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Thursday, December 9, 2010

USA, States Resist Highway Safety Measures


States Resist Highway Safety Measures

Robin Schwartz December 2010
When an airplane crashes, people notice and want to know what went wrong. But when people die on American highways—as nearly 100 do on average every day—less attention is paid, even by the nation’s top safety investigators.
Fewer than one-fourth of all investigations undertaken by the National Transportation Safety Board target highways, even though more people die on the roads than in any other kind of transportation accidents, according to an analysis. When the NTSB does recommend ways to reduce the carnage on American roadways, it can take years before anything is done.
Among the major modes of transportation it takes the longest for highway recommendations to be put into effect—an average of more than eight years during the past decade, the analysis showed. And the delays are getting longer. Highway recommendations took 80 percent longer to resolve over the past decade than they did prior to 2000.
From 2000 to 2010, more than 10 percent of all NTSB recommendations related to driving were withdrawn—usually because agencies and states wouldn’t act. Four state highway recommendations are on the NTSB’s “Most Wanted” list, including one to require car booster seats for children under the age of 8, which has been on the list for more than a decade. The other still unfulfilled highway safety recommendations on the list call for stricter seatbelt and drunken driving enforcement and restrictions on young drivers.
Implementing just two of them—the ones related to “belts and booze”—could come close to eliminating highway fatalities, said Danielle Roeber, chief of the NTSB’s State Advocacy Division. In 2009, about one-third of fatal crashes involved a driver under the influence of alcohol and almost half of occupants killed in crashes were unbelted, according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data.
But highway safety laws are largely left up to the states, which have been both resistant to many recommendations and inconsistent in applying them. No single state has complied with all NTSB recommendations on driving and some have complied with practically none. In New Hampshire, for example, there is no seatbelt requirement for adults. Eighteen states have what are known as secondary seatbelt laws, under which law enforcement officers can’t stop someone solely for not wearing a seatbelt. In other states officers can only ticket people in the front seat of a vehicle for not wearing a seatbelt, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association, which is made up of state safety officers from around the country.
All states have some form of child restraint law, but 24 do not require all children under 8 to be restrained in booster seats, as the NTSB strongly recommends. In Florida, for example, child restraints are required only for children ages 3 and under.
And while no state allows drinking and driving, many have fallen far short of NTSB recommendations. For example, law enforcement officers are not allowed to set up sobriety checkpoints in Alaska, Idaho, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Oregon, Rhode Island, Texas, Washington, Wisconsin, or Wyoming. Other states have balked at a NTSB recommendation that harsher penalties be imposed on drivers with blood-alcohol levels of more than 0.15.
“In another circumstance, with the same number of deaths, people would be in an uproar,” said Steve Blackistone, state and local government relations specialist for the NTSB. “Often the states are not actively opposing our recommendations per se, but the opponents are individual politicians in the legislatures.”
Deaths on the Road
More Americans die in car, truck and bus accidents than any other way of traveling—33,808 in 2009 alone.
The number of traffic deaths has been dropping steadily over the past decade, reaching a 60-year low in 2009. But motor vehicle accidents are still the leading cause of death for Americans under the age of 34 and the 10th leading cause of death for all ages.
The safety board has issued several recommendations to reduce young driver deaths. They include graduated licensing and driver’s education for teens as well as restrictions on driving with peers and talking on cell phones while driving.
Some coastal states, including Maine, Delaware, Connecticut, Oregon and California, have implemented many of these safety measures targeting teens, but a number of Midwestern and Southwestern states have not. That’s because residents in those states think it would make it harder for them “to use their kids in the fields and to get back and forth from sports events,” said Ed Gruchalla, a state representative from Fargo, N.D., who sponsored a bill for graduated licensing that was narrowly defeated last year.
“We’re the only state where you can get a driver’s license at 14, load up with all your buddies and be on your cell phone at the same time,” Gruchalla said. “(It’s) a recipe for disaster.”
This year, Kansas legislators passed a law prohibiting teens from using wireless communication devices while driving, increasing licensing restrictions for teen drivers and requiring teens to complete an approved driver’s education course.
