July 21, 2005

Auto Safety Improvements in Pending Highway Bill Would Reduce Traffic Deaths; Highway Conference Committee Must Act

Statement of Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook

Seldom can Congress take a single action to literally save tens of thousands of lives. Today, lawmakers have such a golden opportunity, and they should not allow this chance to pass them by. As the former head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, I cannot overstate the importance of the auto safety provisions that are now under debate in the conference committee deliberating over the highway bill.

These are smart, innovative measures that could mark a seismic shift in the safety of our motor vehicles and prevent untold tragedies for American families. From the time the government first began setting standards for vehicle safety in the mid-1960s, only the requirements for the installation of safety belts and air bags rival this set of safety measures in terms of potential for saving lives.

This commonsense legislation has drawn the strong support of both Republicans and Democrats. The Senate-passed legislation was led by Sens. Trent Lott, Ted Stevens and Dan Inouye. Unfortunately, the House did not include a Commerce Committee title in its highway bill, so we are calling upon members of the conference committee, particularly Rep. Joe Barton, the chair of the House Commerce Committee, to include the Senate’s safety provisions in the compromise highway bill. Rep. Barton is the key decision-maker, since all other members of the conference committee are supportive of doing this.

The measures focus on two of the most lethal types of crashes on our highways – rollovers and side-impact crashes. Together, these types of crashes account for about 40 percent of all highway deaths each year. The safety improvements in the bill will solve the problems brought to light by the Firestone crashes several years ago: rollover-prone vehicles, people being ejected too easily from vehicles and flimsy roofs that are too easily crushed in rollovers.

Rollover crashes kill more than 10,000 people each year and permanently injure more than 17,000. This is due in large part to the proliferation of SUVs. In fact, six of every 10 people who die in SUVs are killed in rollover crashes, a rate three times higher than for cars. Some strides have been made for newer model SUVs, but much more should done to prevent rollovers and protect occupants.

The bill contains three provisions to address rollover safety. First, it requires the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to issue a rollover prevention standard. Second, it would require NHTSA to adopt a standard to prevent occupant ejections, a major cause of injuries and fatalities in rollovers. Third, it would require NHTSA to upgrade the roof strength rule, which has not been updated since 1971. Strong roofs would prevent the massive head and neck injuries that occur frequently when SUVs and other vehicles roll over.

Another major killer addressed by this legislation is side impact crashes. These crashes kill more than 9,000 people each year – and they are getting more deadly because of the number of SUVs on the roads. Because of their size and structure, when an SUV hits a car in the side, the car driver is three times more likely to die than if he or she were struck by a car. The legislation contains a requirement for NHTSA to establish a standard by a specific date.

There are a number of other critically important provisions. These include rules that would: protect children from being strangled in automatic windows; provide consumers with more information about vehicle safety information; allow longer seat belt reminders; and require research on vehicle back-over avoidance technology, tire aging and non-traffic vehicle deaths.

The death and injury toll on our highways is something we can and must do something about. The only reason it is not a national scandal is that in vehicle crashes, lives are lost one or two or three at a time, rather than in high numbers as in airplane crashes or high-rise fires. Each year, more than 42,000 people die in vehicle crashes. Congress should act aggressively now to reduce this unacceptable toll.

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Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook is a former administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

To read the press release and written statements from the press conference, click here.