Remarks of Carol J. Carmody
Member, National Transportation Safety Board
before the
Oregon Highway Safety Conference
Eugene, Oregon
October 17, 2003

 


Thank you Troy and thank you for inviting me to speak at this important safety conference. I would like to thank Dr. John Tongue, Chair of the Oregon Traffic Safety Commission for his support for this conference. The Safety Board has seen that conferences, such as this one, are an important way to build a statewide team to accomplish what we all want - to reduce deaths, injuries, and crashes on our highways.

I want to commend all of you in the audience because you work where the tragedies are most acutely felt. I know that you understand the negative impact that traffic crashes have in our daily lives.

Most associate the Safety Board with aviation safety -- primarily because major aviation accidents receive a lot of attention -- from the public and the media. Many of you may also be aware that the Safety Board was here in June of this year to investigate the sinking of the small passenger vessel, TAKI TOOO.

But today I want to talk about highway safety. Every year 42 thousand people are killed on our highways, and another 3 million people are injured, at an annual estimated cost of 230 billion dollars.

Despite this continuing carnage on our highways the American people do not demand the same kind of proactive action by our local, state, and federal governments and the industry to make traveling on our highways as safe as traveling in our skies.

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 Oregon, such as child restraint use, alcohol-impaired driving, and teen driving. Today I am going to call your attention to some new areas, such as the dangers posed by driver distraction, and 15 passenger vans.

Oregon has been a leader in highway safety for many years. But, as good as many of your laws and programs are, 436 people died on Oregon highways in 2002. I want to focus my speech on the Safety Board's recommendations that Oregon has yet to put into operation and I suggest that by implementing these that Oregon can continue to reduce the number of annual fatalities in the State.

Impaired Driving

I'd like to begin with the issue of 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 almost 39 percent of the fatal crashes in Oregon in 2002 were alcohol-related.

The number and percentage of alcohol-related fatalities in Oregon, and nationwide, has remained stagnant over the past 5 years. In other words, we need to jump start the process. For two decades, the Board has issued recommendations aimed at reducing impaired driving. In 2000, the Board asked that States implement a comprehensive program for confronting the hard core drinking driver, which is the type of impaired driver responsible for over 48 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.

Getting the hard core drinking driver off the road is one of the Board's top priorities. It was added to our list of "Most Wanted" safety recommendations this year.

Oregon has several elements of the comprehensive program the Board recommended. Oregon has an Administrative License Revocation law and limits plea-bargaining by prosecutors. Oregon has provisions for all the vehicle sanctions we recommend. And Oregon has a records retention and look back period of at least 10 years. This permits enhanced penalties for repeat offenders over a period in which they are more likely to be rearrested. These are all countermeasures proven to reduce impaired driving.

The Safety Board believes that Oregon could strengthen its program to combat hard-core drinking driving even more by establishing an aggravated impaired driving offense for drivers arrested with a BAC of 0.15 percent. And Oregon needs to eliminate its diversion program. Diversion removes the opportunity for early identification of hard core drinking drivers. For example, first offenders with a high BAC are likely to have a significant alcohol problem. Early identification could reduce the chance of a second alcohol-related driving arrest.

Oregon could also strengthen its laws if, as a condition of reinstating the license, you required high BAC offenders and repeat offenders to maintain a zero BAC when driving, whether or not the offender was required to use an interlock. The Board also supports the use of a HOT sheet program to help law enforcement identify offenders driving on a suspended license (DWS). In this program, the licensing agency provides lists of suspended and revoked drivers (usually for DWI) to local police to improve DWS surveillance and enforcement. Finally, impaired drivers do not respond to traditional punishment. Providing alternatives to jail confinement, such as special alcohol treatment facilities or home detention with electronic monitoring has been shown to be effective. Arizona and Georgia have had good success with DWI courts that promote individualized sanctions and court monitoring. Such court-based programs can help in Oregon too.

Teen Driving

Another issue of concern to the Safety Board and also on our "Most Wanted" list is our effort to improve laws governing teen drivers. 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 addressed teen driving in 1993. The Board recommended that States create a 3-stage graduated driver's licensing program and impose nighttime driving restrictions for novice drivers. 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.