Terry Mitchell, chief driver’s license examiner for Kansas, said getting the bill through the Legislature took a lot of convincing. There were complaints about the expense of driver’s education, he said, and many lawmakers were reluctant to change long-standing teen driving practices.
In West Virginia, legislation to allow officers to stop drivers solely for the offense of not wearing a seatbelt comes up every year, and every year it’s defeated, said Bob Tipton, director of the governor’s highway safety program. Most lawmakers agree that people should wear seatbelts, he said, but they don’t want someone forcing them to do it. Often, the legislation just gets pushed aside by other priorities, he said.
The federal government offers a number of grants to states that adopt and implement laws regarding seat belt use, child safety seats and other safety measures.
The NTSB’s Roeber said when investigators visit states local lawmakers often ask them: “Why are you here talking to me? You’re the federal government, and this is an issue within our state.”
But it’s not just states that resist safety measures on the roads. Since 1999, the NTSB has been urging NHTSA to improve protection for bus passengers in crashes. The measures include seatbelts, stronger roofs and the installation of window emergency exits that are easier for passengers to open.
Bus accidents, while not frequent, are often deadly. More than 300 people were killed in 2008 in accidents involving commercial, school and other types of buses, according to NHTSA. Many of them died after being ejected from the bus.
Nine of the fatalities occurred on a bus filled with skiers traveling from Telluride, Colo., to Phoenix in 2008. The bus rolled down an embankment in Utah, scattering passengers in the snow. An NTSB investigation concluded that the driver was fatigued and driving too fast. Investigators also said the accident would have been far less severe if something had been done to make buses safer for passengers.
The Department of Transportation, of which NHTSA is a part, has been researching the issue since 2004 and only recently came up with proposed rules that would require new motor coaches used in interstate transportation to have lap and shoulder belts. The rules, which would not go into effect for three years, exclude buses already on the road and medium-sized school buses and city transit buses.
In a prepared statement, NHTSA said it took so long to come up with the rules because “there were no scientific data or baseline support” for the safety board’s recommendations and the agency had to do motor coach crash testing. The measures won’t take effect for another three years because manufacturers need time to redesign and do their own testing of seat belts, according to the statement.
Additionally, NHTSA said seatbelts aren’t needed in school buses and city transit buses because those buses don’t typically travel at high speeds and experience fewer roll-over accidents—the kind in which seatbelts are most effective. The agency, however, is asking for public comment on whether people would like to see buses retrofitted with seatbelts.
Cell Phones
In 2009, nearly 5,500 people died and nearly 500,000 were injured in crashes involving distracted drivers, according to NHTSA data. The majority of those drivers were using wireless devices.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has called distracted driving “a personal crusade,” sponsoring two distracted driving summits since taking office in January of last year. He has lobbied especially hard against texting while driving, a cause that President Obama embraced last year when he issued an executive order banning federal employees from text messaging while driving on government business.
The NTSB has issued two recommendations on cell phone use and driving. Both are on the board’s “Most Wanted” list of measures that could save lives, but the board has stopped short of advocating a ban on all cell phone use while driving.
The first recommendation came in 2003, urging states to bar teen drivers from using cell phones. The safety board acted after an accident involving an inexperienced and unbelted 20-year-old who was on her cell phone and speeding. Her car hit a guardrail, flipped over and landed on top of a minivan. A third car crashed at the scene. The driver of the SUV and four people in the minivan were killed.
The second recommendation, issued three years later to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, the agency charged with oversight of interstate buses and trucks, promoted a similar ban on wireless phones for bus drivers. The recommendation came after an accident involving a bus driver who was talking on a hands-free cell phone. He missed signs along a Virginia highway warning of a low bridge. The top of his bus struck the bottom of the bridge and one passenger was seriously injured.
While the safety board would bar teen drivers and bus drivers from using cell phones while driving, some states have gone much further.
Washington, D.C., and eight states prohibit all drivers from using handheld cell phones while driving. And 28 states and Washington, D.C., have banned cell phone use by novice drivers, according to the NTSB and the Governors Highway Safety Association.
