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GG 25
Save Lives on Texas Roads

Summary

Texas has the nation’s worst traffic safety problem by almost any measure. More Texans are killed in traffic crashes than in any other state, and more are killed in alcohol-related crashes than in any other state. Other states have used measures such as enhanced penalties for offenders with very high blood alcohol levels and increased testing of blood-alcohol levels in fatal crashes to make their roads safer. The Legislature should take steps to qualify for more traffic safety money to save lives and cut property losses.

Background

Traffic safety is a serious problem in the U.S., especially in Texas. In 2000 alone, 41,821 people were killed in traffic crashes in the U.S.[1] Traffic accidents are the leading cause of death for Americans aged five through 29 years old.[2] An average of six children were killed in traffic accidents each day in 2000. In half of these cases, the children were passengers in vehicles with drivers who had been drinking.[3] The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that three of every 10 Americans will be involved in an alcohol-related crash at some time in their lives.[4]

More Texans lose their lives in traffic accidents than the citizens of any other state. In 2000, 3,769 people were killed on Texas roads, compared to 3,753 in California and 2,999 in Florida. Interestingly, California had fewer traffic deaths but 13 million more people.

Texas has the nation’s worst problem with drunk driving in terms of total deaths and injuries. Texas had the highest rate of alcohol involvement in traffic deaths of any populous state, with 50 percent of traffic fatalities involving alcohol, compared to 37 percent in California and 40 percent in Florida. Only Alaska and Rhode Island have higher rates of fatalities involving alcohol than Texas.[5]

Recent legislative efforts

The Texas Legislature has taken some steps to make highways safer. The Legislature passed mandatory seatbelt laws in the 1980s in response to threatened federal sanctions. An administrative license revocation program approved in 1995 allows authorities to take drivers’ licenses away from drunk drivers. Traffic safety efforts were further strengthened in 1997 by a “zero tolerance” law that prohibits drivers under age 21 from having any amount of alcohol in their bloodstream. And the state lowered the legal blood-alcohol content (BAC) limit for adult drivers from 0.10 percent to 0.08 percent in 1999, again in response to threats of reductions in federal highway money.

The Legislature was especially active on traffic safety issues in 2001. Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) described it as one of the best legislative sessions ever for its agenda. Major accomplishments included an open container law that makes it illegal to have open containers of alcohol in vehicle passenger areas and establishes higher penalties for drunk driving under administrative licensing revocation by increasing the period of license suspension from three to six months.[6]

The 2001 Legislature also created a “graduated” licensing system for young drivers. For their first six months of driving, youths cannot drive between midnight and 5 a.m. except for school or job-related reasons. Also, new drivers cannot have more than one passenger under age 21 who is not a family member. Seatbelt requirements were toughened, too. Children younger than four must ride in an approved car seat. From age four to 16, children must wear a seatbelt while seated anywhere in the vehicle.[7]

Drunk-driving strategies

High accident rates and federal pressure on state highway funds have prompted a number of states to take steps to reduce drunk driving. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), states’ most common strategies for reducing drunk driving include the 0.08 BAC law, stronger penalties for refusing breath tests (called “implied consent” refusals) and drunk-driving child endangerment laws. Most states, including Texas, have taken such steps.

Some states, however, have gone further. In 2001, five states (Colorado, Illinois, Missouri, Nevada and Utah) passed laws dealing with offenders who have high blood alcohol amounts—beyond the 0.08 percent limit—bringing the total number of states with high BAC laws to 29. Typically, such laws levy heavier penalties on drunk drivers with BACs from 0.15 percent to 0.20 percent, or over twice the legal limit.[8] According to NHTSA, most states report few problems implementing such a two-tiered system and have seen a positive effect on reducing drunk driving.

Forty states also use sobriety checkpoints—that is, police stops where randomly selected drivers are interviewed to determine whether they are under the influence of alcohol. A recent report by the RAND Corporation indicates that checkpoints have proven to be extremely useful in lowering death rates.[9] Sobriety checkpoints are most likely to persuade drivers to change their behavior if they are well publicized. Studies have attributed checkpoints with spurring reductions of about 40 percent in drunk driving and alcohol-related deaths in both California and New York, with slight driver inconvenience. (For a more detailed discussion of sobriety checkpoints, see Challenging the Status Quo, issue PS 2: Strengthen Traffic Safety in Texas.)

“Distracted“ driving

“Distracted” driving is another growing concern. According to NHTSA, about 25 percent of all crashes are related to distractions.[10] Cell phone use while driving is just one distraction worrying safety advocates. Other examples include changing radio stations, eating, reading and using computers. Even so, cell phone use has received the most attention, and New York recently became the first state to ban cell phone use while driving.

