Build safety into infrastructure bill
According to the Illinois Department of Transportation, about 1,166 people died in motor vehicle crashes in 2020, an approximate 15 percent increase over 2019. Sadly, it appears that 2021 will be even deadlier, with 43 more traffic fatalities compared to this time last year.
Similar traffic fatality spikes have been noted around the country and underscore the urgency for common-sense policy changes that will bring meaningful reductions in traffic crashes, fatalities and injuries.
The U.S. Senate is moving toward passage of a bipartisan transportation and infrastructure bill; however, current legislative language will not advance proven solutions needed to address motor vehicle crash deaths and injuries.
This contrasts sharply with every major surface transportation bill signed into law by Democratic and Republican presidents over the last few decades, which have included air bags, electronic stability control to prevent rollovers, improved roof strength requirements, child safety protections and safety belts on motor coaches. As a result, tens of thousands of lives have been saved. The bill that is sent to President Biden's desk must be no different in achieving significant safety accomplishments.
The U.S. House of Representatives has led the charge to address the inexcusable and intolerable toll of motor vehicle crashes by passaging the Investing in a New Vision for the Environment and Surface Transportation (INVEST) in America Act (H.R. 3684) on July 1. Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), a longtime safety champion who chairs the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee Consumer Protection and Commerce Subcommittee, sponsored many stand-alone bills folded into this larger bill including the 21st Century Smart Cars Act (H.R. 3628) to ensure effective crash avoidance technology is a standard feature for all new car buyers.
For example, automatic emergency braking (AEB) that detects and responds to pedestrians, bicyclists and other vulnerable road users (VRU) would be required in all new cars, along with other safety advances that will save lives for both those inside and outside the vehicle.
Senators Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth, both Illinois Democrats, and Congresswoman Cheri Bustos, an East Moline Democrat, have also introduced legislation to advance AEB and other crash avoidance technology that detect and respond to VRUs and to require it in all new cars and trucks by a deadline, among other provisions in the Protecting Roadside First Responders Act (S. 1386/ H.R. 2867). This bill and the INVEST in America Act would prevent or mitigate crashes caused by the leading crash contributors, speeding and distracted, drunk, drugged and drowsy driving and preserve the lives of roadside first responders who often risk their safety to take care of and protect others.
Not only does the Senate bill fall far short of advancing these needed safety improvements, it also includes anti-safety provisions that lower the federal commercial driver's license age from 21 to 18 to allow teens to drive big rigs in interstate commerce. Commercial motor vehicle (CMV) drivers under the age of 19 are four times more likely to be involved in fatal crashes and CMV drivers between the ages of 19-20 are six times more likely to be involved in fatal crashes than all truck drivers.
Additionally, the bill includes an exemption from truck driver hours of services rules for livestock haulers which will exacerbate the well-known and well-documented concern of truck driver fatigue. Moreover, both the Senate bill and H.R. 3684 include a carve out for small and medium-size trucks which are omnipresent on our city streets and in our neighborhoods and accounted for 27 percent of all fatalities in large truck crashes in 2019.
These issues can and must be fixed. The families with whom we advocate for sensible upgrades to ensure no other family suffers tremendous loss or disabling injury deserve nothing less. Certainly, President Biden does, too, after enduring his own family's tragic fatal crash.
During the five-year time period of the pending House and Senate surface transportation reauthorization bills, nearly 200,000 people will be needlessly killed and 14 million more injured in motor vehicle crashes without bold -- yet completely reasonable and research-based -- policy improvements. Congress must meet this moment, reject dangerous industry exemptions and carve-outs and ensure the final product truly advances safety for everyone.
• Shaun Kildare, of Lake Barrington, is senior research director of the highway safety alliance Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. Jennifer Smith, of Oak Park, is CEO of StopDistractions.org, which she founded following the distraction-involved crash that killed her mother Linda Doyle in 2008.