Senate Subcommittee Examines Freight and Passenger Roadway Safety

On Tuesday, November 7, the Subcommittee on Transportation and Infrastructure under the Senate Committee on Environment & Public Works held a public hearing to discuss the causes of roadway safety challenges and possible interventions. Chaired by Senator Mark Kelly (D-AZ), the committee primarily focused on truck parking and safety improvements to support all road users (such as Vision Zero and Complete Streets policies and programs), but also explored several related or tangential issues such as trucking workforce recruitment and retention, speed limiters, highway workforce safety, electrification of trucks, and the relative merits of formula versus discretionary grant funding. Throughout the hearing, the committee referenced programs and funding from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) – such as the Safe Streets and Roads for All (SS4A) Grant Program – as well as implications for future surface transportation authorizations.  

 Three witnesses testified at the hearing (click on their name to read their prepared testimony): 

 The hearing included discussion of the following pieces of pending and forthcoming legislation: 

  • Truck Parking Safety Improvement Act (S. 1034 and H.R. 2367) 
  • Sarah Debbink Langenkamp Active Transportation Safety Act (H.R. 1668) 
  • Building Safer Streets Act (forthcoming/planned) 
  • Green Streets Act (forthcoming/planned) 
  • Complete Streets Act (forthcoming/planned) 

In addition, Senator Edward Markey (D-MA) announced at the hearing a letter on traffic safety (prepared on behalf of himself and nine additional Senators) for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)’s Acting Administrator Ann Carlson, requesting an update on NHTSA’s implementation of IIJA safety provisions. 

 The hearing occurred within the context of: 

  • Growing national attention on deadly collisions involving parked trucks and highway workers 
  • Ongoing and widespread transportation workforce challenges, including advancements but also persistent barriers for women in trucking 
  • Backsliding – and diverging, compared to international peers (see, e.g., Buehler and Pucher, 2021, 2023, and IRTAD, 2022) – trends for serious injuries and fatalities on U.S. roadways, especially for nonoccupants (ie those traveling outside of motorized vehicles, such as pedestrians and bicyclists – including Sarah Langenkamp) (see Eno’s recent coverage of traffic deaths here and here) 
    • [Author’s Note: it could be argued that the estimated decline in U.S. traffic fatalities of 3.3% in the first half of 2023 amounts to a sort of “participation ribbon” by global standards compared to the roadway safety progress of our international peers. While total traffic fatalities may have declined in the first half of 2023, the progress is uneven, and traffic poses a disproportionate burden by race and income (see, e.g., Dumbaugh, Stiles, Mitsova, and Saha, 2023, and Sanders and Schneider, 2022). The U.S. has historically offered leadership on roadway safety – for example, introducing the world to the New Car Assessment Program concept in 1978 – but, in recent decades, has largely ceded leadership to international peers more willing to fully adopt the comprehensive strategies that characterize effective Safe System Approach and Vision Zero implementation].  
    • During the hearing, Karina Ricks, of Cityfi, LLC,  indicated that, “the U.S. is middling at best as far as our traffic safety performance on the [sic] among global peers.”   
  • Upcoming observance later this month of the World Day of Remembrance for road traffic victims (for more information, see the U.N. and W.H.O.) 
  • Growing attention on vehicle electrification, with implications for vehicle performance, weights, and safety impacts 
  • Ongoing tensions among the federal, state, and local levels of government for control of transportation policy and funding . [Author’s Note: some observers have described increasing state preemption over localities, which has played out regarding safety-related strategies such as automated traffic enforcement, and may have motivated federal discretionary grants to serve as State DOT workarounds]. (see also, e.g., Eno coverage of the tension between USDOT and the states that played out in the infamous FHWA policy guidance memo here and here 
  • Ongoing tension between the historic emphasis on system expansion and adding capacity through roadway and highway building and the push for a so-called “fix it first” approach that prioritizes maintenance of existing infrastructure assets 

This is not the first Congressional hearing to examine roadway safety issues – for example, approximately 16 months ago, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s Subcommittee on Highways and Transit held a hearing on “Addressing the Roadway Safety Crisis: Building Safer Roads for All” that included discussion of the truck parking shortage and the SS4A program, among other roadway safety issues.   

