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June 18, 2009

Transportation Bill Must Improve Health, Safety of Drivers and Pedestrians

Statement of Lena Pons, Policy Analyst, Public Citizen

The new principles for transportation legislation announced today by Rep. Jim Oberstar, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, will affect more than just cars and roads. They also have serious implications for public health and climate protection.

Highway safety is a major public health concern. With so much emphasis on health care, this transportation legislation provides an opportunity to modernize our laws to reduce the nearly 40,000 fatalities on our highways each year.

The principles released today identify safety as an important objective. In addition to the safety improvements included in the Chairman’s white paper, such as mandates for electronic on-board recorders that ensure truck drivers comply with hours-of-service driving restrictions, Public Citizen believes the following protections must be included in the legislation:

• Comprehensive rollover occupant protection. More than 10,500 people die annually in rollover crashes. The current approach to rollover occupant protection uses an antiquated test for roof strength. To improve rollover safety, we need to mandate the use of a better, more modern test of the vehicle in motion to capture the real-world performance of the roof, side windows, seat belts and side-curtain airbags.

• Vehicle-to-vehicle compatibility. When a passenger car is involved in a crash with a sports utility vehicles (SUV), the car occupant is often exposed to a greater risk than the SUV occupant. However, there are design considerations that can reduce the mismatch between vehicles and there should be a federal safety standard to improve safety of occupants in all vehicles.

• Pedestrian and cyclist safety. There are approximately 5,300 pedestrian and cyclist fatalities in crashes with motor vehicles a year. Vehicles can be improved to make them less harmful to pedestrians when they are struck. As part of smarter land use planning, roadways can also be designed to be more useful to the whole spectrum of road users.

• Protecting against heavier and bigger trucks. Public Citizen supports the Safe Highways and Infrastructure Protection Act of 2009, H.R. 1618 and S. 779, which would extend the safety and infrastructure protection provided by the 1991 freeze on longer combination vehicles. Bigger, heavier trucks take longer to stop and are more likely to roll over, posing a greater risk to motorists. Furthermore, we oppose H.R. 1799, a proposal that would cause more expensive damage to roads and bridges as Congress seeks to make an investment in our country’s infrastructure.

• Coordinating climate protection goals from the transportation sector. Public Citizen supports efforts to reduce oil consumption and greenhouse gas emissions through efforts to encourage walking and biking and to reduce vehicle miles traveled.

• Fair and competitive contracts. Congress should ensure that contracts for transportation projects are awarded on a fair and competitive basis by allowing states to clean up their government contracting procedures through pay-to-play laws, which prohibit contractors from making campaign contributions to those responsible for awarding the contracts.

Public Citizen will continue to work with Congress to promote safe, clean transportation and ensure the ‘transformation’ envisioned by Chairman Oberstar includes important health and safety considerations for motorists.

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