Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

Safety Advocates Contend Highway Bill Won't Cut It

Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

Safety Advocates Contend Highway Bill Won't Cut It

Article excerpt

Safety first!

Perhaps Congress could grasp what that accident-prevention slogan meant when it was coined during the golden age of railroading in 1873, a time when the federal government managed to scrape by on a $290 million budget. But this week, safety priorities seem open to question as House and Senate conferees attempt to patch together a transportation budget that would spend a few hundred times more each year than it took old Ulysses S. Grant to run the whole country back then.

Road-safety advocates looked hard, but they couldn't find much to suggest that safety was being placed first among this bill's priorities.

Here are a few examples:

Authorizing teens to drive commercial big rigs from state to state. Fewer rest breaks for nearly all truckers. No jail time for carmakers who purposely avoid recalls for defective vehicles. Unrestricted private sales of used cars under recall. A ban on publishing truck- and bus-safety ratings. A minimal budget hike, at best, for safety regulation despite this year's rising number of road deaths and last year's record 64 million vehicle recalls for defective ignitions, air bags and other flaws.

No wonder Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, called the $325 billion measure "an atrocious assault on safety."

Jackie Gillan, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, offered this straightforward solution: "If a provision doesn't save a life, just scrap it."

For anybody who pays attention to crumbling roads and the trouble they cause, the timing for this confrontation seemed hurried -- even odd. The House vote late last month left conferees of both chambers little time to compromise on key points of disagreement on the sweeping bill before transportation funding provided by last year's bill ends.

The deadline is Thursday, just four days from today, which happens to be the 25th annual World Day of Remembrance for Road Traffic Victims.

If you haven't heard of this commemoration, it's probably because you're an American. Our roads average 33,000 lives lost annually, a figure that's expected to rise by more than 2,000 this year, mainly because of increased driving attributed to low gasoline prices.

Worldwide, however, deaths exceed 1.2 million each year, according to the World Health Organization. That's far more than any other class of sudden death, such as homicide (437,000) or military conflict (55,000).

So each third Sunday in November, more than 40 countries -- mostly in Europe -- honor the dead in events sanctioned by the Vatican and the United Nations.

In the United States this week, however, the issues are less about looking back and more about looking ahead to find the best ways to balance the needs of the nation's drivers. With Thanksgiving approaching, is it time to simply show gratitude for the sharp declines in traffic deaths since the 1970s by relaxing regulations and focusing more on rebuilding infrastructure? …

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