Order Code RS22153
May 23, 2005
CRS Report for Congress
Received through the CRS Web
Highway and Traffic Safety Programs
Reauthorization: Background and Selected
Key Provisions in Conference
David Randall Peterman
Analyst in Science and Technology
Resources, Science, and Industry Division
The House and Senate have passed their respective versions of H.R. 3, which
reauthorizes federal surface transportation programs, including funding through FY2009
for the highway and traffic safety programs and grants administered by the Federal
Highway Administration (FHWA), the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
(NHTSA), and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA). These bills
would create a new separate grant program to improve highway safety infrastructure,
and revise federal programs or policies seeking to increase safety-belt use rates, reduce
alcohol-impaired driving, and strengthen commercial drivers licensing and information
systems. A conference committee will attempt to reconcile differences between the
House and Senate bills regarding the amounts to be authorized, purposes, and eligibility
criteria for various highway and traffic safety grants. Decision makers face the
challenge of allocating resources used to advance primarily safety objectives against
funds needed to meet other surface transportation needs. This report provides
background information on several of the key safety-oriented provisions and issues
addressed in these bills, and supplements CRS Issue Brief IB10138. This report will not
The Policy Context and Diversity of Challenges2
Traffic crashes each year in the United States result in some 42,000 fatalities and
about 2.9 million injuries, and thus create a major public health problem. These traffic
incidents result in significant economic costs totaling more than $230 billion annually,
Note: Paul Rothberg, who has retired from CRS, is the author of this report. Randy Peterman
is the CRS analyst who currently handles issues covered by this report.
Clare Brigidini, Resources, Science, and Industry Division, provided editorial support.
Congressional Research Service ˜ The Library of Congress
according to NHTSA.3 Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death in the United
States for people ages 3 to 33. Despite these sobering statistics, there is cause for
optimism. The lowest fatality rate ever recorded — 1.48 fatalities per 100 million vehicle
miles traveled — was achieved in 2003.4 NHTSA reports that alcohol-related fatalities
declined significantly in 2003 — the first drop in that level since 1999.5 Preliminary 2004
NHTSA data indicate further improvement over the 2003 fatality rate and the number of
alcohol-related fatalities. Furthermore, survey data indicate that the national average
safety-belt use rate hit 80% in 2004 — the highest level in the nation’s history. NHTSA
estimates that 15,200 lives and $50 billion in economic costs associated with traffic
related crashes, injuries, and deaths are saved, every year, when this high level of seat belt
To help continue these improvements in safety trends and make progress toward
many other national objectives, the House and Senate have passed their respective
versions of H.R. 3. These bills reauthorize various federal surface transportation
programs, including those that significantly affect diverse safety challenges. As
envisioned in these bills, Congress seeks to revise some of the existing highway and
traffic safety grants that are provided to the states, and to create some new grants affecting
safety.7 Because many states and local governments are still struggling with tight budgets,
federal grants to enhance safety play an important role in promoting safety. These bills
also would catalyze significant changes in some federal safety programs and regulations.
Because of their financial impacts and life saving potential, legislative changes to federal
grants and regulations are of fundamental importance to the states, local governments,
industry, and other users of the surface transportation system.
Safety concerns resonate through numerous provisions of H.R. 3. Essentially all
groups support safety-oriented legislation that saves lives, but the means favored to
accomplish this objective vary. The diversity of interest groups and their safety-oriented
goals is substantial. This diversity is reflected by legislative provisions intended to
improve driver education, motorcycle safety, rural road safety, state traffic safety
information systems, and commercial drivers licensing programs and information
systems, as well as child transportation safety.
A conference committee will try to reconcile numerous differences between the
House and Senate versions of H.R. 3. In specific, this committee will specify funding
levels for the core federal safety programs administered by the FHWA, NHTSA, and
FMCSA. Also, its members will decide on the purposes, eligibility criteria, and structure
of various safety grants provided to the states. To a large extent, the final statute will
determine the availability of federal funds provided to supplement state investments in
2003 is the latest year for which full year statistics are available.
