesses were told they could add to their testimonies after the hearing.

Duckworth asked what more can be done locally and federally to ensure compliance with Move Over Laws. Peterson said that education and awareness, at the local, state, and federal levels, is crucial. Terry added vehicle technology is another tool that could assist. Saunders said that minimizing the amount of time that police officers are on the side of the road would help, through tools like electronic citation and providing training for clearing emergency scenes.

The conversation also turned to drunk driving. Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM) stated 10,000 Americans killed from drunk driving every year. Saunders spoke to development of technology to Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety (DADSS) being piloted in Virginia and said they are hoping for the technology to be install-ready in new safety vehicles in 2025, but not before they can ensure zero false positives. Terry supported that passive active detection technology that doesn’t allow a car to start if someone has had too much to drink is a right direction for increased safety.

Technology was another topic of discussion, especially from Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI). Legislation supporting greater reporting requirements from companies, and also consumer education strategies so that that the public knows how to use the technology was said to be crucial.

Senators Roger Wicker (R-MS) and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) spoke of their “Hot Cars Act” (S. 1601) and asked if panelists support the act, all of whom responded in the affirmative.

Finally, Fischer brought up the role of the built environment to improve safety, which was brought up in Lincoln guy’s testimony. Roundabouts, bypasses, clearly marked lanes and other measures to lower speeds and provide traffic calming can improve streets, per the witnesses’ remarks.


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