While there has been a lack of bipartisan consensus on many issues vital to the country during the 111th Congress, in the area of transportation, there is much consensus. For the first time in years, significant progress has been made on crucial aviation and surface transportation issues. From the reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration and the Surface Transportation Board, to improving bus safety and combating distracted driving, Congress is advancing legislation that will enhance Americas transportation system, with an emphasis on infrastructure and safety improvements. These enhancements will lead to a safer and more efficient transportation sector, which is essential to fueling Americas economic engine.
Both the House and Senate have passed reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration. This vital piece of legislation will improve the safety of air travel for millions of Americans, and it represents an important commitment to the future of aviation in this country. Investments to sustain and enhance aviation infrastructure across the nation are long overdue, and FAA reauthorization begins the daunting task of modernizing our countrys antiquated air traffic control system. This system-wide upgrade is crucial to Americas economic growth and will move our nation closer to a more efficient, safe and effective use of our national airspace.
The House and Senate are currently working to reconcile differences and produce a final bill. I am cautiously optimistic we will eliminate the handful of controversial provisions that threaten the legislations prospects for final passage. One area of disagreement concerns the ability for domestic airlines to make alliances with foreign carriers that promote more destinations for U.S. travelers and more visitors and tourists into the United States. Resolving this and several other issues will provide a clear path forward to passage of this critical measure.
Another legislative transportation milestone during this Congress has been the Senate Commerce Committees bipartisan effort to update federal rail policy. In the past, modification of the rail regulatory structure has been so divisive that the STB has not been reauthorized since 1996. Our bill strikes a fair balance for both the shippers and the rail industry. While some concerns remain, I am hopeful we can reach a final consensus on the bill in the coming weeks so that this legislation can move forward.
Improving the safety on our roads and highways also continues to be a top priority. Last year, I joined with Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) to introduce legislation to overhaul and improve the safety of bus travel in order to dramatically reduce deaths and serious injuries caused by accidents. More than half of all bus fatalities over the past 10 years have occurred as a result of rollovers, and 70 percent of the fatalities were the result of passengers being ejected from the bus. Our legislation requires key safety improvements, including seat belts and stronger, crush-resistant roofs so buses can better withstand rollovers and protect passengers. The legislation would also establish requirements for new bus operators to ensure they are ready and able to operate safely. It would also prevent carriers that have been taken out of service based on safety concerns from beginning operations under a new name, similar to what occurred in the Sherman, Texas, accident that claimed 17 lives in 2008. The measure was approved by the Senate Commerce Committee late last year, and I am working with my colleagues to pass this common-sense, bipartisan measure before Congress adjourns.
Distracted driving is another important road safety issue facing the nation. Americans love their cell phones and they love to drive, but there is tension between these two passions where the safety of the traveling public is concerned. Recent data issued by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration show that in 2008, almost 6,000 people died from crashes that resulted from distracted driving. This accounted for 16 percent of all traffic fatalities that year. Additionally, 515,000 individuals were injured in accidents caused by distracted driving, which represented 22 percent of all injuries. To address this growing problem, I joined with Commerce Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) to sponsor bipartisan legislation to combat distracted driving by offering states incentive grants to enact laws that address this serious issue. Individual states are better positioned to understand the unique solutions required to deal with this growing problem, and a number of states are already examining this issue and have enacted laws to regulate the use of cell phones and text messaging while driving.
If Congress can act on these bipartisan measures, Americas transportation system and its users will benefit greatly. There has been incredible movement on these issues in this Congress, many of which have lingered without resolution for years. We must not squander this progress. We should move forward on measures upon which most Members can agree, making transportation safer and more efficient for all Americans.
Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) is the ranking member on the Commerce Committee.