Chairs DeFazio, Norton Statements from Hearing on Highway Safety
Washington, D.C. — The following are opening remarks, as prepared for delivery, from Chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Peter DeFazio (D-OR) and Chair of the Subcommittee on Highways and Transit Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) during today’s hearing titled, “Addressing the Roadway Safety Crisis: Building Safer Roads for All.”
Video of DeFazio and Norton’s opening statements are here and here.
More information on the hearing can be found here.
Thank you, madam chair, for holding this timely hearing on addressing our roadway safety crisis. The mounting death toll on our nation’s roadways requires immediate attention.
We’ve all heard the statistics by now—the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that a staggering 42,915 people lost their lives on U.S. roads in 2021, marking a 16-year high and an increase of 10.5 percent over traffic fatalities in 2020. The 2021 total represents the single largest annual increase in traffic fatalities since NHTSA first began tracking traffic fatality data in 1975.
We should be holding ourselves to the highest possible standard when it comes to roadway safety. This committee has held numerous hearings over the last two decades—going back to my time as ranking member and then chair of this subcommittee—where we have highlighted the tragic statistics over and over again. But we have not seemed to make any progress year over year. I can’t think of any other transportation mode where we would turn a blind eye and accept such systemic loss of life.
So what is different about today? First, let’s acknowledge that this outcome is not a fixed reality. We can do more to save lives and we should learn from other countries that have managed to make progress. We lag far behind peer countries on safety. The United States ranked 64th in the world in fatalities per capita according to the World Health Organization.
People in America are more than twice as likely to be killed on the road compared to Canada, and more than four times as likely than in the leading countries of Western Europe. These countries have long acknowledged the risk of dangerous road design, embraced robust vision zero and complete streets policies, and provided many safe and convenient alternatives to driving.
Next, let’s acknowledge that dangerous road design and lack of investment in necessary facilities has been a choice. Let’s take vulnerable road users first. Our roads have become especially dangerous for those not travelling in a vehicle. Bike and pedestrian deaths represent a greater proportion of all traffic deaths today than they did ten years ago. Combined, pedestrian and bicyclist deaths have increased by 62 percent over the last decade.
There are more than four million miles of public roads in the U.S. which must support an increasingly diverse set of users and travel demands. It’s clear that a one-size-fits-all approach to roadway design—and one that has prioritized speedy vehicle throughput—has contributed to the carnage. Addressing the unique needs of each road user group—such as pedestrian accessibility, bus and bike lane safety, and access for those with disabilities—can have a profound impact on reducing the likelihood and severity of traffic crashes.
Next, let’s look at those for whom our highways are their workplaces. We must ensure that our truck drivers have a safe place to park and rest, to make their difficult jobs safer and protect everyone who shares the road. A recent Statewide Truck Parking study conducted by Texas DOT found that, between 2013 and 2017, there were more than 2,300 crashes involving parked trucks, resulting in 138 fatalities. Just yesterday, I sent a letter, along with Ranking Member Graves, to Secretary Buttigieg urging U.S. DOT to use the vast resources and authorities provided by Congress in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to invest in projects to address the truck parking shortage.
And total fatalities in work zones are on the rise, with 857 people killed in 2020, a 45 percent increase from a decade prior. Work zones are increasingly dangerous for the people on the ground rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure—51 of those killed in 2020 were highway workers on foot, where they are most vulnerable.
Thankfully, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law provides a significant increase in funding for state and local transportation agencies to carry out critical safety projects. For instance, the Highway Safety Improvement Program—which received a 34 percent increase in funding in the law—ensures that states will receive more than $15.5 billion in funding for critical roadway safety improvement projects over the next 5 years. Additionally, the law established the new Safe Streets and Roads for All grant program which provides $5 billion to local governments over the next five years for the development and implementation of comprehensive roadway safety plans with an emphasis on improving safety for vulnerable road users.
The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law also requires states and metropolitan planning organizations to use not less than 2.5 percent of their planning and research funds for “complete streets” activities which emphasize designing and building streets to enable safe access for all users, including those walking, biking, and other nonmotorized forms of transportation. Moreover, the law requires states and localities to work together to conduct a vulnerable road user safety assessment that identifies high risk locations and corridors and develops strategies to reduce identified safety risks.
Making real, substantial progress towards saving lives requires a strong commitment to safety as the highest priority. It also requires us to look at more holistic solutions than we have in the past to get at the root of the problem. I thank each of the witnesses for being here today, and I look forward to hearing how the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law’s safety programs and policies will assist your efforts, and any additional recommendations for Congress that you have on how to address our roadway safety crisis.
Welcome to today’s hearing. Today, we will examine the roadway safety crisis, how to save lives, and explore the difficult work necessary to achieve zero deaths on our nation’s roads.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that nearly 42,915 people were killed on our roadways in 2021. We owe it to these victims to remember that each number represents a family torn apart by tragedy.
We are moving in the wrong direction. Traffic fatalities have increased 19 percent since before the pandemic. Deaths among people walking and biking have increased by 62 percent in the last decade. The data show that African Americans are disproportionately killed in traffic-related crashes. And crashes are a leading cause of death for our children and teens.
In 2019, this subcommittee held a hearing on roadway safety to gather recommendations on what actions Congress should take in the surface transportation bill to save lives. And we heard what is not working, loud and clear—for too long, we have accepted preventable traffic deaths as inevitable, prioritized speed over safety, and focused solely on moving cars quickly.
I am proud to say that several of the changes discussed at that hearing became key safety elements of this committee’s INVEST in America Act. And some changes survived in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which will shift the focus to safe mobility for all.
Today, we will hear from stakeholders again on how they plan to use the tools in this new law to turn the tide on needless roadway deaths. It is much stronger on roadway safety than any previous surface transportation law has been. It provides states and local governments key policy direction and historic funding to invest in roadway safety. States and their local partners now have the responsibility to think creatively, invest wisely, and begin to make real change.
However, the law also continues a longstanding, yet little-discussed reality of federal highway funding—that states have significant discretion to choose how to spend that money, including the ability to transfer safety program funds to other uses. I am pleased that Mr. Wilson is with us today to discuss how states will ensure that money is used to save lives.
The rhetoric around traffic safety has finally begun to change. Transportation leaders now acknowledge the shared responsibility to build roads that are safer for everyone.
But words alone are not enough. We must take concrete steps to design, build, and rebuild roads that prioritize the safe movement of people, regardless of how they move. I hope that, with a redoubled commitment to safety, we will not be having this same conversation years from now.
Thank you to each of our witnesses for being here today, and I look forward to your testimony.
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