News Releases

Senator Murray Examines Alarming Increase in Deaths on America's Highways

Apr 19 2007

Weak and ineffective truck safety enforcement cited as one contributor

Listen to the Hearing



(Washington, D.C.) -Today, U.S. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) chaired a hearing of the Senate Transportation, Housing and Urban Development (THUD) Appropriations Subcommittee to examine the alarming trend of increased highway fatalities across the country. Since 2003, the number of annual fatalities has risen by over 3,000 to an estimated 43,400 deaths a year. Additionally, for the first time in several years, the statistical likelihood that a citizen will be killed on our nation's highways has increased. Senator Murray challenged the assembled witnesses to come up with new ways to tackle the problem.

"If we are going to get back on track to reducing highway fatalities, it is clear that the old solutions are not going to be enough," said Senator Murray. "We need some new and innovative solutions. And the Federal government needs to be a partner in these solutions."




Today's hearing examined many of the causes for the increase in fatalities. While Senator Murray discussed problems commonly attributed to highway deaths including drunk driving, seat belt enforcement, and adherence to speed limits, she also spent substantial time focusing on ineffective compliance reviews for rogue trucking companies.

"We need to take a more aggressive posture in getting people to buckle up their seats belts and drive responsibly, but we also need a truck safety agency that will find the problems with rogue trucking companies before fatalities occur, not after," Murray said.


Senator Murray illustrated the need for increased compliance reviews for trucking companies using the example of a March 19th accident that The Washington Post reported on involving a trucker who had racked up traffic citations in seven states. Read that story.



Read Senator Murray's opening statement here:



Today we will take testimony on the tragic trend of rising fatalities on our Nation's highways. Right now, an average of 119 people dies every day in motor vehicle crashes. That means that every 12 minutes, a father, a mother, a brother, a sister, or a child is stolen from the American family. Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for Americans between the ages of 3 and 33. They remain one of the top five leading causes of death for middle-aged Americans.



During our first Subcommittee hearing back in February, I reminded Transportation Secretary Mary Peters that, when she served as Federal Highway Administrator in 2003, she noted that there were 41,000 highway fatalities that year. She concluded that our country was facing "a National safety crisis." Unfortunately since 2003 the number of annual fatalities has now risen to 43,400. The crisis has not abated. It has worsened. And even more worrisome than the raw number of people being killed on our highways is the fact that, for the first time in several years, the fatality rate - the statistical likelihood that a citizen will be killed on our highways -- has actually increased. After many years of slow but steady progress, the numbers are now going in the wrong direction.



If we are going to get back on track to reducing highway fatalities, it is clear that the old solutions are not going to be enough. Only half of the states have enacted primary seat belt laws. And as we learned in the recent incident involving our former colleague, Governor Corzine, it is not enough just to enact primary seat belt laws. These laws, like the posted speed limits, need to be respected and enforced.



But there are many other factors that add to our rising fatality rate. Not enough states are taking repeat drunk drivers off the road, permanently. And not enough states are requiring safe practices by our motorcyclists. We need some new and innovative solutions. And the Federal government needs to be a partner in these solutions.



I am very disappointed to see that, rather than exhibiting leadership and attacking the problem, the Bush Administration appears to be retreating. A few years ago, the Bush Administration itself established the admirable goal of reducing the highway fatality rate to 1 per 100 million vehicle miles traveled by 2008. But rather than put forward bold new initiatives to reach that goal, the Bush Administration has decided instead to weaken the goal and delay it until 2011.



Rather than admitting defeat, the Administration should be redoubling its efforts and putting forward proposals that will truly alter the behavior of drivers, pedestrians, and even Federal enforcers and regulators.



Testifying before us this morning are the Administration's two principal point people on highway safety. Nicole Nason is the Administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. John Hill serves as our chief truck safety official - the Administrator of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. I am also pleased that we are joined by Mark Rosenker Chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. This is his first appearance before this Subcommittee.



The NTSB is probably best known for its work investigating aviation crashes, but its work in recommending safety improvements on our highways actually impacts a great many more travelers. The NTSB has no regulatory or enforcement functions. But they do carry extraordinarily important responsibilities in investigating accidents and making recommendations for safety improvements to federal and state agencies, and transportation operators to ensure a safer transportation network.



When the NTSB makes a recommendation to a Federal agency, we expect that Federal agency to take notice. And when the NTSB puts that recommendation on its list of most wanted safety recommendations, we expect that Federal agency to act promptly. Finally, when the NTSB determines that an agency's response to one of their "most wanted" safety recommendations is unacceptable, this Subcommittee wants answers. We want to know why the agency is turning a blind eye to the NTSB.



Two of the NTSB's "most wanted" safety recommendations have been directed at Mr. Hill's truck safety agency. And the NTSB has determined that Mr. Hill's response to both has been unacceptable. This morning, I want to find out why.



Recently, here in the Washington D.C. area, we learned the tragic results of weak and ineffective truck safety enforcement. The Washington Post recently revealed the case of a trucker who had racked up traffic citations in seven states. In one of those states, the license of the truck driver had been suspended seven times in eleven years. In fact, he was driving on a suspended license at the time that he crashed into a passenger vehicle on the Capitol Beltway, killing a 33-year-old father of two.



The truck driver was cited for reckless driving and he may face more serious charges as a result of that accident. That truck driver was in the employ of a trucking company called BK Trucking. Prior to the accident, BK Trucking firm was already on the watch list for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration because of an unusually high number of accidents and deficient inspections.



A little more than three weeks before the beltway accident, the FMCSA did a full scale compliance review on BK trucking. They found a few problems, mostly with log books but otherwise found no violations that the agency described as "critical" or "acute."



That was before the fatal accident. Three days after this awful tragedy, the FMCSA paid another call on BK trucking and discovered the following violations:

  • improper lease agreements;


  • lack of compliance with drug and alcohol testing procedures;


  • using drivers with suspended commercial drivers licenses;


  • failure to maintain records of State inspections;


  • maintaining false log books;


  • failure to turn in log books; and


  • failure to prepare driver inspection reports.


So just one month after the FMCSA conducted a compliance review and found only minimal problems, the agency did another compliance review and found multiple violations and wrote up fines totaling $77,000.



Now I don't doubt that the second compliance review conducted after the fatality was thorough. But I have serious doubts about the thoroughness of the compliance review that took place less than a month before the fatality. Are we really supposed to believe that the conditions at this trucking firm deteriorated so rapidly in 30 days? How is it that the first compliance review resulted in no violations and the second one, after the fatality revealed an endless list of problems, violations and fines?



I suspect the answer to those questions also explains why the National Transportation Safety Board has determined that the FMCSA's compliance review process is - in their words - "ineffective." I also suspect it explains why the NTSB has determined that the FMCSA responses to its recommendations in this area have been "unacceptable."



Let me be clear. Our nation's economy depends on a safe, efficient and well-capitalized trucking industry. In my home state of Washington our farmers depend on these trucks to get their agricultural products in Eastern Washington across the Cascade Mountains to the ports of Seattle and Tacoma in a safe and timely manner. And American consumers have come to expect a great variety of options as they peruse the shelves at retail outlets and supermarkets. Those goods don't get to those shelves by magic, they get there by truck.



But just as we need to take a more aggressive posture in getting people to buckle up their seats belts and drive responsibly, we also need a truck safety agency that will find the problems with rogue trucking companies before fatalities occur, not after.