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U.S. Department of Transportation U.S. Department of Transportation Icon United States Department of Transportation United States Department of Transportation

Public Roads - Spring 1996

The Secretary's Highway Safety Action Plan

by Frederick G. Wright Jr.

During the debate on the National Highway System (NHS) Designation Act of 1995, a great deal of attention was focused on highway safety issues in the bill and the evolving federal role in highway safety.

In a fundamental shift of authority from the federal government to the states, Congress granted states the right to virtually set their own highway safety laws.

The most controversial aspects of the act were the repeal of the national maximum speed limit law, the repeal of the law encouraging states to enact motorcycle helmet use laws, and the potential exemption of large numbers of small- to medium-sized trucks and their drivers from critical safety regulations governing driver qualifications and truck maintenance.

While the debate on the NHS Designation Act was under way, the Department of Transportation (DOT) formulated the Secretary's Highway Safety Action Plan to address concerns associated with the highway safety issues embodied in the legislation. The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) have worked closely on the development and implementation of this plan, which became effective upon the signing of the NHS Designation Act by the president on Nov. 28, 1995.

The Secretary's Highway Safety Action Plan is a series of actions, some ongoing and some planned for the future, that address the safety issues of NHS and the emerging state responsibilities in the federal-state partnership in highway safety.

The primary objectives of the action plan are to:

  • Make state and local policy-makers aware of the costs to taxpayers and business of highway crashes as the responsibility for highway safety programs shifts to states and local governments.
  • Work with states, local policy-makers, taxpayers, and business to enact laws that attack highway safety problems in their communities.

The 10 major elements of the action plan are:

  • Strengthen partnerships. President Clinton will work with the governors and state legislatures to emphasize highway safety, thereby reducing deaths, injuries, and related costs.
  • Educate policy-makers. Secretary of Transportation Federico Peña has established a task force on highway injury costs. The task force - composed of representatives from the medical, insurance, and legislative communities - will seek to educate policy-makers at all levels on the consequences of weakening highway safety laws.
  • Urge caution about increasing speed limits. The secretary contacted governors and urged them to work with their state legislatures to conduct public hearings and to fully consider and debate the impact of increasing speed limits.
  • Implement proactive programs. DOT will work to ensure that all governors and state legislators are aware of the costs of highway crashes; to encourage the adoption of traffic safety laws, including "zero tolerance" as the standard for the blood-alcohol level of drivers under the age of 21; to study the setting of speed limits; to encourage replication of "best practices"; and to promote public education about the benefits of safety laws.
  • Develop performance-based systems. The secretary will encourage the states to track specific motor vehicle crashes, determine causal factors, and identify costs. DOT will assist the states in this effort and will assist state policy-makers as they consider their state's highway safety policies.
  • Support zero tolerance. DOT will aggressively support the passage and enforcement of zero tolerance legislation by the States and will provide technical assistance to the states.
  • Promote safety management systems. DOT will aggressively promote and provide training for the development of state safety management system efforts. DOT will showcase the "best practices" to show system benefits.
  • Implement the Traffic Safety Pilot Program. DOT will carefully exercise its discretion and will seek broad public input in implementing the new pilot program for medium-sized trucks (less than 11,800 kilograms).
  • Monitor exemption programs. The department will closely monitor the statutory exemptions that remove safety requirements for specific categories of truck operators and, if necessary, will conduct a rulemaking to modify or revoke the exemptions.
  • Exercise technology leadership. DOT will develop a safety-based technology plan that aggressively promotes intelligent transportation systems and technology applications.



Much of the action plan is a continuation of activities that have already been identified, through strategic planning in FHWA and NHTSA, as high-priority areas. Some of the continuing activities include:

  • Safe community programs - a DOT initiative to create local coalitions to improve highway safety.
  • Moving Kids Safely - a joint conference sponsored by DOT, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Department of Education.
  • Network of Employers for Traffic Safety (NETS) - a partnership to educate the private sector on the costs of motor vehicle crashes to their companies and to help reduce these costs.
  • Highway work-zone safety - a national work-zone safety education and awareness campaign and a national work-zone safety information clearinghouse.
  • Red-light-running campaign - a public education and enforcement campaign to reduce the incidence of red-light running.
  • Grade-crossing safety - implementation of the DOT Grade-Crossing Action Plan, including the elimination of crossings on NHS roads.
  • Using advanced technologies to provide highway safety enhancements - Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) technologies, including collision avoidance warning systems, electronic traveler guidance and weather warning information systems, commercial vehicle clearance systems, and pen-based computerized inspection programs for commercial vehicles.
  • Truck and Bus Safety Summit - a forum of experts to present their viewpoints on truck and bus safety issues.
  • Reduction of fatal commercial vehicle crashes - an effort by DOT and the 10 states that account for 40 percent of all fatal commercial motor vehicle crashes to find out the reasons for these crashes, develop countermeasures, and reduce crashes by 25 percent in these states.
  • Share the Road Campaign - an outreach campaign to educate the public on sharing the road with commercial vehicles.

For more information about the Secretary's Highway Safety Action Plan, contact FHWA's Office of Highway Safety at (202) 366-1153 or see the secretary's statement released on Nov. 28, 1995, upon the president's signing of the National Highway System Designation Act. The secretary's statement is on page 32 of the Winter 1996 issue of Public Roads.

Frederick G. (Bud) Wright Jr. is the director of FHWA's Office of Highway Safety.