The NTSB hasn’t yet advocated banning cell phones for all drivers because it hasn’t investigated accidents that would call for such a large-scale response, said Bridget Serchak, board spokeswoman.
But Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, a group that lobbies for vehicle safety, scoffed at that notion. “You almost have to avoid investigating a crash not to investigate a crash involving cell phones,” he said. “The NTSB needs to get its head out of the sand and find an accident.”
While the NTSB waits for the right cell phone accident to come along, the Governors Highway Safety Association has begun a campaign against cell phones and driving. It’s telling drivers: “Don’t use cell phones or other electronic devices while driving, regardless of the current law.”
Serchak said that because the NTSB is required by law to investigate all air accidents “the bulk of the investigators and the bulk of the organization” is devoted to aviation. Without more staff, the board is hard-pressed to investigate more highway accidents, she said.
Meanwhile, last September, board chair Deborah Hersman announced that her staff would no longer be able to use cell phones while driving.
Motorcycle Helmet Laws
No issue more clearly illustrates the tug of war between the states and the federal government over transportation safety than motorcycle helmet laws.
In 1967, Congress decided that states would no longer get highway construction funds unless they passed motorcycle helmet laws. The tactic worked: Within a few years, almost all states had passed helmet laws.
But by the late 1970s, states that felt coerced into mandating helmets successfully lobbied Congress to break the link between motorcycle laws and federal highway funds, and 29 states repealed their helmet laws.
In 1991, Congress decided to try again, offering safety grants to states that enforced helmet and seatbelt laws. States that didn’t enforce such laws had three percent of their federal highway money redirected to their highway safety programs. Still, only three states re-instituted helmet laws.
By 1995, the federal government essentially gave up trying to persuade states to toughen helmet laws. Currently, only 20 states require all motorcycle riders to wear helmets, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
While helmet laws have been in flux, motorcycle fatalities have not. From 1994 to 2008, the number of motorcycle fatalities in the U.S. more than doubled, from 2,320 to 5,290, according to NHTSA. The agency says that if all states required helmets, almost half of those lives could have been saved.
After Texas repealed its universal helmet law in 1997, helmet use fell dramatically while deaths rose, according to Bill Gossard, NTSB safety advocate specialist. A study published in the Southern Medical Journal this year concluded that in just two years helmet use in Texas dropped from 77 percent to 36 percent and motorcycle deaths rose 30 percent.
In Florida, a universal helmet law was partially repealed in 2000. Now motorcyclists 21 and older can ride helmet-free as long as they are insured. Florida also is one of the states with the most motorcycle-related deaths: 3,813 between 2000 and 2008.
The numbers do not convince the American Motorcycle Association, which has lobbied for decades against helmet laws for adults.
“The difficulty with numbers going up and down is it is very difficult to identify the variables that contribute to the statistics,” association spokesman Peter terHorst said. “Simply jumping to the conclusion that forcing everyone to wear a helmet will reduce fatalities is a short-sighted approach.”
The motorcycle association isn’t against helmets, terHorst added. It’s against the notion that government should tell adults what to do when it comes to personal safety. Helmet laws also give law enforcement carte blanche to pull people over, and they’re too expensive, he said. A helmet of the sort endorsed by the U.S. Department of Transportation carries an average price tag of between $100 and $300.
Currently, three states, Illinois, Iowa and New Hampshire, do not have any kind of motorcycle helmet law.
New Hampshire had a law for 10 years, but in 1977, the Legislature decided it should apply only to riders 18 and older. Then in 1995, lawmakers repealed the law altogether.
Iowa legislators have proposed two laws to require helmets for motorcyclists under the age of 18, but both bills died for lack of interest, said Phil McCormick, state coordinator for A Brotherhood Aimed Toward Education of Iowa, a nonprofit organization that lobbies for motorcyclist rights.
Some safety advocates say states should be forced to implement safety regulations such as helmet laws. But that, said the NTSB’s Blackistone, is not territory the safety board wants to enter.
“We try to stay out of the philosophical,” he said. “We are not prescriptive; we cannot mandate implementation.”