Remarks of Carol J. Carmody
Member, National Transportation Safety Board
before the North Carolina Lifesavers Conference
Greensboro, North Carolina
September 16, 2003

 


Thank you, Don, and good afternoon. I appreciate being invited here today to speak to this group of dedicated safety professionals. I know that I am talking to an audience that understands the negative impact that traffic crashes have in our daily lives. Every year 42 thousand people are killed, and another 3 million people are injured, at a cost of 230 billion dollars. North Carolina has been the leader in creating innovative ways to reduce these numbers. This is the State that invented "Click It or Ticket" and "Booze It and Lose It," and you should be commended for your efforts.

I am pleased to be sharing the podium with Mr. Troy Ayers from NHTSA and the new chief of the Greensboro Police Department, Chief David Wray, whom I understand has made traffic safety a high priority. We at the Board are always delighted to know that law enforcement officers, such as Chief Wray, recognize the importance of traffic safety enforcement, both as a life saving measure and, as North Carolina data has proven time and again, a method for identifying offenders of other crimes.

The National Transportation Safety Board investigates crashes in all modes of transportation. Because over 90 percent of all transportation related fatalities occur on our highways, the Board is particularly concerned with improving highway safety. The Board has issued numerous safety recommendations to Federal agencies, State governments, manufacturers, and other organizations. These recommendations address problems that you face every day in North Carolina, such as child restraint use, impaired driving, and teen driving. I also want to bring some new areas to your attention, such as the dangers posed by driver distraction, and 15 passenger vans.

As I just mentioned, North Carolina has been a leader in highway safety for many years. But, as good as many of your programs are, 1575 people died on North Carolina highways in 2002. I want to focus my speech today on the Safety Board's recommendations that North Carolina has yet to put into operation and I suggest that by implementing these that North Carolina can continue to reduce the number of annual fatalities in the State.

North Carolina has led the nation's efforts to increase seat belt use with the "Click It or Ticket" high visibility enforcement program, and the result is an observed seat belt use rate over 86 percent. That is something to be proud of. So does North Carolina have this problem solved? Unfortunately, no. The observed belt use rate in North Carolina may be 86 percent, but of the fatally injured occupants, over 46 percent were unrestrained. This is where you need to focus your efforts. And with Washington State at a 93 percent seat belt use rate, North Carolina is challenged to do better. Can you beat Washington State's 93 percent use rate? I think you are up to the challenge.

Let me suggest some things that the Board recommends that North Carolina can do to strengthen its seat belt law and beat that Washington record. First, make the law apply to all vehicle occupants, not just front seat occupants. Second, work to increase the fine for seat belt violations. Right now it is only a $75 to $125 depending on the type of license. North Carolina charges at least a $250 fine for littering-the littering law doesn't save lives! Seat belt fines should reflect the seriousness of the violation and the consequences of riding unrestrained.

The Board also thinks that a strong primary enforcement law will permit the introduction into evidence of non-belt use in a civil suit. Currently, failing to use a seat belt cannot be admitted into evidence in North Carolina and many other States. Seat belts are the single greatest defense against injuries and fatalities from motor vehicle crashes.

That said our highways are the most dangerous place that we take our children every day. Although automobile-related fatalities to children reached an all-time low in 2002, still 968 children were killed last year. The law enforcement officers in the audience will tell you, the most difficult accidents to work are those that involve children. Motor vehicle crashes remain the number one cause of unintentional death to children.

We know what works. Child safety seats until age 4, booster seats until age 8, lap and shoulder belts for ages 8 and up, and all children ages 12 and under in the back seat. Convincing parents and legislators is the tough job. And you have a challenge before you.

Although North Carolina's child passenger safety law requires children under age 4 to use child safety seats, there is no provision for booster seat use once that child outgrows his or her safety seat. In North Carolina it is legal for a five-year-old to use a seat belt.

But we know that children in the 4-to-8-age range suffer unique injuries when they use seat belts rather than booster seats. For example, children in the 4-to-8 age range are 4 times more likely to suffer head or brain injury when using just seat belts than when those children use booster seats and seat belts together. The brain is the organ least likely to recover from injury, so you really want to avoid brain injuries. We also know that using a booster seat reduces a child's risk of any injury by 59 percent.

