Transportation Safety Reform Stalled By Party Politics

"Safety should not be a partisan issue." - Senator Blumenthal, Connecticut

Last week, the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee voted along party lines to defeat numerous provisions that would have increased transportation safety for American citizens and even rolled back current safety laws. The Comprehensive Transportation and Consumer Protection Act (S. 1732) will be sent to the full Senate for inclusion in surface transportation reauthorization legislation as early as this week. (See Senate Committee's No Vote Incenses Lawmakers Seeking Auto Safety Reforms, NY Times, July 20, 2014) This legislation will set the agenda for the next six years and is pro-industry, not pro-consumer protection. 

Today, I joined a media call hosted by Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety along with Senators Blumenthal and Markey, various safety advocates and crash victims, to speak out against S. 1732 as it currently stands. In Senator Blumenthal's words, "America deserves better than this bill." Not only did the committee strike a provision which would have required NHTSA to complete research into the development of driver reminder systems within two years (which it has been authorized to do under MAP-21 since 2012, and is only in the beginning stages of developing a testing protocol) but it also struck other consumer protection provisions, including but not limited to those that would: 

- impose criminal penalties on auto executives who fail to disclose deadly automobile defects (which would be applied in situations such as the GM cover-up of faulty ignition switches)

- barring used car dealers from selling vehicles with un-repaired recalls

But, one provision allows 18-year old teenagers to drive tractor trailers on our interstate highways (a concept that was rejected ten years ago due to high crash risk of young drivers).

My statement is copied at the end of this blog, and you can visit the Advocates website later today for copies of other participants' statements. More information can also be found by visiting the following links: 

Text of the Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 2015 (S. 1743), sponsored by Sen. Nelson (D-FL) and co-sponsored by Sen. Blumenthal (D-CT) and Sen. Markey (D-MA), many provisions of which were not included in the final bill going to the full Senate.  

Text of the Truck Safety Act (S. 1739), sponsored by Sen. Booker (D-NJ), many provisions of which were not included in the final bill going to the full Senate. 

Text of the Comprehensive Transportation and Consumer Protection Act of 2015 (S. 1732), sponsored by Sen. Thune (R-SD), which will go on to the full Senate in the next week.

Joint Statement of various safety organizations addressing pending legislation. 

Letter from various safety organizations to Sen. Thune opposing legislation.

On a personal note, Janette Fennell, President of, my husband and I met with Congressmen, Senators and other staffers, along with David Friedman, then-Acting Administrator of NHTSA, last September to discuss the need for further research and attention to the known risks of child hyperthermia deaths from hot cars. One of the most striking phrases and I heard from a staffer was the following: "It's lives for dollars." The staffer was referring to the cost/benefit analysis inherent in any administrative decision to regulate industry. I remember looking at the staffer and saying something along these lines: "As an attorney and intelligent woman, I understand exactly what you mean by that statement, and I accept that as the way government works. However, as a mother, who just lost her son, I'll have to walk out the door for a breather, if I hear that phrase again. My son's life cannot be valued in monetary terms." In my notes, I drew a triangle between Capitol Hill, regulators (NHTSA) and the automobile industry (and it's lobbyists). We discussed the revolving door between NHTSA and automakers, which can be a roadblock to safety reform. See Bill Aims to Close "Revolving Door" Between Automakers, Traffic Safety Agency, The Washington Post, April 28, 2010. Safety advocates are battling powerful auto lobbyists at every turn. For example, Ford Motor Co. made slightly over $1 million in political contributions in 2013-14, while GM made $724,445 in contributions, according to open

Our country is stagnating due to party politics and fragmentation. What could we accomplish if politicians and citizens joined forces and accepted a world view of compromise and negotiation, instead of partisanship, left/right, right/wrong, black/white? This may be one of our last chances to enact safety reform. Please make your voice heard. 

My statement during the media call today, held by Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety:

"I come to you today on the heels of our country’s tenth child vehicular heatstroke death of 2015, which occurred last Friday in Texas. The child was a two year old girl. One year ago, my own 15-month old son, Benjamin, died from heatstroke after being left in the back seat of our car unknowingly by my husband. As an attorney and grieving mother, it was startling for me to learn that safety advocates had been urging Congress to pass legislation requiring NHTSA to address this vehicle safety concern for over a decade, legislation which could have potentially saved my son’s life. In 2007, language calling upon NHTSA to issue regulations that would have required driver reminder systems in cars was stricken from the Cameron Gulbransen Kids Transportation Safety Act, due to opposing corporate interests and partisanship. Since 2007, approximately 314 children have died in hot cars. This same mistake is happening again as we speak. Language directing NHTSA to complete research into the development of driver reminder systems within two years has again been stricken from the Comprehensive Transportation and Consumer Protection Act (S. 1732). This is not a partisan issue, this is a human issue, with our children’s lives at stake. NHTSA has made little if any progress addressing the potential for technological solutions on it’s own without Congressional directive. Since NHTSA last conducted round table discussions on this issue in 2011, resulting in a call for a public awareness campaign only, at least 153 children have died, 32 in 2014 alone, including my son.

Experience from past vehicle safety initiatives shows that education alone will not fully mitigate this known risk and eliminate child vehicular heatstroke deaths. Research into the viability of other technological solutions is needed. Car manufacturers themselves publicly identified this as a serious safety problem as far back as 2001. How many more children will lose their lives before Congress can align in a bi-partisan fashion to act and force real progress on this important transportation safety concern? We must act now. I ask that constituents call their state Senators to speak out against S. 1732 without needed amendments.

I want to also thank Senator Blumenthal from Connecticut, where I lived when I lost my son last year, for his unfailing support of transportation safety issues. Thank you for your time."