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Public Statements

Safe, Accountable, Flexible, and Efficient Transportation Equity Act of 2003

Location: Washington, DC


Mr. DeWINE. Mr. President, I come to the floor today to thank the leaders of the Environment and Public Works Committee, Chairman Inhofe, Ranking Member JEFFORDS, as well as Senators BOND and REID, for all the hard work they put in to produce this transportation bill. This is really a transportation bill that does a number of different things, but one thing it does do is stress the importance of safety programs.

The bill before us today is a revolutionary bill. It is known as SAFETEA. That is what we are calling it. In many respects it certainly deserves this title. I salute my two colleagues, whom I see on the floor, and thank them for their fine work in this area.

A strong emphasis on safety programs is vital because in the year 2002, the last year for which we have complete records, over 42,000 of our fellow citizens-in fact, the exact number is 42,815-were lost in this country. That is how many fellow citizens were killed in auto fatalities.

The No. 1 killer of Americans between the ages of 4 and 34 in this country is auto fatalities. That is an amazing thing when you think about it. Think about all the other diseases and problems there are in this country, whether it be cancer, all the other things someone could die from, but the No. 1 killer of our young people today is auto fatalities.

If you look at the age group of 16, 17, 18, 19, the figures go off the charts for that age group. That is what is killing our young people today-automobiles.

In the next 12 minutes, to be precise, at least 1 person will be killed in an automobile accident in this country, while nearly 6 people will be injured in just the next 60 seconds. Tragically, within the last 2 weeks, in my home State of Ohio, two of our soldiers were killed in automobile accidents, one of whom was just back from Iraq on a 2-week pass.

Sadly, though, it seems these deaths are something we as a society take for granted. We tolerate it. We put up with it. Frankly, we don't pay much attention to it. How many times every night when we turn on the news do we hear about someone being killed? Unless they are from our local community, unless we know them, we don't think a thing about it. We tolerate it.

If a foreign enemy were doing this to us, we would not tolerate it. We would be up in arms. Someone has said these automobile deaths are the equivalent of a 747 going down every 2 days in this country. If that were happening, it would, of course, be on CNN. It would be breaking news. We would be literally up in arms. We would be demanding the President of the United States and this Congress do something about it. Yet these auto fatalities that occur hour by hour, day by day, minute by minute, go on and on and for some reason we have become immune to it, hardened to it, really. Tragically these deaths just continue.

That is why I am so pleased the bill before us does go a long way to help to address several safety concerns that can make a difference and can save lives on our roads. The EPW Committee leaders deserve praise for elevating safety programs to core status among highway programs. In the past, safety programs were of a derivative nature, drawing their funding as a percentage of one of the core programs. This framework enabled some States to overlook safety and focus funding and efforts on other areas. With the new core designation, safety will take its proper place at center stage. The EPW Committee leadership deserves praise for taking this quantum leap forward.

Let me again thank Senators INHOFE, JEFFORDS, BOND, and REID for making their staffs available this weekend for work on my amendments. I am pleased with the progress that has been made so far, trying to work on these amendments. One of my amendments has already been accepted. I thank them for that. That amendment has been integrated into the proposed managers' package.

I have another amendment relating to traffic signals that I believe we will have cleared in the near future.

I wish this afternoon to take a few minutes to share with the Members of the Senate what these amendments will do, because I believe they will help put us even further down the field in terms of saving lives and promoting greater emphasis on safety.

I have further additional safety-related amendments I will be offering to the Commerce Committee portion of the highway bill, and I will be offering those in a future speech when we get to that section of the bill, we hope later in the week. I thank Senator McCain for his leadership. I look forward to working with him and the Commerce Committee on that section of the bill.

The first amendment the EPW Committee has accepted contains two parts. First, it would require the States to identify and rank and disclose their most dangerous intersections. That might not sound like a revolutionary thing to do, but not every State is doing that now. It is the right thing to do: to rank them, to identify them, and then to make that information public so the consumers, the citizens will know what that information is and will then be able to act upon it.

A second part of our amendment we are still negotiating with the leadership would increase the timely and efficient expenditure of Federal safety dollars by the States.

Let me first talk about the dangerous roads and intersections amendment. The Environment and Public Works Committee bill focuses some resources on these problem areas and this amendment builds on the committee's fine efforts. Most States, fortunately, do take steps to identify and track the dangerous roads and intersections. They keep a list of the bad ones, the ones with high fatalities and high accident rates. But, amazingly, there are many States that keep this information secret and do not tell the public or, in some cases, do not even keep this information at all.

My amendment is very simple. It requires States to systematically rank and disclose their most dangerous roads and intersections. It requires them to do so in terms of dangers to human beings, in other words, in terms of the number of deaths and the number of injuries that occur on these specific roads.

Further, my language asks the States to disclose at least the top 5 percent of the most dangerous roads and intersections in their States, and that they identify to the Secretary of Transportation this information and therefore ultimately to the driving public.

We need to get information on dangerous roads and intersections out to the public and to the people we are charged to protect. My amendment would help assure that this in fact happens.

Consumers have a right to know this information. As a parent, I might tell my 16-year-old or 17-year-old not to go a certain way to a movie. Don't go on that dangerous intersection. Don't go by that dangerous curve. At least, if I had that information, I could make an intelligent decision about it. It is wrong for a State department of transportation to have that information and to deny me, as a citizen of that State, that same information. I should be able to tell my child, "Don't go that way. It may take another 10 or 15 minutes, but go a different way-be safe."

I would like to briefly tell my colleagues about a woman by the name of Sandy Johnson and her mother Jacqueline. On October 5, 2002, Sandy and Jacqueline were killed. They were killed in a car crash at a dangerous intersection near Columbus, OH.