A comprehensive 5-year ongoing study of child passenger safety has revealed that in North Carolina, only 11.4 percent of all children ages 4 through 7 use booster seats. Of the 15 States participating in this study, North Carolina has the third lowest use of booster seats.

From 1994 through 2002, 116 children in this 4-to-8-year-old age range died while riding in motor vehicles in North Carolina. That's 116 too many, especially when we know that almost 95 percent of these children were unrestrained or improperly restrained with just a seat belt. By amending your child passenger safety law and requiring booster seats for children in the 4-to-8 age range, North Carolina can save lives.

Although North Carolina has a law requiring rear seating for children, it only applies to children age 4 and younger. A child's risk of injury is reduced by 33 percent simply by moving them from the front to the rear seat. You can save lives by strengthening this provision of your law. Parents have consistently reported that they think their State laws provide information on the best practices. Unfortunately, we know that is not true.

I'd like to talk for a few minutes about impaired driving. Impaired driving is one of the most often committed crimes. It kills someone in America every 30 minutes and nearly 50 people a day. Forty-one percent of our country's highway fatalities and 35 percent of the fatal crashes in North Carolina in 2001 were alcohol-related. Your State has continually had a lower percentage of drivers involved in fatal crashes who test positive for an illegal blood alcohol content than the national percentage. And you should be proud.

But the number and percentage of alcohol-related fatalities in North Carolina, and nationwide, has remained stagnant over the past 5 years. In other words, we need to jump start the progress again. For two decades, the Board has issued recommendations aimed at reducing impaired driving. In 2000, the Board asked States to implement a comprehensive program for confronting the hard core drinking driver, the type of impaired driver responsible for over 46 percent of the nation's alcohol-related fatalities. Hard core drinking drivers are repeat offenders or impaired drivers arrested with a high blood alcohol content (or BAC). They have demonstrated either an unwillingness or an inability to stop drinking and driving.

North Carolina has several elements of the Board's comprehensive recommendation. ALR, plea bargaining limits, and confinement alternatives are available. North Carolina requires ignition interlocks for high BAC and repeat offenders when the offender seeks to reinstate his or her license. And offenders can have their vehicles impounded or confiscated.

The Board would like to see North Carolina eliminate its diversion program and expand the records retention and look-back period to at least 10 years. Diversion assumes that first offenders are social drinkers, but first offenders with a BAC of 0.15 percent or greater are highly likely to have a significant alcohol problem. As for North Carolina's look-back period, the likelihood of an offender being arrested twice in 7 years is lower than twice in 10 years.

As a condition of reinstating the license, North Carolina should require high BAC offenders and repeat offenders to maintain a zero BAC when driving, whether or not the offender must use an interlock. The Board also recommends the HOT sheet program to help law enforcement identify offenders driving on a suspended license. North Carolina should also consider vehicle immobilization and license plate action against offenders. Impaired drivers do not respond to traditional punishment. Arizona and Georgia have had some great success with DWI courts that promote individualized sanctions and court monitoring. Such court-based programs can help in North Carolina too.

Traffic crashes are the leading cause of death for 15-20-year-olds in the United States, and teen drivers are over-represented in fatal crashes. The Safety Board first became involved in teen driving in a 1993 safety recommendation letter to the States. The Board asked the States to create a 3-stage graduated driver licensing program and impose nighttime driving restrictions. In 2002, we revisited the teen driving issue, adding a passenger restriction recommendation and a recommendation that supervising drivers be at least 21 years old.

North Carolina has responded very well to this problem, once again leading the nation. North Carolina is 1 of only 7 States that has a 3-stage system, limits passengers to zero for beginning drivers, and mandates that a supervising driver be at least 21 years old. North Carolina also has a strong nighttime driving restriction. And as a result, North Carolina has experienced a 23 percent reduction in injuries and deaths involving 16-year-old drivers. The total number and percentage of people killed in motor vehicle crashes in North Carolina involving 15-to-20-year-old drivers have steadily decreased since 1997. However, teen drivers are still involved in over 19 percent of motor vehicle fatalities, even though they comprise only 5 percent of licensed drivers.

The Board investigated a crash near Largo, Maryland where a Ford Explorer driven by a 20-year-old, novice driver on Interstate 495 veered off the left side of the roadway, crossed over the median, climbed a guardrail, flipped over, and landed on top of a southbound Ford minivan. All 5 persons in both vehicles were killed.

