According to auto safety advocates, actual traffic safety is not a big priority in the current transportation bill making its way through Congress. In fact, it's apparently so bad that Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) is calling it “an atrocious assault on safety.” It's also being described as a lobbyist's fondest dream come true. According to the Oregonian, the new transportation bill is lobbyists' “best shot in years at getting policies their clients like or blocking regulations they don't” – meaning that Corporate America is likely to get almost everything it wants.
One of the most egregious provisions is a new rule allowing teenagers to drive big rigs across state lines. The problems with allowing an 18-year-old behind the wheel of an 80,000 pound, 90-foot long vehicle hurtling down the nation's highways at speeds of over 60 miles per hour (that's 90 feet per second, incidentally) should be patently obvious to anyone who knows the driving habits of the typical teen. It is certainly obvious to the insurance industry and safety advocates: states where 18-year-olds are allowed to operate tractor-trailer combinations within state lines suffer excessively high rates of fatal accidents. Statistics show that 18-year-olds are up to six times more likely to be involved in fatal road accidents than 21-year-olds. Despite this, lobbyists for the trucking industry are pushing hard for the new rule, citing impending labor shortages, high recruitment costs, and increased consumer demand for goods that are transported by truck.
At the same time, FedEx, UPS and other major freight companies are lobbying for new regulations that would force all states to allow longer double trailers on interstate freeways. Although this wouldn't change federal weight limits, it would increase the allowable length of individual trailers from 28 feet to 33 feet – meaning that tractor-trailer rigs could be up to 90 feet in length. At the same time, the bill would prevent states from raising insurance requirements (thus making it more difficult for accident victims to get fair compensation for injuries) and gut rules limiting the amount of time drivers can spend on the road. And don't plan on being able to find information and figures; if the corporate GOP Congress gets its way, publication of truck and bus safety ratings would be prohibited.
The version of the bill coming out of the GOP-controlled House of Representatives cuts funding for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) at a time when the federal agency already lacks enough investigators to look into all the cases involving defective vehicles. Over the past two years, there has been a record number of vehicle recalls, including Volkswagen models equipped with software designed to defeat emissions testing, exploding airbag inflators and defective ignition switches on GM cars that have killed over 120 people. At the same time, used car dealers have successfully convinced their pet lawmakers to remove provisions that would have required them to repair recalled vehicles prior to sale and allow new car dealerships to provide defective loaner cars to consumers.
Meanwhile, toadying to Wall Street, the House killed a rule at behest of the banking industry that would have diverted more than $60 billion over the next decade from federal subsidies to large banks in order to fund the transportation bill. And don't count on any improvements for public transportation. While other nations enjoy high-speed rail and efficient public transportation, Congress wants to end a $263 million transit program that affects over half the nation's commuters. These commuters reside in seven highly-populated states along the Eastern seaboard, including New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts.
More privatization is on the agenda as well. Yet another pro-corporate, anti-citizen provision of the bill would allow the Internal Revenue Service to employ private collection agencies to go after overdue taxes owed by small-time individuals. Normally, these are low-priority cases for the IRS, because the cost of collection would be greater than the delinquent amount. Supposedly, turning collections over to private agencies would raise half a billion dollars a year, which would then go toward the nation's transportation programs. Lawmakers have apparently forgotten that it's already been tried under the George W. Bush Administration. During that debacle, the federal government wound up spending more than it took in.
Both Houses of Congress have until November 19th to reconcile the two versions of the bill and send it to President Obama for his signature. Ironically, that is the 25th Annual World Day of Remembrance for Road Traffic Victims, which commemorates the over 1 million lives lost around the world every year to traffic accidents. To put this figure in perspective, the annual global rate of death due to homicide is 437,000, while those killed in armed conflicts number 55,000.
Congress doesn't give a tinker's damn. Lawmakers primary concern is for their corporate backers, not your safety. Remember this when you go to the polls less than a year from now.