Truck Parking 

Given the bipartisan support amassed to date for both the Senate and House versions (S. 1034 and H.R. 2367) of the Truck Parking Safety Improvement Act (though, notably, the GovTrack prognosis for both is a low chance of enactment due to a variety of reasons), there generally seemed to be a consensus during the hearing that the truck parking shortage was a serious issue in need of support. Brenda Neville, of the Iowa Motor Truck Association and the American Trucking Associations, offered expert testimony on the truck parking shortage as well as its implications for the safety of both truckers and the general motoring public. Subcommittee Chair Senator Kelly (D-AZ) led a series of questions regarding how truck drivers cope with the lack of parking (e.g., finding makeshift spaces on the side of the road or on/off ramps, driving overnight when the demand for parking is highest), and Neville confirmed that the parking shortage creates a disincentive for potential drivers and has significant safety and quality of life impacts on the trucking workforce. As Co-Chair of the American Trucking Associations’ Women in Motion Advisory Council, she also emphasized the degree to which a lack of safe parking poses a barrier to the recruitment and retention of women in trucking: 

“Every female driver that I’ve talked to, the number one thing that they cite is their fear of going to a parking place that’s not well lit, or there’s not security around the perimeter, or they don’t feel safe. So truck parking is definitely a barrier for us to attract women and possibly other minorities into the industry.”  

This aligned with Subcommittee Chair Senator Kelly (D-AZ)’s point early on that ensuring a safe place to park for every truck driver would help the industry to attract a broader and more diverse driver workforce. At the conclusion of the hearing, Neville called the Truck Parking Safety Improvement Act: 

“some of the most exciting legislation that our industry has seen in a very long time, because it impacts everybody, truck parking helps every single motorist, it helps safety, it helps workforce development, productivity, emissions, the law enforcement community, and everybody that’s in a car – everybody that’s in the motoring public. And I really appreciate – that’s a commitment to safety. That will impact highway safety. If we’re serious about it, then we need to be serious about investing in truck parking, sooner rather than later.”  

Roadway Safety Improvements – Safe Streets and Road for all, Vision Zero, and Complete Streets 

There was a greater difference – along what appeared to be party or ideological lines – in the discussion of roadway safety improvements and how best to approach them. Karina Ricks, of Cityfi, LLC, and Karin Mongeon, of the North Dakota DOT, in many ways offered contrasting or opposing perspectives. This was especially evident with respect to the tensions between different levels of government mentioned above, with Ricks advocating for empowerment of localities and Mongeon advocating for what she framed as funding consistency and a restoration of formula funding directed to State DOTs (and away from discretionary grant programs directly available to MPOs or localities). From Ricks’ perspective, “today, easy, cheap, and effective measures are made hard by federal and state DOTs and policy.”  

Early on, Senator Kevin Cramer (R-ND) emphasized that “flexibility matters, and enabling those who best understand their particular challenges to make decisions is the best recipe for success.” [Author’s Note: On this point in general, there seems to be bipartisan consensus. However, the party or ideological disconnect seems to be whether states (as held by Republicans) or localities (as held by Democrats) should be afforded flexibility (and control) over some of these transportation decisions and funds.]   

Senator Cramer also led a line of questioning with Mongeon that touched on the added capacity/expansion versus fix it first debate. In her response, Mongeon indicated roadway projects that add capacity are often an opportunity to add safety features to the roadways, such as turn lanes, passing lanes, access consolidation, geometric improvements, or access on/off ramps. 

Subcommittee Chair Senator Kelly led a line of questioning about the benefits of an approach like the one taken for the SS4A program,  which created dedicated and direct funding for regional, local, and Tribal initiatives to prevent roadway deaths – where local funding goes to the local agency first, as opposed to the funding go through the state agency. Ricks described how this approach provides the opportunity “to lead by example” and demonstrate that local communities are capable of crafting locally appropriate safety interventions and provides benefits and holistic planning that starts from the perspective of the vulnerable street user.”

Notably, Ricks continued:

“It also provides vital funding to municipalities that otherwise generally have to fight for scraps that are leftover after the state feeds itself from formula funding. As great as the [SS4A] program is, it would be great if we didn’t need programs like this in order to go around State DOTs. Even better would be if the states partnered with, enabled, and supported human-centered design safety improvements with their local municipalities. Even better would be ensuring that the 90% of funds that flows from the states annually also focused on safety in the same way that this [SS4A funding does].” 

In response to a follow up from Kelly, Ricks continued: 

“we use a lot of rhetoric around safety, and yet some of the places where we invest our dollars is not really from the perspective of safety first, it’s a range of other priorities, it’s one of many, and if this [safety] is our first priority, it really needs to be the first priority.”  

