Safety groups press for changes in highway talks

Safety groups press for changes in highway talks
© Greg Nash

Safety advocates are pushing for changes to a host of regulatory tweaks that included in a recently approve highway funding bill in upcoming negotiations between the House and Senate. 

The groups say the $325 billion highway bill that was approved last week by the House and a similar measure that was passed by the Senate in July include a host of changes to rules for trains, truck drivers and ports that would weaken the safety of the nation's transportation networks. 

"Numerous safety rollbacks and loopholes, including allowing interstate teen truck and bus drivers and inadequate remedies to address the numerous issues revealed during the GM ignition switch and Takata airbag fiascos, were inserted into both bills at the behest of auto and a few trucking interests despite the fact that crash deaths and injuries are on the rise," an alliance of safety groups said in a statement. 


Among the changes that are most galling to safety advocates is a provision to lower the minimum age of truck drivers from 21 to 18-years-old. 

Other provisions in the bill include a controversial effort to increase federal oversight of ports after a series of labor problems have threatened the flow of cargo packages in the U.S. and allow truck companies to conduct drug testing for their employees that involve hair instead of urine.  

The increased port oversight is unpopular with dockworkers' unions, who see the proposal as an intrusion on their right to organize, and critics have suggested the hair drug testing could discriminate against minorities who typically have coarser follicles.  

Supporters of the highway funding measures have defended the proposed changes as a set of sensible reforms. They have sought to shift attention from the controversial potential regulatory changes to the multiple years of transportation funding that are being proposed. 

"What we heard is that our states and communities all have a variety of needs – and that certainty, over multiple years, is necessary to address those needs," House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) said as the highway funding measure was being debated last week on the House floor. 

 "The STRR Act is a multi-year bill that provides that certainty for states and local governments," Shuster continued. "This bill helps improve our Nation’s infrastructure and maintains a strong commitment to safety, but it also provides important reforms that will help us continue to do the job more effectively." 

The safety groups, meanwhile, say they are planning to hold a conference on Tuesday to "specify essential actions the highway bill conferees must take to put the safety of the American public before corporate special interests.

"As Congressional discussions begin to work out differences between the House- and Senate-passed versions of the six-year federal highway bill, members of Congress will join an alliance of highway safety advocates, consumer protection groups and crash victims’ families to unveil specific changes that must be made to fix the bill that has been roundly denounced as the most anti-safety highway reauthorization bill," the groups said. 

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