Twenty states including Texas have begun tracking cell phone involvement in crashes. Texas accident report forms now list both cell phone use and “road rage” as potential factors contributing to crashes. No results are expected soon, however. According to the Texas Department of Public Safety, some numbers from 2000 may become available in 2002 but will be “spotty.” The agency expects that many police departments did not begin using the new forms in 2000, instead using old accident forms until they were used up. Reliable numbers may not be available until summer 2003.[11]

A recent Texas Attorney General’s opinion held that the use of cameras at red-lights in Texas is legal and that the complaint must be treated as a criminal offense. The opinion noted, however, that there were “practical difficulties in successfully prosecuting red light runners based upon evidence obtained by an intersection camera.”[12] This leaves the practice facing legal uncertainties, particularly regarding privacy and standards of proof.

More money for Texas traffic safety?

The Federal Highway Safety Act of 1966 made the Texas governor responsible for administering the state’s traffic safety program, with enforcement left to state and local law enforcement. Since then, administrative responsibility for traffic safety programs has been transferred to TxDOT. TxDOT provides more than $19 million in federal funding per year to local governments and community groups for traffic enforcement efforts. Specific activities funded by TxDOT include extra driving while intoxicated (DWI) enforcement by local police departments; grants to schools for alcohol- and drug-free graduation parties and proms; and bilingual education efforts promoting seatbelt use. Police have used TxDOT funds to target high-frequency crash locations and focus more officers on speeding, DWI and reckless driving. In addition, volunteers from rural areas have received training as emergency medical technicians.[13]

TxDOT estimates that Texas may qualify for an additional $2.3 million in federal traffic safety funds in 2003. The Transportation Equity for the 21st Century Act (the 1998 federal highway bill) created new funding opportunities for highway safety programs. TxDOT has identified Alcohol-Impaired Driving Prevention Incentive Grants (also known as Section 410 grants) as a possible source of more money for Texas.[14]

Such funding, however, would require Texas to meet five of the following seven criteria:

  1. Administrative license revocation. The state must have an administrative driver’s license suspension system requiring suspension of an offender’s license within 30 days. Texas law currently has a 40-day period.
  2. Underage drinking prevention. The state must have an effective underage drinking prevention program. Texas may qualify.
  3. Intensive statewide traffic enforcement for impaired drivers. The state must have a statewide traffic enforcement program targeting impaired drivers that may include sobriety checkpoints or other, equally effective measures. Texas may qualify.
  4. Graduated licensing. The state must have a three-stage graduated driver’s licensing program. Texas does not qualify.
  5. Target high BAC drivers. The state must have a program targeting high BAC drivers. Texas does not qualify.
  6. DWI enforcement. The state must have a program to reduce DWI among individuals aged 21 to 34. Texas may qualify.
  7. Increase BAC testing in fatal crashes. The state must have a program to increase the testing of BAC in drivers involved in fatal crashes and must maintain a testing rate above the national average. Texas does not qualify because the state tests at a lower rate.[15]

The Transportation Equity for the 21st Century Act expires at the end of 2003, and programs such as Section 410 may or may not continue in their present form in future years. Given past experience, it seems likely that Congress will provide both incentives and disincentives, using highway funds to induce states to make their highways safer.

In the short run, money is available but Texas must act fast. According to NHTSA, Texas could apply as late as August 2003 for funds available in federal fiscal 2003. The estimated $2.3 million then could be carried over for a year in TxDOT’s budget and spent to improve traffic safety.

NHTSA determines whether a state meets the Section 410 criteria. TxDOT believes that Texas already qualifies under two criteria, underage drinking prevention and statewide traffic enforcement, and may qualify under DWI enforcement as well.

Given Texas’ low testing rate, Texas does not qualify under BAC testing criteria. While DPS officers have the authority to order blood tests in fatal crashes, they sometimes do not do so. Placing Texas above the national average in this category would require a change in practice on the part of law enforcement, prosecutors and judges, or increased authority for law enforcement to order a test.

Legislative action would be required to qualify under the other criteria.[16] Specifically, Transportation Code Section 524.021 must be amended to change the effective date of a license suspension to 30 days from 40 days after conviction under the administrative driver’s license suspension system. Second, Section 49.09 of the Penal Code must be changed to enhance sanctions for drivers with high BACs. Options to meet federal guidelines include longer license suspensions, increased fines, longer jail time, vehicle sanctions or mandatory treatment. Third, Transportation Code Section 521.204 must be changed to increase restrictions on minors under graduated driver’s licensing.

Truck safety

Increasing truck traffic and the resulting congestion and safety issues prompted the 1997 Legislature to authorize cities to restrict trucks from using the left lane of highways. To do so, cities must pass an ordinance to this effect and submit a proposal to TxDOT for approval. Houston recently became the first city to adopt this policy, which produced dramatic results. Initial results showed a 68 percent reduction in accidents. TxDOT sent letters to cities publicizing the program in May 2002 and reports considerable interest.[17]

In areas such as Central Texas’ I-35 corridor, however, many segments of the highway between communities fall outside of city jurisdiction. Neither TxDOT nor counties have authority to restrict trucks from the left lane of highways. As a result, such corridors could become a patchwork of differing rules for trucks, assuming TxDOT approves all city requests.

