Skip to contentUnited States Department of Transportation - Federal Highway Administration FHWA Home
Research Home
Public Roads
Featuring developments in Federal highway policies, programs, and research and technology.
This magazine is an archived publication and may contain dated technical, contact, and link information.
Federal Highway Administration > Publications > Public Roads > Vol. 59· No. 3 > The National Highway System Designation Act of 1995

Winter 1996
Vol. 59· No. 3

The National Highway System Designation Act of 1995

Future listings of milestones in the history of transportation in America will include Nov. 28, 1995. That's the day President Clinton signed The National Highway System Designation Act of 1995.

This landmark legislation designates almost 260,000 kilometers (160,955 miles) of roads as the National Highway System (NHS). The system includes the Interstate Highway System as well as other roads important to the nation's economy, defense, and mobility. NHS was developed by the Department of Transportation (DOT) in cooperation with the states, local officials, and metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs).

"The National Highway System is going to be the backbone of our national transportation network in the 21st century. It's going to affect every American directly or indirectly," said Federal Highway Administrator Rodney E. Slater.

Until the system was designated, the law prevented future NHS and Interstate Maintenance (IM) funds from being released to the states. With the enactment of the NHS legislation, $5.4 billion of fiscal year 1996 funds, which have been withheld since Oct. 1, can be distributed to the states. There are many other provisions of this new law. The Spring 1996 issue of Public Roads will contain a comprehensive description of the legislation.

President Bill Clinton signs the National Highway System Designation Act of 1995.

On Nov. 28, President Bill Clinton signed the National Highway System Designation Act of 1995. This landmark legislation profoundly affects the federal and state roles in transportation. With the president are Secretary of Transportation Federico Peña (left) and Federal Highway Administrator Rodney E. Slater. (Photo courtesy of the White House.)

Statement of the President Of the United States

Statement of the President
Of the United States

Nov. 28, 1995

Today I have signed into law S. 440, the "National Highway System Designation Act of 1995." This act advances my administration's continued commitment to strategic investment in our nation's infrastructure. It releases immediately more than $5 billion in funding for highway and other transportation projects. It also implements my proposal for a "zero tolerance" policy toward drinking and driving by those under age 21.

I am disturbed, however, by the repeal of certain key safety measures and will work to mitigate the impact of their repeal.

This act is the culmination of several years of work by all levels of government to identify highways of national significance routes that will support our nation's needs for efficient, safe, and reliable transportation. The designation of the National Highway System makes clear that transportation infrastructure should be viewed as a single system with each mode complementing the others. Manufacturers and shippers rely on several modes of transportation to deliver their products to consumers in the most efficient manner possible. The National Highway System unites these different modes by providing access to major ports, airports, rail stations, and public transit facilities. The National Highway System also provides 53 critical connections to Canada and Mexico so that goods can move across our nation's borders efficiently.

In 1992, I saw the way in which our nation's highways reach all Americans. Vice President Gore and I traveled much of this great land in buses, and we met the American people where they live and where they work. Whether at a truck stop in Carlisle, Pa., or at dusk on U.S. Highway 51 in Sandoval, Ill., we saw and heard what access and mobility mean to opportunity and economic well-being. It was during our first bus trip, from New York City to St. Louis, Mo., that I made a commitment to rebuild America. And I'm proud to say this National Highway System bill builds on all the work we have done in the last three years to do just that.

But the National Highway System is also something more. It is a prime example of the strategic investment of federal resources. The National Highway System comprises only 4 percent of our nation's highways, but these roads carry almost half our highway traffic and most of our nation's truck and tourist traffic. The improvements made to these roads will not only support our nation's economic, national defense, and mobility needs, but directly and significantly improve the safety of roadways. The funds released by this legislation and used to upgrade noninterstate highways will provide significant safety benefits.

This act also includes an essential and common-sense highway safety measure. Last June, I called on the Congress to make "zero tolerance" the law of the land and require states to adopt a zero tolerance standard for drivers under the age of 21. It is already against the law for young people to consume alcohol. This national standard will reinforce these laws by making it effectively illegal for young people who have been drinking to drive an automobile.

Many states have already enacted zero tolerance laws. These laws work. Alcohol-related crashes involving teenage drivers are down as much as 20 percent in those states. When all states have these laws, hundreds more lives will be saved and thousands of injuries will be prevented. I commend the Congress for heeding my call and making zero tolerance the standard nationwide for drivers under the age of 21.

S. 440 establishes innovative ways to attract new forms of investment in transportation and gives states greater flexibility and more options to utilize limited federal transportation funds effectively. It also eliminates unnecessary federal requirements such as those concerning highway building materials and program management. This will enable federal transportation officials to focus their efforts on the most useful and cost-effective ways of achieving important safety aims and increase states' discretion to implement their highway programs in ways best suited to their own circumstances.

In approving S. 440, however, I must note that some of my most serious concerns with this legislation have not been remedied. I am deeply disturbed by the repeal of both the national maximum speed limit law and the law encouraging states to enact motorcycle helmet use laws. I am also disturbed that this act could potentially exempt large numbers of small- to medium-sized trucks and their drivers from critical safety regulations governing driver qualifications and truck maintenance.