What they did not know as they drove into that intersection-and what countless other area residents who used the roads that cross through it did not know at the time-was this particular intersection was known at that time by the State department of transportation to be a very dangerous area. In fact, the State department of transportation had indeed known that information for quite some time. Perhaps if Sandy Johnson had known that she would have taken a different route that day. We will never know. Perhaps she might have slowed down to see traffic coming from the other direction. Tragically, we simply will never know.

This particular intersection was dangerous because of the close proximity of a house to the intersection, making it difficult for drivers coming from each direction to see those approaching from the other way. The fix to this problem, the installation of four-way stop signs and ultimately removal of a house to improve sight lines, took quite some time to be implemented. But eventually, these steps were in fact taken.

Following the tragic death of his wife and his mother-in-law, Dean Johnson initiated a campaign to tackle the issue of dangerous roads and dangerous intersections, not just in Ohio but across the country. He has tried with varying results from State to State to get information on dangerous roads and intersection locations out to the public so tragedies like the one involving his wife could be prevented.

Today on the Senate floor, I thank Dean Johnson for his dedication to this very important public safety issue and for the progress he has made in my home State of Ohio and elsewhere in terms of getting critical lifesaving information out to citizens through the Sandy Johnson Foundation. I must say to him that his work is a real tribute to his love for his wife and for her memory.

Clearly, tragedies like the one involving Sandy Johnson can be prevented in many cases through means as simple and as inexpensive as disclosure to the public of what State departments of transportation already know-the disclosure of where the dangerous roads and intersections are located. The States should provide this information. They already know it. They simply should provide it.

The second part of our amendment focuses on how States spend their safety money. In this respect, my staff is working with the committee to develop additional mechanisms for the timely and efficient expenditure of Federal safety dollars. In the past, there have been problems with getting States to spend their safety money on safety. The EPW Committee bill goes a long way towards helping ensure those safety dollars do in fact get spent on safety. My efforts in this area are aimed at further strengthening this portion of the bill. It is simply so very important that these dollars be spent on safety-to straighten the road that is killing people or to change a dangerous intersection. This money can be very well spent and should be spent on things that will save lives. It is very cost effective.

Let me talk about another amendment. My staff and I are continuing to work with the managers and their staff on accepting the second amendment that has to do with keeping our intersections safe with regard to the safety of first responders as they engage in their daily work. This amendment is derived from legislation I introduced last year called the Safe Intersections Act of 2003, S. 1825.

This amendment would prohibit the unauthorized sale or possession of traffic signal preempting devices, commonly known as MIRTs. This type of device is a remote control for changing traffic signals. Members of the Senate may have read about these. They have been used for years by ambulances, police cars, and firetrucks, allowing them to reach emergencies faster. As an ambulance approaches the intersection where the light is red, the driver engages a transmitter. That transmitter then sends a signal to a receiver on the traffic light which changes the light from red to green within a few seconds. It is a very useful tool when properly used in emergency situations by someone in an emergency vehicle.

In a 2002 survey, the U.S. Department of Transportation found that in the top 78 metropolitan areas, there are 24,683 traffic lights equipped with these sensors-in other words, equipped with sensors that can be triggered by emergency vehicles.

In my own home State of Ohio, there is a joint pilot project underway by the Washington Township Fire Department and the Dublin Police Department to install these devices. Other areas in Ohio where they are in use include Mentor, Twinsburg, Willoughy, and Westerville. In Ohio and across the country, law enforcement offices, fire departments, and paramedics are investing in this technology to make their communities safer.

So what is the problem? Recently, it has come to light that this technology is being sold to unauthorized individuals-who use this technology in their own private cars and private vehicles to bypass red lights during their commute to and from work or just in their everyday driving. Clearly, preemptive devices were never intended for this type of use. This technology in the hands of unauthorized users could result in traffic problems such as gridlock or, much worse, accidents in which people are injured or killed. We know of at least one incident in Modesto, CA, where paramedics on an emergency run used a preemptive device to clear the way through a busy intersection only to see the light change back to red in their direction due to use of a MIRT by a nearby driver.

My amendment is simple. It would restrict the sale of preemptive devices to government-authorized users such as ambulance drivers, firetruck drivers, and police. Clearly, these devices should not be available to casual drivers wishing to make a total end run on civil order by changing traffic signals to make their commute a little bit shorter. It is a very simple amendment.

The two amendments I am offering will go a long way towards improving transportation safety. They are commonsense, they are practical, and they will in fact make a difference.

These efforts are a continuation of my work in this area-something I have been interested in for many years, going back to a time in the early 1980s when I was in the Ohio State Senate. A little boy named Justin-I think Justin was 7-was killed right outside his school in my home county of Greene County. We decided at that time that Justin had been killed by a driver who had been drinking, a driver who had a very bad previous record of drinking and driving. We decided, frankly, we had had enough of this and we had to do something about it. I introduced a very tough drunk driving billing in Ohio. I researched the law and saw what other States and foreign countries had been doing. Ultimately, the bill became Ohio's tough drunk-driving law. I have been interested in highway safety issues ever since. I have worked in the Congress with many of my colleagues. I have worked in the State Senate. I saw this firsthand when I was county prosecutor. I used to go into county courts and prosecute drunk drivers. I saw the carnage and horrible tragedy drunk drivers cause. I have been interested in highway safety issues for many years. I know many of my colleagues are as well.

I again thank Senator Inhofe for his great work in this area to make this a very strong highway safety bill. It has some very strong highway safety components.

I think the amendments I have talked about today will go a long way to help make this an even better bill in regard to highway safety. I will be back on the floor later this week as the bill continues to progress with some additional amendments in regard to highway safety. I will be talking more about them.

I thank my colleague for his great work on this bill, and Senator Jeffords, as well, for his great work.

I yield the floor.

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