Just before the accident, the SUV driver had made a cell phone call. The Safety Board concluded that contributing to the crash was the driver's inexperience and distraction caused by her use of a wireless telephone. Learning how to drive and getting comfortable in traffic requires all the concentration a novice driver can muster. As a result, we asked that States prohibit young novice drivers from using cell phones while driving.

Maine and New Jersey prohibit young, inexperienced drivers from using such devices. The Maine law applies to any driver under age 18, while the New Jersey law applies to holders of license permits. We hope that North Carolina will pass similar legislation and prohibit holders of learner's permits and intermediate licenses from using interactive wireless communications devices while driving.

In hopes of identifying the true size of the problem, we also asked States to add driver distraction codes to the crash investigation forms. At present, given the incredible number of wireless service subscribers, the number of crashes attributed to cell phone use is rather low, but this very likely is misleading. Drivers are unlikely to admit cell phone use after a crash. Police officers have not necessarily received training on cell phone use, and obtaining cell phone records can be time consuming. Many States, including North Carolina, do not include a driver distraction code, especially a cell phone code, on their crash reports, and police officers are not required to report cell phone use. I encourage you to evaluate your crash test forms and make the necessary improvements so that we can get a handle on how much driver distraction plays a role in crashes.

Although not a new issue, the dangers posed by 15-passenger vans have resurfaced recently. In the last 3 years, the Safety Board has investigated 11 crashes involving 15-passenger vans. These accidents have involved a daycare center transporting children, church vans, a college sports team, farm workers, and a family. A total of 60 people were killed and 77 injured in these 11 accidents. These numbers are unacceptable!

In our investigation of this growing problem, the Board identified several issues that contribute to the dangers posed by 15-passenger vans. Passenger vans are not required to meet the same Federal motor vehicle safety standards as passenger vehicles, even though vans are used in a similar manner. Vans also have a higher center of gravity and different handling characteristics than traditional passenger vehicles, making passenger vans more prone to rollovers. And drivers of these vehicles do not have special licensing or training requirements.

More efforts need to be made to impress upon drivers the inherent danger of operating 15-passenger vans, particularly when fully loaded, and educating drivers about proper handling and control, particularly during emergency situations. Drivers operating vehicles carrying more than 15 passengers are required to have Commercial Drivers Licenses that come with specialize training, and the same should hold true for drivers of 15-passenger vans. As concerned highway safety advocates, I ask you to pursue changes to the licensing laws and regulations in North Carolina to require a special endorsement for operating 15-passenger vans.

Before I conclude, I want to tell you about a new issue area that the Board is currently exploring, driver education. The Board will host a public forum on driver education on October 28 and 29, 2003, in our Board room in Washington, DC. The forum topic evolved from a crash that occurred near Belgrade, Montana, on January 23, 2003. A 14-year-old student in a driver education program lost control of his vehicle on a two-lane rural road that was wet with snow and slush. The vehicle "fishtailed" and veered into the lane of a tractor trailer, ultimately colliding with the large truck. Although all the vehicle occupants, the 14-year-old driver, two other students, and the driver education instructor, were wearing seat belts, they all sustained fatal injuries.

The purpose of the forum is to survey the history and current state of novice driver education and training, the extent to which it is used, and its quality and effectiveness.

The Board's safety recommendations are its most important product, and we have implemented a program to put more resources into our State advocacy effort to ensure their implementation. Each Board Member has agreed to spearhead our efforts in specific States. I am pleased to tell you that I am the Safety Board representative for North Carolina. So I can honestly say, "I'm from the Federal government and I am here to help you." I am available to support your efforts to strengthen legislation that is consistent with our recommendations by meeting with State officials and legislators, by joining you at press conferences, by encouraging State business and industry executives to join your advocacy coalitions, and by testifying along side of you. We come with a level of credibility and a national perspective and we have a good track record of success. If your organization believes that we can help with testimony or by participating in a major event or in meetings with key groups, please contact us.

Last, I want to remind you that you can influence the legislature in Raleigh. You need to make your wishes known to your legislators- go in person or write or call, but make sure you have contact with them. They need to know what their constituents think. Coming to this conference only gives you ideas, talking to your legislators may save lives.

Thank you again for giving me this opportunity to share with you some thoughts on how to save lives in North Carolina. Keep up the great work - because of you more families will return home safely in the future!