NHTSA press release 38-04, August 25, 2004.
DOT press release 173-04, September 16, 2004.
Highway safety programs can refer to efforts to improve or enhance the specific safety
components of the surface transportation infrastructure, e.g., hazard-elimination investments or
grade-crossing improvements; traffic safety programs typically refer to efforts to improve driver
or pedestrian behavior; but sometimes these terms are used interchangeably.
highway safety infrastructure, as well as the resources for such traffic safety activities as
sobriety road checks and safety belt “buckle up” campaigns. Of pivotal importance is the
funding formula used to determine how much money a state receives from the Federal
Highway Trust Fund to improve its highway infrastructure, as well as the grant criteria
that determine whether a state qualifies to receive incentive funds to improve its occupant
protection and alcohol countermeasure (anti-drunk driving) programs.
In the reauthorization bill, Congress faces the challenge of providing the legislative
framework to improve upon federal programs, grants, and regulations influencing specific
areas of highway and traffic safety. To different degrees, the bills reflect the desire for
continued efforts or improved laws to encourage more people to “buckle up” and to deal
with repeat traffic-safety offenders who continue to violate driving-while-intoxicated
(DWI) or driving-under-the-influence (DUI) prohibitions. Both versions of H.R. 3
include authority to establish a new grant program to improve motorcycle safety. The
substantial increase in the number of fatalities of motorcyclists in recent years has
underpinned support to enhance state motorcycle training and outreach efforts with
federal monies.8 Both bills also respond to those who seek changes in existing federal
motor carrier programs and regulations. By creating a new grant program to improve
traffic information safety systems, both bills respond to pleas from the safety community
for resources that can enhance decision making, including improved safety data systems
and driver records. Despite many similarities, there also are major difference between the
two bills. For example, the Senate version of H.R. 3 specifically addresses the mobility
and safety challenges posed by some older drivers and authorizes $2 million in each year
of FY2006 through FY2009 for this purpose. The House bill does not include this
Competition for funds is intense among various safety programs. A key challenge
will be to find additional funds to increase federal support for safety-oriented activities,
and to find the appropriate balance to meet such diverse objectives as improving safety,
retaining state flexibility, and ensuring accountability. Decision makers also face the
difficult hurdle of balancing funds primarily intended to promote safety against funds
needed to meet other surface transportation objectives, such as increasing mobility and
reducing environmental impacts of highway operations.
Key Safety Provisions Included in H.R. 3
Infrastructure and Highway Safety. Both versions of H.R. 3 authorize billions
of dollars of federal-highway program funds intended to improve the design, throughput,
and overall performance and safety of the highway infrastructure. These bills authorize
increased transit funding that is intended to reduce the growth in the number of vehicles
on the highway system, and thus also impact traffic safety. Both bills authorize a new
grant program, called the “Highway Safety Improvement Program,” that would fund an
array of safety investments, including funds to enhance safety at highway/rail grade
crossings and reduce road hazards.9 Both bills establish a “Safe Routes to School
The number of motorcyclist fatalities rose from 3,270 in 2002 to 3,661 in 2003, an increase of
12%, with preliminary 2004 NHTSA data indicating 3,927 such deaths.
For example, for the Highway Safety Improvement Program specified under sections 130 and
Program” with funds for the planning, design, and construction of projects to encourage
children to bike and walk to school safely.10 Both bills call for improved regulations
regarding the safety of highway construction workers. If the Senate version prevails,
states also would be required to develop and implement a strategic plan that identifies and
analyzes highway safety problems and opportunities and that results in strategies or
projects to reduce such problems. Under the Senate bill, states also would be required to
adopt performance-based goals that focus resources on areas of greatest need and establish
and implement a schedule for conducting safety projects for hazards correction and
prevention. The House bill authorizes a new High Risk Rural Road Safety Improvement
Program.11 The set aside for highway safety infrastructure projects now specified as part
of the Surface Transportation Program is proposed to be eliminated.
FHWA’s and Other Highway Research and Development Activities
Affecting Safety. The conferees are debating the amount of funding authorized for
FHWA’s and other core research, development, and technology deployment activities.