Oregon is a leader on this issue. You have a strong 3-stage system that requires at least 50 hours of supervised driving in the learner's permit stage, a nighttime driving restriction for intermediate license holders, and a passenger restriction that prohibits such intermediate license holders from transporting any person under age 20 for the first 6 months. These laws have produced results. From 2000 to 2001, Oregon experienced a substantial drop in the percentage of teen drivers involved in fatal crashes. However, teen drivers in Oregon are still involved in over 18 percent of motor vehicle fatalities, even though they comprise only 6 percent of licensed drivers. Another step in the graduated licensing scheme that Oregon should consider implementing - cell phone restrictions.

The Board investigated a crash near Largo, Maryland where a Ford Explorer driven by a 20-year-old, novice driver veered off the left side of the interstate, 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 crash, 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 Oregon will pass similar legislation and prohibit holders of learner's permits and intermediate licenses from using interactive wireless communications devices while driving.

Driver Education

The Board is going to be studying the issue of driver education later this month. We will be holding a Public Forum on Driver Education and Training on October 28 and 29, 2003 in the NTSB Board Room in Washington, D.C.

The topic for the forum arose from a crash that occurred near Belgrade, Montana, on January 23, 2003. On that day, about 3:20 p.m., a 14-year-old student in the driver education program was driving on a two-lane rural road that was wet with snow and slush. Also in the vehicle were two other students, ages 14 and 15, and the driver education instructor, age 49. They were all wearing seat belts.

The car fishtailed, veered into the oncoming lane, and hit a tractor-trailer. All four occupants of the car were killed. The truck driver, who was also wearing his seat belt, was not injured.

The purpose of the forum is to survey the history and current state of novice driver education and training - both classroom and hands-on, the extent to which it is used, and its quality and effectiveness. The forum will also explore the strengths and weaknesses in driver education and training and examine ways to improve it. I am pleased to tell you that Troy Costales and John Harvey from your Department of Transportation will be participating in this forum. The Board looks forward to hearing their insights.

Medical Certification of Drivers

Another area of risk that I would like to bring to your attention involves crashes in which the driver's age and/or health have been an issue.

In March 2003, we held a public hearing on medical certification and licensing of non-commercial drivers. The implications of driving for people who have epilepsy, diabetes, sleep apnea, cardiovascular disease and Alzheimers were discussed at the hearing. Our report will address how medically unqualified drivers are identified through enforcement, State licensing, and reports by medical personnel and what action is taken, if any, once a medical issue is identified. We hope that this report will be completed early next year.

15-Passenger Van Safety

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 crashes 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 crashes. Let me describe one of those crashes to you.

On May 8, 2001, a 1993 15-passenger Dodge van with a driver and 11 passengers, all members of the First Assembly of God Church, was traveling on U.S. Route 82 near Henrietta, Texas, at approximately 67 miles per hour. The left rear tire blew out, causing the van to leave the roadway and roll over several times. The driver and 3 passengers died.

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. This makes passenger vans more prone to rollovers. Although 15-passenger vans require knowledge and a skill level different from and above that for passenger vehicles, operators of these vans 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. We must educate 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 specialized training; 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 Oregon to require a special endorsement for operating 15-passenger vans.

Occupant Protection

The Board remains concerned and actively involved in occupant protection issues as well. Oregon has certainly excelled in this area. Your seat belt law is 1 of only 6 primary enforcement laws that applies to all vehicle occupants. Oregon also imposes a substantial fine for violations and allows the introduction into evidence of non-belt use in a civil suit. As a result, your observed seat belt use rate is over 90 percent! That is something to be proud of.

So does Oregon have this problem solved? Unfortunately, no. The observed belt use rate in Oregon may be 90.3 percent, but of the vehicle occupants who died in the last 8 years, over 42 percent were unrestrained. This is where you need to focus your efforts. And with Washington State at a 95 percent seat belt use rate, Oregon is challenged to do better.

With regard 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. While Oregon should be recognized as 1 of the first States to require child restraints beyond age 4, your law only goes to age 6. I want to encourage you to push further for a requirement that children use booster seats until age 8. Another area in which you can make a difference is to seek legislation that imposes a back seat requirement for children. It is not often that you find a safety countermeasure where you can cut deaths and injuries to children by one-third by such simple means. But you can do that simply by moving children from the front seat to the back seat.

Conclusion

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 Oregon. 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 you believe that we can help with testimony or by participating in a major event or in meetings with key groups, please contact us.

Let me remind you that you can influence the legislature in Salem. 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.

To reduce the crash risks and accomplish the life-saving remedies, we need to work together. We are committed to working with you. We can make a permanent change for the better for the next generation.

Thank you again for giving me this opportunity to share with you some thoughts on how to save lives in Oregon. Keep up the great work.