The bipartisan push to deliver the first major highway bill in a decade is drowning out warnings from safety groups about big changes they say will make the nation's roads more dangerous: teenagers at the wheel of big rigs, budget cuts for the automobile safety watchdog and a loophole that lets auto dealers loan out defective cars.
That's because of pressure from industry groups and lobbyists who've managed to insert items from their long-standing wish lists into a $350 billion bill that covers highway spending into the next decade for projects ranging from fixing crumbling bridges to studying the impact of marijuana-impaired drivers.
The conference committee jockeying to mesh House and Senate bills into something that can be passed by both chambers and delivered to President Barack Obama by the Dec. 4 deadline has centered mostly on funding levels and whether the bill should run for five years or six. Even getting the legislation this far has been no small feat for a Congress that has relied on patch after patch to fund the nation's transportation systems.
But that pressure has pushed the safety portion of the bill that authorizes and pays for the federal share of highway work and transit systems to the sidelines, where it has gotten insufficient scrutiny, safety advocates say.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) complained the safety measures are a grab bag of special-interest giveaways to the trucking and auto industries that “double down on danger, rather than safety,” and put federal watchdogs in a “strait-jacket” that will lead to higher death tolls on the roads.
“These measures are not just short term — they set policy for six years,” the Connecticut Democrat said. “That means we will live with these horrific ideas for more than half a decade.”
Others say those fears are overblown and shouldn't stand in the way of a bill that's crucial to keeping federal money flowing to the nation's resource-strapped transportation infrastructure.
"We’re never going to satisfy the safety groups," said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) adding, "I think we struck a pretty good balance, and obviously we want to make sure that there are strong safety provisions in the bill and I think there are."
Lawmakers have long grappled with how to balance the call for transportation safety measures with pushback from high-powered industries, at times hesitating to enact new auto regulations, even as mounting death tolls and allegations of automaker coverups dominated headlines.
But, advocates say, while past transportation bills helped improve safety by mandating improved airbags and tougher seat belt requirements, for instance, this bill threatens to walk back decades of advances, all to accommodate big industry lobbying.
Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), chairman of the powerful House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, defended the measures, saying, “As we go through the negotiations, we think that some of the reforms we put in there are positive [and] will become less burdensome without causing safety concerns.”
Among the most eye-catching is the provision in both the House and Senate bills to start pilot programs to allow teenagers, possibly as young as 18, to drive big trucks and buses across state lines. The current minimum age for truckers driving through multiple states is 21, but groups supporting the pilot program say most states already allow younger commercial drivers to operate within their boundaries.
“This isn’t going to be teenagers crossing the country willy nilly,” said Sean McNally, spokesman for American Trucking Associations. “This is a very limited pilot program that we believe is the first step toward a graduated licensing program for commercial drivers.”
Safety groups say the data from several studies show crash rates go up as drivers' ages go down, a clear sign the measure would trigger an increase in deadly accidents. The industry is ignoring that data simply to reduce a shortage of drivers, they contend.
Trucking groups conceded the change will help address the driver shortage — but insist the program will help train new drivers to be safer on the road. “That’s all the more reason we need a graduated licensing program to get younger drivers into a construct that allows them to gain experience. … There’s no upside to our industry to doing things that are unsafe,” McNally said.
Trucking backer Rep. Reid Ribble (R-Wis.) said the safety fears are overblown, and he laid the blame on the railroads.
"Let’s be honest, a lot of this is being pushed by rail," he said. "They’re going to oppose anything that would take freight off rail, or that they believe may take freight off of rail and put it on trucks. I think it’s a false alarm."
The House bill would also cut funding for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the automobile safety watchdog, compared with the level in the Senate version. And while the Senate bill would give NHTSA more firepower when it comes to fines — tripling the cap for civil penalties — the House proposal includes no such increase.
That's a huge mistake, says safety advocate Gillan, who argued NHTSA needs more authority to police automakers that cover up defects or are purposefully slow to initiate recalls for deadly products. The funding cut would come as NHTSA tries to shore up its oversight in the wake of GM’s recall of cars with a deadly ignition defect that's been linked to more than 100 deaths. And NHTSA investigators have yet to determine the precise problem with Takata airbags that have sent metal shrapnel flying at passengers, killing eight people so far and affecting nearly 20 million cars.
“Two hundred people died, millions of consumers have had to take their cars in for repairs. … And yet these bills are nothing but giveaways to the auto industry,” Gillan said. “It’s so absurd that you would think it was the consumers that had misbehaved instead of the auto industry.”
Another provision tacked onto the House bill shortly before passage would allow car dealers to loan out vehicles with potentially deadly defects, advocates say. The Senate bill includes a provision that safety groups consider a win by requiring rental car companies to fix defective vehicles before renting them to drivers. But the advocates say an amendment from Rep. Roger Williams, a Texas Republican who runs a car dealership, adds one word to the House bill that severely weakens the Senate-passed proposal.
When drivers bring the recalled cars to dealerships to get fixed, the Williams provision would allow auto dealers to give customers loaner cars that are also under recall, potentially having the same deadly defect, safety groups contend. “Whether you buy a used car, or you get a loaner car, or you have a rental car, consumers don’t want to drive off the lot knowing they’re driving a car that’s under recall for a safety defect,” Gillan said. “These really are life-and-death issues.”
The National Auto Dealers Association said those fears are misplaced.
"NADA supports a 100 percent recall completion rate, but you cannot achieve that through overly broad policies that will only force more vehicles into the private market, where they are far less likely to get fixed," spokesman Jared Allen said.
Lawmakers in both chambers also agreed to make it harder for the public to track safety violations for truck and bus companies — a win for the trucking and motor coach industries.
The two groups have sought changes for years to a program called Compliance, Safety, Accountability that serves as a report card of their violations and crashes, and assigns them safety scores.
Truck and bus advocates say the scores are flawed and the program is unreliable, and have asked for the data to be removed from public view until changes are made. Lawmakers agreed — both the House and Senate bills require the Department of Transportation to take down the scores until changes are made, although law enforcement can still access the data. (The Senate bill keeps motor coach scores public.)
But safety groups say the regulatory roadblocks to getting the information back online is too burdensome, and fear the scores will never be available to the public again.
“Keeping consumers in the dark about the safety of their families as they drive on roadways or as their children are transported on school field trips is unacceptable,” a coalition of safety groups wrote last week to Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.