Safety is an integral component of these activities. Research and technical guidance and
outreach activities regarding pedestrian, grade crossing, and intersection concerns, and
work to improve the visibility of road signage are illustrative activities likely to be funded.
As envisioned in both bills, the reauthorization statute will include funding amounts for
the Local Technical Assistance Program, the National Highway Institute, and the
University Transportation Research (or Centers) Program. Each of these training or
technical assistance efforts has important safety components.
NHTSA’s Section 403 Activity. Both bills would increase significantly the
amount of funds authorized for NHTSA’s Section 403 provision, which provides the
working capital that this agency uses to address behavioral as opposed to vehicular issues.
Congress historically has provided a separate authorization for these activities and in
recent years that funding amount was roughly $72 million per year. NHTSA uses Section
403 funds for a variety of purposes, including to enter into cooperative arrangements with
numerous partners to achieve common safety objectives or to increase fundamental
knowledge regarding traffic safety.12 There is much evidence that the studies and
152, the House version of H.R. 3 authorizes $630 million for FY2005, $645 million for FY2006,
$660 million for FY2007, $680 million for FY2008, and $695 million for FY2009. The Senate
bill authorizes for each year FY2005 through FY2009 roughly $1.32 billion for its version of the
Highway Safety Improvement Program specified under section 148.
House version of H.R. 3 authorizes specifically for the Safe Routes to School Program $150
million for FY2005, $175 million for each of FY2006, FY2007, and FY2008, and $200 million
for FY2009. The Senate version specifies that before apportioning amounts to carry out Section
148 (the Highway Safety Improvement Program) for a fiscal year, the Secretary shall set aside
and use roughly $65.7million to carry out the Safe Routes to School Program.
Under Section 1403, the House version of H.R. 3 authorizes for the High Risk Rural Road
Safety Improvement Program $105 million for FY2005, $110 million for FY2006, $120 million
for FY2007, $125 million for FY2008, and $130 million for FY2009.
For example, funds are used to formulate and implement various innovative traffic safety
programs or campaigns sponsored by NHTSA. These efforts seek to reduce impaired driving,
increase occupant protection, collect and analyze safety data, and sponsor demonstrations to test
technical assistance resulting from Section 403 funds have improved state and local
governmental traffic safety activities and have been used as a basis for strengthening
related laws.13 The House and Senate bills differ substantially on the amount of funds set
aside for Section 403 funding and on specified purposes for these funds.14
NHTSA’s Vehicle Safety and Consumer-Oriented Activities. The
reauthorization statute may set a funding level for NHTSA’s operations and research
account, which includes support for its vehicle safety programs.15 As part of the
reauthorization process, the conference committee is considering whether to require
NHTSA to issue a variety of vehicle safety regulations. The Administration maintains
that congressional mandates take away NHTSA’s ability to prioritize its work, while
others maintain that such directives and deadlines are needed and expedite the rulemaking
process or help promote accountability.
Traffic Safety Grants, Penalties, and Transfers. Strategies are incorporated
into federal law to encourage states to adopt and maintain certain traffic safety laws or
programs. Three approaches include incentives, transfers, or loss of certain highway
monies.16 The House and Senate bills would modify the specifications for a law regarding
a repeat intoxicated driver offense that any state must enforce to avoid a transfer
provision. The Senate bill also would extend a transfer provision to affect any state not
enforcing laws that impose certain penalties on an individual convicted of DWI or DUI
with a blood alcohol concentration level of 0.15 percent or greater or driving with a
license suspended because of a DUI conviction. The Senate bill would impose a financial
penalty against any state that does not enforce a law that prohibits the possession of any
or evaluate innovative safety measures. NHTSA uses Section 403 funds to help address key
current issues in traffic safety, such as those pertaining to older, drowsy, or fatigued drivers.
See CRS Report RS21368, Traffic Safety: Reauthorization of Section 403.