Senator John Fetterman (D-PA) led a line of questioning around the in-house staff capacity required to pursue discretionary grants, and Ricks acknowledged that larger communities tend to be more successful at receiving these awards while smaller communities may be at a disadvantage. Notably, on November 6, the U.S. Government Accountability Office released a report, “Discretionary Transportation Grants: DOT Should Better Align Its Application Evaluation Process with Federal Guidance,” which in part detailed findings from RAISE applicants about challenges with the complexity of the application.  

Additional Issues 

Several additional issues were discussed more briefly at various points during the hearing, including: 

  • Speed limiters (also called “speed governors”) for heavy trucks 
  • Highway workforce safety 
  • Electrification of heavy trucks 
  • Disproportionate air pollution burdens by race due to the siting of highways  

Senator Cramer took a few moments to consider the issue of speed limiters, and an anticipated proposed rulemaking from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to mandate them for heavy trucks. In particular, he expressed concern about the possibility of situations in which trucks could be found traveling 10mph slower than the rest of traffic. In response, Mongeon indicated that NDDOT has concerns about adverse safety impacts from speed differentials between trucks and other traffic that could be created by speed limiters. Neville declined to comment during the hearing on the speed limiter issue.

[Authors Note: Concern about a 10mph speed differential between heavy commercial trucks and the passenger flow of traffic is misinformed, if not disingenuous. Empirical evidence as well as traffic simulations (see, e.g., Hickman et al, 2012), overwhelmingly indicate that speed limiters for heavy trucks improve safety outcomes in most settings and with very few exceptions. In fact, the ATA requested speed limiters in 2006, indicating that analysis of five years of fatal crash data suggested that speed limiters could reduce the frequency and severity of crashes. Motorists concerned about their ability to safely encounter and interact with slower moving traffic (e.g., at 65mph, traffic that is still moving well above any posted minimums) may do well to redirect that concern toward their own aggressive driving and ability to safely operate a vehicle in mixed traffic. Drivers should be able to encounter and safely change lanes to pass slower moving traffic. State DOTs harboring concern about negative safety effects of heavy truck speed limiters similarly may benefit from familiarizing with the evidence base that supports heavy truck speed limiters and redirecting that concern to proven safety countermeasures. It is also worth noting that speed limiters offer not only safety benefits, but also energy and fuel cost savings as well]. 

Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD) inquired about strategies to protect the safety of highway workers, acknowledging the work zone crash that occurred in March 2023 in Maryland on Interstate 695 that resulted in the deaths of six highway workers. In response, Mongeon detailed highway worker training that occurs at NDDOT, but Senator Cardin clarified that he was concerned about worker protection on the road in terms of “infrastructure around the construction site that allowed this tragedy to occur” (as the above-mentioned crash was not due to worker error).  

Senator Pete Ricketts (R-NE) briefly touched on electrification of trucks, which Neville also covered in her written testimony. During the hearing, Neville shared that it can take anywhere from 4 to 6 hours to fully charge a truck, and Ricketts emphasized that this would be difficult to execute – even during a 10-hour driver break, as the driver could not legally move the truck until the end of the break. Neville followed up that productivity would be negatively impacted, which would in turn cause supply chain disruptions. Senator Ricketts (R-NE) also tied the electrification issue back to the truck parking shortage, suggesting that charging could exacerbate the shortage by reducing the efficiency with which the truck parking supply is used.  

Senator Markey raised air pollution as “another major way that traffic contributes to our health and safety” and argued that: 

“because many highways were deliberately built directly through minority communities, Black communities, they bear a disproportionate risk of health consequences. This purposefully discriminatory routing of highways is textbook environmental racism, and that’s in addition to the fact that the transportation sector is the number one emitter of greenhouse gases in our nation.”  

He then directed a question to Ricks regarding whether air pollution from highways represents a threat to our health and safety and to our planet, and she concurred:  

“Absolutely, again, the data is clear on that, that we do see that low income communities, our elders, our children, other vulnerable populations, persons with disabilities, are adversely effected by air pollution, and not only [that], the more we can do to decarbonize transportation and to reduce the tailpipe emissions but actually move people toward walking, bicycling, and transit can only serve to pay health dividends, and save states money in the long haul as they need to expend less in healthcare costs.” 

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