Recommendations

A. State law should be amended to meet at least two more of the seven criteria necessary to qualify for more federal traffic safety grant money.
As noted above, Texas may already qualify under three criteria. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration staff members are available to consult with legislative staff on how Texas can meet these requirements. Legislative action would be required to qualify under at least two of three remaining criteria—administrative license revocation, graduated licensing or the targeting of high BAC drivers. Texas does not qualify under the BAC testing criteria and, practically speaking, the number could not be raised in time to qualify for 2003 money. Even so, this criterion may be applied in future federal grant programs and is worth pursuing.
B. After legislative action, the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) should move immediately to apply for more federal highway safety money.
TxDOT’s Traffic Safety Division should be ready to apply for additional funding under Section 410 no later than summer 2003.
C. State law should be amended to give TxDOT authority to restrict trucks to certain lanes.

Fiscal Impact

Texas could gain more money for traffic safety by meeting a minimum of five of seven criteria under the Section 410 grant program. TxDOT estimates that if current funding levels are maintained, $2.3 million would become available. The exact amount, however, would depend upon factors including the amount of money Congress appropriates for this program in 2003 and how many states apply for the funds.

Given Texas’ serious problems with drinking and driving, speeding, and lack of seatbelt use, this money could be put to good use to save lives by funding extra local police efforts to catch drunk drivers. No significant cost is expected from meeting the additional criteria. TxDOT’s Traffic Safety Division is familiar with federal funding procedures and should use available resources to complete the application for more Section 410 money.

Because truck lane legislation would be permissive, no extra mandatory costs would be imposed on local or state government. TxDOT has assumed responsibility for signage related to such restricted areas, but the number of miles of highway that might be affected would depend upon future events and cannot be estimated. While enforcement of truck-only lanes might result in an increase in tickets issued, the amount of the increase in fine revenue also would depend upon future actions and cannot be estimated.


Endnotes

[1]National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, National Center for Statistics and Analysis, Research and Development, Traffic Safety Facts 2000 (U.S. Department of Transportation, Washington, D.C.), p. 1.

[2]National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, “State Legislative Fact Sheet,” (U.S. Department of Transportation, Washington, D.C.), pp. 1-2.

[3]National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, National Center for Statistics and Analysis, Research and Development, Traffic Safety Facts 2000 - Children (U.S. Department of Transportation, Washington, D.C.), pp. 1-2.

[4]National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, National Center for Statistics and Analysis, Research and Development, Traffic Safety Facts 2000 – Alcohol (U.S. Department of Transportation, Washington, D.C.), p. 1.

[5]National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, National Center for Statistics and Analysis, Research and Development, Traffic Safety Facts 2000 – Alcohol, p. 7.

[6]Mothers Against Drunk Driving, “Final Report on the 77th Session of the Texas Legislature,” http://www.madd.org/chapter/1,1073,4800_2657,00.html. (Last visited June 25, 2002.)

[7]Tony Hartzel, “New Alcohol, Seat-Belt Laws in Effect,” Dallas Morning News (September 9, 2001); and Bob Richter, “End of the Road for Open Containers,” San Antonio Express News (August 21, 2001).

[8]National Conference of State Legislatures, “State Traffic Safety Legislation Update 2001” by Melissa Savage, Irene Kawanabe, Jeanne Mejeur, James Reed, and Matt Sunden, (Denver, Colorado, December 2001) http://www.ncsl.org/programs/ESNR/trafsafleg01.htm. (Last visited September 23, 2002).

[9]Tony Hartzel and Roy Appleton, “Dallas Leads U.S. in Alcohol Road Deaths,” Dallas Morning News (January 14, 2002), p. 1; and telephone interview with Bill Lewis, public policy liaison, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Keller, Texas, March 20, 2002.

[10]Associated Press, “State Cell Phone Bans: Many Try, One Acts,” March 4, 2002.

[11]Telephone interview with Tela Mange, chief of Media Relations, Texas Department of Public Safety, Austin, Texas, March 20, 2002.

[12]Op. Tex. Att’y Gen. No. JC-0460 (2002).

[13]Texas Department of Transportation, Texas Traffic Safety Program, Executive Summary, 2000 Texas Traffic Safety Plan (Austin, Texas August 1, 2001) pp. 1-11.

[14]Interview with Sue Bryant, director of Traffic Safety Section, Texas Department of Transportation, Austin, Texas, February 13, 2002.

[15]Fax communication from Sue Bryant, director of Traffic Safety Section, Texas Department of Transportation, Austin, Texas, November 9, 2001.

[16]Interview with Sue Bryant.

[17]Letter from John W. Johnson, Commissioner of Transportation, to Keith Woods, Mayor, City of Brookshire, May 29, 2002.