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Public Safety and the Highway Bill

American Government Special Collections Reference Desk

American Government

Public Safety and the Highway Bill

Senator Harry Reid
Congressional Record: 114th Congress
July 15, 2015

Mr. REID. Mr. President, more than 62 million vehicles were recalled last year in our country--twice the previous record. The number of safety complaints to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration doubled. Over the past year, for example, faulty ignition switches led to the recall of 2.6 million cars. At least 124 people died and almost 300 were injured by this ignition switch problem, which did many different things, one of which was to stall a car in traffic and during the process disable the airbags. The manufacturer was aware of the defect for more than a decade and did nothing about it. Exploding airbags--another problem--claimed the lives of at least 8 people and led to the recall of 34 million vehicles--the largest recall of any consumer product in the United States ever. Once again, it appears the manufacturer knew of the defect years before notifying Federal regulators.

Given the number of recalls, Congress should be investing the resources to improve public safety and give regulators the tools to keep us safe. But it appears Senate Republicans have learned nothing from the many recalls just this year. The Republican highway safety bill, which is being considered in the committee on commerce today, does not increase funding for Federal traffic programs. In fact, it cuts them back. Why? The bill does not provide any new resources to address the record level of safety recalls and consumer complaints. Under the Republican bill that is being considered, automakers that cover up defects will continue to face the same very limited penalties. Their executives will be able to continue to escape accountability.

But that isn't all of it. The highway bill the Republicans are pushing forward is loaded with harmful provisions that roll back efforts to strengthen public safety. The bill would allow 18-year-old young men and women--18 years old--to drive commercial 18-wheelers across State lines. Think about that. Despite studies which show that these young drivers have a fatal crash rate almost 70 percent higher than older drivers, the Republican safety plan would allow these inexperienced teenagers to drive the largest trucks that appear on the road.

If this odyssey of the Republicans in the commerce committee is signed into law, it will lead to more crashes and, sadly, more injuries and more deaths.

Every day, 30 people in our great country are killed by drunk drivers--30 people killed by drunk drivers. I just learned a couple of days ago of a person who worked for me, who was a tremendously great employee of the Senate--their brother-in-law was killed by a drunk driver. It is so sad that we are not doing more to not only stop drunk driving but to punish drunk drivers. The policy Republicans propose today hurts our efforts to combat drunk driving.

Listen to this one. The Republicans' bill would lessen incentives for States that develop programs to prevent people who have been convicted of drunk driving from starting their cars if they have been drinking--for example, just a simple, inexpensive device on a car. If someone has been drinking too much, the car won't start. But Republicans are going to take care of this and get rid of it. No longer will States have the ability to do that. The Federal Government should not be involved in programs like that.

The Republicans' plan also undermines safety measures that protect passengers and trains and, of course, the safety of all of us because of the problems we have with freight trains. There is a program that was designed by science--it has been available for a long time--called positive train control which overrides operator error. A perfect example of this is what happened in Philadelphia. If that had been in effect, that accident would not have occurred. But the Republicans fixed this--they are going to stop the program for 3 years.

Under the present law, these programs had to be implemented by the end of this year--not with the Republicans in the commerce committee, which will be part of any highway bill we have. They will just stop it for 3 years, and that will lead to more deaths, more injuries, and more terror.

I can't understand why the Republicans would propose doing that--delaying the deadline for positive train control by more than 3 years. I said 3 years, but it is actually more than that. There is no reason to roll back deadlines for important safety measures for our passenger trains. Is this the best Republicans can do? I ask that.

For Americans who live near rail lines, trains are increasingly carrying more and more flammable materials--oil, ethanol, and other explosive products. In February of this year, a train carrying oil derailed in West Virginia, sending exploding fireballs into the air and causing large necessary evacuations.

This and other crashes led the Department of Transportation to require the installation of new electronic brakes for any train moving flammable materials. Requiring better brakes when carrying these materials seems like a commonsense safety measure.

What do the Republicans do? Their bill repeals an important freight rail provision, jeopardizing communities across the country with tragic spills. We don't need more accidents. We need fewer accidents. We need to move forward and to continue the minimal programs we have, not roll them back. It is clear the Republicans have not learned anything from the auto recalls or the train crashes. The Senate can do better than adopting the Republican's attack on public safety. If the Republicans choose to put those measures in the highway bill that I am told is coming forward, it will not survive the Senate. We can't have stuff like that. It would be just untoward and wrong.

Mr. President, there is no one on the floor, and I ask that the Chair announce the business of the day.

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