For Section 403, the House version of H.R. 3 authorizes $75 million each year for FY2006
through FY2009, while, the Senate version authorizes approximately $142 million each year
during this period. These amounts are not comparable for several reasons, e.g., the Senate bill
would fund public information activities to support high visibility enforcement campaigns out
of Section 403 funds, while this activity would be funded separately in the House bill.
With these funds, NHTSA issues new safety regulations, checks vehicles for compliance with
its regulations, investigates vehicle safety concerns, conducts an array of crash-worthiness tests,
studies various safety systems, and determines its vehicle rollover ratings. NHTSA investigators
develop technical information that can help consumers better evaluate aspects of vehicle safety
performance. The total amount of funding authorized, and subsequently appropriated, affects the
ability of NHTSA to conduct these activities and thus the quality of the consumer information
the agency provides as well as the effectiveness of federal oversight of vehicle safety.
For example, an incentive grant can be awarded to a state if it adopts certain measures to
improve occupant protection. Or, a state may lose some of its flexibility on how it can spend
certain monies it receives from the Federal Highway Trust Fund, e.g., a state may be forced to
transfer some of its highway construction funds into hazard elimination investments or alcoholimpaired driving countermeasures if it does not enforce certain laws. As a penalty, a portion of
a state’s apportioned Federal Highway Trust funds can be taken away if it does not enforce a law
which determines the threshold needed for someone to be convicted of driving-while-intoxicated
or an equivalent per se offense.
open alcoholic beverage container, or the consumption of any alcoholic beverage, in the
passenger area of any motor vehicle.
Based on H.R. 3, Congress is likely to change the amount of funding and the
eligibility criteria for various traffic safety grants. Support exists for increasing funding
for the Section 402 (state and community traffic safety), Section 410 (drunk driving
countermeasures), and Section 405 (occupant protection enhancement) grants.17 The
Senate-passed bill places substantial emphasis on rewarding those states that adopt and
enforce primary seat belt laws; whereas the House-passed bill allows a state to qualify for
Section 405 funding even if it does not enact and enforce such a law.
Motor Carrier Safety. Both the House and Senate versions of H.R. 3 authorize
on average slightly more than $500 million per year for FY2006 through FY2009 for the
operations and the various grant programs administered by the FMCSA. These bills also
specify new required rulemakings affecting motor carriers and changes to agency
enforcement authorities and programs.18 The conference committee is now deciding the
amount of federal funding to support federal and state programs or enforcement activities,
various programmatic changes to improve these efforts, and future regulatory actions.
Based on the bills passed, the final reauthorization law will set funding levels for
grants for (1) the Motor Carrier Safety Assistance Program, which supplements state
funds for enforcement of commercial motor carrier safety regulations and hazardous
materials transportation safety regulations; and (2) various information systems, which
help monitor industry performance. The final statute is likely to strengthen the
enforcement powers of the FMCSA, authorize a dedicated grant program to improve
commercial driver licensing efforts, establish a Medical Review Board to provide advice
on driver physical qualification standards, and establish a more clearly defined
enforcement program intended to improve the safety of intermodal containers.
Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS). The federally-supported ITS
program funds research, development, and demonstrations (R&D&D) of many different
safety-oriented technologies. The conference committee on H.R 3 will debate the goals,
objectives, and the amount of funding (proposed at roughly $115 million per year), as well
as the purposes of the federal component of the national ITS R&D&D program. The
House bill identifies areas for higher priority funding, including projects that enhance
safety through improved crash avoidance and notification, and infrastructure-based safety
systems. The Senate version also identifies projects for priority funding, including those
to test the integration of at least three crash-avoidance technologies in passenger vehicles;
integrate intelligent infrastructure, vehicle, and control technologies; and improve the
overall safety performance of vehicles and roadways. Safety-oriented projects will need
to compete for funding against other projects funded by the DOT ITS R&D&D program.
Websites that describe key components of these grants under current law include
The House version of H.R. 3 would authorize $919 million for FY2006 through FY2009
funding for the administrative operations of the FMCSA. The Senate version would authorize
$880 million for these activities. Separate authorization is provided for various grants to states.