Without question, these laws have saved lives. The states, now given greater authority over issues of highway safety, must exercise this authority responsibly. I am, therefore, strongly committed to the requirement in this act for federal and state officials to work together to assess the costs and benefits of any change in speed limits. I have instructed the Secretary of Transportation to develop an action plan to promote safety consistent with my administration's continuing commitment to highway safety. My administration will redouble our efforts to protect those who travel on our nation's highways.

Although I am disappointed by the Congress' actions on these important safety measures, I believe that this legislation will benefit the nation by designating and funding the National Highway System, strengthening the backbone of our transportation system, providing jobs and economic opportunities, funding vital transportation projects in every state, and making zero tolerance the law of the land.

WILLIAM J. CLINTON

Statement of the Secretary Of Transportation.

Statement of the Secretary
Of Transportation

Nov. 28, 1995

Today, in response to President Clinton's directive to me to develop an action plan to help states ensure highway safety, I call on the governors and the state legislators to adjust and refashion their highway safety strategies and to work in partnership with the Department of Transportation to make our highways the safest in the world.

For two decades the laws have worked. Today, our traffic fatality rate is at a record low level. In 1972, more than 55,000 Americans died on our highways. Last year, about 40,000 Americans were killed. Over the last decade, drunk driving fatalities have declined more than 17 percent and seat belt usage is now at 67 percent, up from 15 percent.

I am proud of our progress on highway safety. But much more remains to be done because the fatalities have leveled off for the past two years, further emphasizing the need for us to redouble our safety efforts. We, as a nation, cannot and should not accept 40,000 fatalities and 3 million injuries a year caused by highway accidents.

When a plane crashes and kills people, every news show in the country reports it. People are concerned, and that's appropriate. Last year, we lost 262 lives through seven major airline crashes. Yet on our highways, we lost 40,000 lives, and it doesn't make page one. That is the equivalent of 110 people killed in an airplane crash every day, for an entire year, 365 days of the year.

If we framed the tragedy that we see on our highways in this context, I believe most Americans and their state elected officials would be outraged at the senseless slaughter of our fellow citizens on our highways.

They are fatalities that we accept too easily. As we drive past a terrible highway crash, we seem numb to the tragedy, believing that it could not happen to us. We forget the leading cause of death for people ages 5 to 34 is transportation accidents. It does not come from crime, or domestic abuse, or disease. It comes from car crashes.

And while one cannot put a price on losing a loved one or suffering an injury, motor vehicle accidents cost the public more than $137 billion a year. These costs include $45.7 billion in property losses, $39.8 billion in market productivity, $13.9 billion in medical costs, $10.8 billion in household productivity, $10 billion in insurance administration, $8.9 billion in legal and court costs, and $8.4 billion in other costs.

There is a possibility states may end up with the full responsibility for addressing Medicaid costs. This means that citizens in every state would be challenged to curtail the costs of Medicaid resulting from highway deaths and injuries because these costs would be borne by taxpayers in every state.

This year, in a fundamental shift of authority from the federal government to the states, the Congress has granted the states the right to set virtually their own highway safety laws. The shift in authority brings with it much responsibility because we all pay the bill from traffic accidents.

I accept this change in legislation as an opportunity to engage in a national debate, not only with the state elected leaders, but with the American people as well, about what our true commitment is to reducing the loss of 40,000 lives.

From my travels across America, I know firsthand that governors share same the commitment the president and I share to ensuring and promoting highway safety. I hope and expect to continue to work closely with the states to save lives and prevent injuries on all our highways.

So, I am taking the following eight actions:

  • Immediately urge the governors of the states where the speed limits automatically increase upon repeal of the national maximum speed limit to work with their state legislatures to have public hearings to carefully consider the costs and benefits especially in health care and Medicaid of increasing speed limits. There were no public hearings here in Washington on the speed limit repeal in the Congress.
  • Begin a public education campaign to communicate with citizens, governors, and legislative leaders about the burdens that motor vehicle crashes currently place on their states and to provide estimates of potential cost increases due to lessening highway safety in each state.
  • Immediately establish a nationwide safety team to educate state policy-makers of the consequences of weakening highway safety laws. The members will include those who bear the costs, such as citizens representatives, businesses, insurance and health care providers; and those who develop and implement the policies.
  • Assist all states in identifying and using current data to track their state-specific costs due to motor vehicle crashes and to identify the ultimate payer of these costs. This will assist the states in fulfilling the requirements for a report on the consequences of raising the speed limits. With this data, most states, for the first time, will have the costs imposed on a state due to various accident factors. Working with the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Transportation will provide data to states on Medicaid costs due to highway accidents.
  • Aggressively support the "zero tolerance" provision in the legislation, urging the states without such laws to promptly adopt them.
  • Promote and support safety management systems. The department will showcase "best practices" as well as provide training to ensure all states take advantage of the safety management systems. The department is already working with 16 states on a true performance-based safety management system where the state has the lead.
  • Carefully exercise discretion in the implementation of the pilot program to reduce regulations for medium-sized trucks in order to maintain safety levels.
  • Carefully monitor the results of numerous statutory exemptions granted for hours-of-service requirements for different truck types.

Finally, the National Highway System represents strategic investment in not only our transportation system, but also our economy. I am pleased at its passage and would like to acknowledge the work of all the Department of Transportation employees who contributed to its fruition, particularly the men and women of the Federal Highway Administration.

FEDERICO PEÑA

ResearchFHWA
FHWA
United States Department of Transportation - Federal Highway Administration