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Let's Not Miss an Opportunity to Improve Safety on the Highways (Editorial)

August 9, 2000

August 9, 2000

When Congress returns in early September, it will have the opportunity to make real progress in the fight against the carnage on this country's streets and highways. Motor vehicle crashes kill more than 40,000 people every year. Two provisions in the Senate transportation funding bill, one promoting a national standard for alcohol-impaired driving and the other governing hours behind the wheel for commercial truck and bus drivers, will significantly affect -- one positively and the other negatively -- the number of dead and injured on our roads.

The first provision in the Senate bill would help states take drivers impaired by alcohol off the roads. This provision would be good for America, would save lives, and should become law. We have reduced the number of alcohol-related motor vehicle crashes, but they are still killing almost 16,000 people every year -- one every 33 minutes.

Together we can do more, and the Senate provision is a way to do it. The measure would withhold certain federal highway construction funds from states that do not adopt and enforce within six years a .08 blood alcohol concentration (BAC) standard as the level at or beyond which a driver is too impaired to drive safely. Eighteen states now use this sensible limit.

No driver with a .08 BAC can operate a motor vehicle safely because his or her judgment, attention, reaction times and other critical safe driving skills are severely diminished. The science is clear: at .08 BAC, drivers should not be behind the steering wheel of a motor vehicle. They are a threat to themselves and everyone else on the road.

When Congress passed a similar withholding provision for the 21-year-old minimum drinking age, states quickly changed their laws to eliminate "blood borders" between states with different minimum drinking ages. These laws have reduced traffic fatalities involving drivers 18 to 20 years old by 13 percent. When Congress passed a similar withholding provision for zero tolerance for underage drinking, 25 states changed their laws within three years to join the 25 that had already adopted the provision.

Now is the time for national acceptance of .08 BAC as the standard for alcohol-impaired driving, by enacting a tough law that includes a withholding provision. Despite what some in the alcohol and hospitality industries argue, it will save hundreds of lives every year. Congress can do this by including the Senate .08 BAC provision in the final version of the transportation funding bill.

The second provision would prevent the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) from continuing a proceeding to reform the hours-of-service (HOS) regulation for commercial truck and bus drivers, taking dangerous drivers off the roads. This provision would be bad for America. It would permit unsafe practices to continue, allowing fatigued truck and bus drivers behind the wheel, and should not be enacted.

The current regulation, dating back to the 1930s, is not effective. It allows drivers to operate on a schedule that guarantees increasing fatigue -- up to 15 hours on, 10 of which are driving, with only eight hours off. With so little time off, drivers, especially as they begin their second and third consecutive shifts, don't have enough time to rest before beginning again to navigate a large truck or bus down the highway.

In 1995, Congress told USDOT to study the hours-of-service problem and offer suggestions for change. In 1999, Congress passed an act to create the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to improve truck and bus safety. Our proposal, announced on April 25, 2000, is a response to that legislation. The proposal is based on a 24-hour body clock and seeks to reduce excessive driving schedules, taking into account the need for adequate rest periods. The regulatory process requires consideration of public comment and Congressional review before any new resulting regulation can be put into effect. Continuing it allows a full airing of all the HOS issues and points of view.

To date, we have received more than 50,000 comments on this proposal, and they continue to arrive -- the comment period which was scheduled to run until the end of October will be extended because of the tremendous response we have received. We have already learned a great deal about the effect of our proposal on the safety concerns of the trucking industry, shippers, drivers and their operations. This additional knowledge and the extended comment period will help us craft a solid, final regulation that will achieve our collective goals: saving lives. This process, left alone, will lead to a balanced, effective and fair rule.

However, many trucking industry interests seem opposed to reform. They prevailed upon their Congressional allies to place a provision in the Senate bill that would prevent the USDOT from spending any funds to continue this "or any similar rule making" -- in short, shutting down the regulatory process. This is not a case of the USDOT rushing a proposal to completion before the end of the Clinton Administration. This is raw use of political power by specific trucking interests to stop progress.

Fatigue is a significant and growing factor in accidents in all modes of transportation. Truck driver fatigue is the main or contributing factor in 15 percent of all commercial vehicle accidents, 755 deaths and more than 19,000 injuries every year. Reforming the hours-of-service rule -- and ensuring that drivers follow it -- is a much-needed step in reducing this horrendous toll. But we cannot move to do so if the USDOT is prohibited from collecting information and comments and using what we learn to revise the current, outdated hours-of-service regulation. We want to continue this effort so that the number of truck crashes decreases. There will be fewer deaths and injuries if we can reduce the number of commercial drivers falling asleep at the wheel.

As the names of our two agencies indicate, safety is our primary mission and the top transportation priority of the Clinton Administration. We will continue to work in partnership with Congress and the states to address the problems of alcohol- and fatigue-related crashes. And by doing so, together we will make America's streets and highways safer for all.

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(Rosalyn G. Millman is the deputy administrator of the U.S. Department of Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and Clyde J. Hart Jr. is the acting deputy administrator of the Department's Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.)  

Updated: Thursday, April 10, 2014