Beep Beep! Bad Transportation Legislation Coming Through.

Beep Beep! Bad Transportation Legislation Coming Through.

Alexis ChapmanTuesday,24 November 2015

As my colleague Adrienne Boettinger pointed out on Friday, Americans are over 35,000 times more likely to die in a car crash than to be killed by a terrorist. The House recently took swift and decisive (and wrong) action to protect us from terrorists and since driving is by far the greater threat, politicians must be urgently working to make our roads and highways safer right? Of course not. In fact, when a new transportation bill passes in early December, there are several parts of it that will probably make driving more dangerous.
If the words “teenage truck drivers” don’t strike fear into your heart, then you are braver than I am. The current minimum age for a truck license is 21, but both the House and Senate versions of the new bill have provisions that would allow people as young as 18 to participate in training programs and drive eighteen wheelers and busses on interstates. Teenagers are already incredibly dangerous in little tiny cars. According to the CDC, motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for teens, and 16-19 year olds are three times more likely to be involved in a fatal crash than older drivers. And trucks are already extremely dangerous with grownup drivers. More than 3,000 people die every year in large truck crashes. So it’s somewhat terrifying to think what the outcome is going to be when we combine teenagers and trucks.

Oh and throw in one more deadly thing, sleep deprivation. In the 2014 Cromnibus, the rules were changed to allow truckers to drive longer shifts and drive more at night. This is all happening because, according to the American Truckers Association, there is a shortage of 48,000 qualified truck drivers, and that number is likely to grow. Unless we plan on drastically changing our whole commercial transportation paradigm we do need more truckers, and hopefully the final version of this highway bill won’t allow teenagers in training to drive the same long, late night shifts as older experienced truckers. But still, the mere possibility of sleep deprived teenage truck drivers seems to indicate that we’re moving the wrong way on some fairly important issues.

The House version of the bill also has some other ways to compromise your safety on the road. It would decrease funding for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), an agency whose sole function is to make your car less of a death trap by doing things like setting safety performance standards and investigating vehicle defects. Oh and if your vehicle does have a defect, the House version of the bill has another surprise for you; when you bring your car in to the dealer to get the defect fixed, this bill would allow the dealer to loan you a car that also has a defect. That particular tidbit was put in the bill by Texas Representative Roger Williams, who, drum roll please, owns a car dealership! The bill is currently going through Conference to reconcile the House and Senate versions, and there’s a chance that the conferees have a better grasp of the term “conflict of interest” so maybe that part, and hopefully the defunding of the NHTSA, won’t make it into the final bill.

The really scary part about all this is that even with all the safety compromises, the bill may not accomplish what’s it’s supposed to, in terms of funding the Department of Transportation (DOT) and allowing for the maintenance of our crumbling transportation infrastructure. This past September, DOT Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a speech, “Our experts at DOT found that the absolute minimum level of investment to prevent traffic from getting worse was $400 billion over six years.” He also noted that to actually improve things they would need an additional $78 billion. Neither version of the bill grants even the baseline $400 billion. That is a lot of money, but it would have been fairly straightforward to generate it by raising the gas tax, which hasn’t increased since 1993 and is a logical funding source for the DOT. But most politicians don’t like to raise a tax that everyone is going to notice like the gas tax, and they especially don’t like to do that during an election season, and apparently now it’s always an election season. So buckle up, slow down, and drive safe, or better yet don’t drive at all, because most likely the bridges aren’t going to get any less crumbly, the potholes probably aren’t going to get fixed, and the person in that big rig next to you might be barely out of high school.

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Image Credit: computerwhiz417 on Flickr

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