Opinion: Transportation Safety — Are We There Yet? Sec. Ray LaHood

(Oct. 4) — As the grandfather of nine, I take safety personally. Every time my grandkids get in a car, bus, train or plane, I need to know that they are safe.

At the U.S. Department of Transportation, our fundamental mission is to help Americans move safely from one place to another. Accidents can happen in the blink of an eye. So our solemn obligation — the responsibility with which the American people have entrusted us — is to help prevent those accidents. As long as President Barack Obama and I are on the job, we will not take that trust lightly. When it comes to safety, we will not take a back seat to anyone.

Many Americans are familiar with our crusade against distracted driving, our fight to give airline passengers the rights and respect they deserve and our push to hold automakers accountable for safety defects in their vehicles.

But consider a few other initiatives under way. On Tuesday, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration will unveil an updated five-star safety rating program for cars. It will require that manufacturers subject their automobiles to more rigorous crash tests. And, for the first time, it will help consumers choose the safest car based on one overall score.

The Federal Aviation Administration has also developed a pilot-fatigue rule that, if adopted, would afford pilots the opportunity to get proper rest between flights. My worst day as secretary of transportation was Feb. 12, 2009, when Colgan Air Flight 3407 crashed outside Buffalo, N.Y., an accident in which fatigue may have impaired the pilots’ performance. During the weeks that followed, I met with families of the crash’s 50 victims. Pilot fatigue is an issue that had remained unaddressed for two decades.

We’re also cracking down on fatigue among truck and automobile drivers. This spring, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration issued a final rule that requires trucking companies to install electronic on-board recorders in each of their fleet’s vehicles if their operators violate hours-of-service regulations. These devices automatically register the hours that drivers are behind the wheel — and enable safety enforcers to more effectively identify serial violators and protect others on the road. A broader rule ordering similar recorders on all commercial trucks and buses will soon follow.

The Federal Highway Administration, furthermore, is working with states to construct safety edges on America’s roadsides. This simple innovation sets the outside edge of new or resurfaced pavement at 30 degrees, helping fatigued drivers who have strayed from the road to more safely re-enter traffic.

Finally, President Obama sent a transit safety bill to Congress that, if passed, would empower the Federal Transit Administration to monitor state and regional transit systems. This legislation — the first transit safety proposal that any president has ever brought to Capitol Hill — will help avert tragedies like June’s deadly Metro collision in Washington, D.C.

At the same time as we undertake these actions, we and our partners continue reminding Americans about the dangers of driving without a seat belt or under the influence. As a consequence, roughly 85 percent of Americans now click their belts whenever they ride in a car –up from 60 percent 15 years ago. Drunken driving fatalities declined by almost 20 percent between 2006 and 2009, though impaired drivers still constitute almost one-third of roadway fatalities.

We’ve also significantly reorganized our own department so that our tens of thousands of dedicated safety professionals can accomplish even more. Last year, I tasked Deputy Secretary John Porcari with establishing a DOT Safety Council. Now, for the first time since President Lyndon Johnson founded DOT in 1966, senior leaders from our 10 operating administrations coordinate across organizational boundaries to take on America’s toughest safety challenges.

The results speak for themselves. The United States enjoys its lowest traffic fatality and injury rates since the government started keeping statistics in 1950. The frequency of aviation, rail and maritime accidents continues to decline.

Still, while we have made substantial progress, our work is not done — not by a long shot.

Take it from me, the grandfather of nine, we cannot rest until America’s skies, roadways, railways and waterways are the safest they can possibly be.

Ray LaHood is secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation.