Remarks by Jim Hall, Chairman
National Transportation Safety Board
before the Southern Legislative Conference Annual Meeting
Nashville, Tennessee, August 13, 1996
Good morning, and welcome to my home state
of Tennessee. I'm delighted that the Southern Legislative Conference
has chosen Nashville for its meeting this year.
I very much appreciate this opportunity to
spend a few minutes with you discussing what should be of the
utmost concern to every government official -- the physical safety
of the citizens who have placed their trust in you through their
votes and who pay the salaries of all of us in public service.
As all of you know, transportation is one of
the largest and most dynamic industries in our economy -- generating
$688 billion of our Gross Domestic Product at last count.
The South, in particular, was built on transportation.
Its highways, railways and rivers provided the platform on which
the region's dynamic economy was built. This platform must not
be allowed to crumble through neglect, but already it is estimated
that fully a third of our nation's interstate highway system is
in poor or mediocre condition and a quarter of the bridges are
classified as deficient.
There are three major ways that you, as legislators,
can affect transportation safety. You can appropriate funds for
needed infrastructure improvements, you can pass legislation like
primary seat belt enforcement or graduated licensing, and you
can provide oversight by ensuring that your transportation authorities
are taking care of bridge inspections or grade crossing safety.
For six years before coming to the Safety Board,
I served in the cabinet of former Tennessee Governor Ned McWherter.
I have seen first hand the successful ways in which States in
our region have met the challenges before them.
I have also seen in recent years the successful
ways that major public policy issues -- in this case transportation
safety -- can be addressed forcefully and efficiently at the federal
level. The agency I lead -- the National Transportation Safety
Board -- is small by federal government standards, with only about
350 employees and a budget of less than $39 million this year.
But, I am persuaded that the money spent on the Safety Board is
among the most effective of all taxpayer expenditures. It costs
each citizen less than 15 cents a year to fund my agency.
Most of you know us because of our high-profile
aviation accident work, but the Board also investigates highway,
rail, pipeline and marine accidents. On call 24 hours a day, 365
days a year, Safety Board investigators travel throughout the
country and to every corner of the world to investigate significant
accidents, developing a factual record that often leads to safety
recommendations aimed at ensuring that such accidents never happen
Our recommendations serve, to a great extent,
as a main area of government transportation safety oversight.
As an independent agency, we don't just look at transportation
companies or individuals when searching for cause, we also look
at the role the pertinent State or federal agencies might have
played in an accident.
Through its investigations, the Board has been
able to recommend safety improvements that have saved lives and
led to real reductions in accidents in every mode of transportation,
improvements ranging from anti-collision and windshear warning
systems on airliners, to safer construction standards for school
buses, to head shields and shelf couplers for hazardous materials
railroad tank cars, even to the high mounted stop light on your
Among the major investigations we are currently
conducting in this very busy year are a recent cruise ship fire
in Alaska that killed 5, a collision between a commuter train
and an Amtrak train in Maryland that killed 11, and the ValuJet
and TWA flight 800 crashes this summer that resulted in the deaths
of all 340 persons aboard the two planes.
It only takes one visit to the scene of such
a tragedy or a short visit with family members of victims to recognize
that we must do everything we possibly can to reduce transportation
accidents, deaths and injuries.
You have seen the intense public and media
scrutiny our investigations attract, and you might wonder how
you can have a major impact on a national issue like transportation
safety. Today, I want to talk about several areas where you have
the power to affect change, areas like administrative license
revocation, youth driver initiatives, primary seat belt enforcement,
and recreational boating safety.
Because, the fact is that as horrible as the recent aviation disasters have been, we cannot forget that such accidents represent a tiny fraction of transportation fatalities every year. In 1995, more than 44,000 persons were killed in transportation accidents, over 90 percent of them on the highway. That is equivalent to a ValuJet crash happening every day of the year, or 3 TWA flight 800s going down every week. And with new highway construction not keeping pace with traffic growth, our existing roads and bridges will have to accommodate 8 million more vehicles by the year 2000.
While the number of highway fatalities had
declined substantially from its peak in the 1970s, it has now
increased for three years in a row, and, for the first time in
a decade, alcohol-related fatalities have increased. The U.S.
Department of Transportation has estimated that if the fatality
rate remains unchanged and traffic grows at a conservative 2.2
percent a year, by 2005 we will see 10,000 more Americans die
on our highways every year.
This region of the country has a particular
interest in improving highway safety. Of the 16 States represented
here, only two -- Maryland and Virginia -- had fewer deaths on
the highways per 100,000 people in 1994 than the national average.
The others exceeded the national average anywhere from 6 to 87
Nearly 19,000 people a year die on southern
roads. Traffic crashes cost the nation over $150 billion a year,
with almost half of these costs in your States, and about a fourth
of that amount borne by public revenue. This costs each household
in the U.S. $144 a year in added taxes. So, not only will your
actions save lives and prevent injuries, but you will lessen the
tax burden on those who elected you.
Now, let me briefly touch on some items that
you should consider:
One of the most important highway safety actions
that you could consider next year is to permit primary enforcement
of your state's mandatory safety belt use law. We support this
so strongly that we added the issue to our Most Wanted list of
Only four southern States have primary enforcement,
with Georgia becoming the most recent earlier this year. I personally
testified twice before the Georgia legislature in support of this
States with primary enforcement have 13 percent
higher seat belt use rates. This is increasingly important as
more and more vehicles are equipped with air bags, which are a
proven lifesaver for properly restrained passengers but can kill
or seriously injure a person who is not wearing a seat belt.
Even though most States have enacted a series
of measures to address the problem of drinking and driving, the
recent rise in alcohol-related fatalities shows that more needs
to be done.
This is where another one of our Most Wanted
issues comes in: Administrative License Revocation. ALR gives
a law enforcement officer the authority, on behalf of the state
licensing agency, to confiscate the license of any driver who
either fails or refuses to take a chemical breath test.
This is one Most Wanted issue where the SLC
States have stepped up to the plate. Only 3 of the 16 States here
have yet to adopt ALR.
A problem that all society needs to be concerned
about is the high incidence of crashes involving youths. You may
not realize it but in the last 5 years, over 20,000 people in
your States have died in crashes involving 15- to 20-year-old
drivers. In fact, almost 20 percent of all highway fatalities
involve this age group, even though they comprise only about 7
percent of all licensed drivers.
Although all States in this region were successfully
reducing these crashes until a few years ago, virtually all of
you have had increases in the last two years. Why? Because, our
youth population has reversed a decade-long decline and a second
baby boom generation is now coming of driving age. Deaths involving
a 15- to 20-year-old driver in 1995 were higher than in 1991.
You can follow the example of Kentucky by enacting
graduated licensing to ease young drivers into the traffic flow,
reward crash- and violation-free young drivers with a full license
and give young risk-taking problem drivers remedial training and
time to mature before they get an unrestricted license. You will
reduce young driver crashes by 5 to 15 percent.
Also, follow the lead of Florida, which recently
enacted a nighttime driving restriction for the first year of
driving. Driving with an adult or parent at night gives the young
driver the supervised practice they need without the risk-taking
diversions of their peers in the car. Two States experienced significant
reductions in youth nighttime crashes after instituting these
restrictions. Louisiana had a 25 percent drop and Maryland saw
a 40 percent reduction, while some States in other regions had
reductions as high as 70 percent. Only 5 Southern States have
some form of graduated licensing and only 3 have a nighttime driving
The other problem area involving our young
drivers is alcohol. Raising the legal drinking age to 21 in all
States has saved nearly 15,000 lives so far, but just as more
needs to be done to keep adults from drinking and driving, we
need to do more to keep our youth from drinking and driving, as
The Safety Board has called on all States to
tighten and vigorously enforce their underage drinking and driving
laws. Although no State allows the sale of alcohol to persons
under age 21, many States still allow underage consumption and
use of fake IDs.
Our position is, if young people cannot buy
alcohol, they should not be given tacit approval by the State
to drink it. This nation should adopt a policy of Zero Tolerance
for drivers under the age of 21, and combine it with administrative
license revocation. Doing so will reduce youth alcohol-related
crashes by more than 30 percent.
Since becoming Chairman of the Safety Board,
one of my great concerns has been that of fatigue among transportation
operators in all modes. Let me suggest one area where there is
a significant need for action at the State level right now. Fatigue
is a constant concern in the trucking industry, in part because
there is a shortage of places for drivers to stop and rest when
they need to do so. Further, the problem appears to be most severe
in the Southeast; 6 of the 10 states with the greatest need are
in this part of the country.
The steady growth of trucking nationwide has
increased the demand for rest areas along the Nation's highways.
In part this is reflected by evidence that truck drivers seeking
rest are increasingly parking illegally on highway shoulders and
exit ramps. One study found a shortfall of 28,400 truck parking
spaces. And each year aggravates the problem; by the year 2004,
there will be 13 percent more heavy trucks on our road. I recommend
that you make inquiries into the current state of public and private
rest areas in your state.
The final highway issue I want to address is
grade crossing safety, particularly those crossings whose signals
are pre-empted by train movements. Hundreds of Americans die every
year at grade crossings. You all remember the tragedy last fall
in Fox River Grove, Illinois, when 7 high school students died
when the rear of their school bus was struck by a train at a pre-empted
crossing. In the early days of our investigation, we sent recommendations
to all the States to survey their pre-empted grade crossings to
determine if they allow enough time for traffic to clear the crossing.
We've heard from all the States, some from this region that I'd like to highlight:
o Virginia has established a time-delay so that a train's arrival will not trap a vehicle before it can clear the crossing.
o Both Virginia and Alabama have sent lists of pre-empted grade crossings to school bus drivers.
o Oklahoma has developed a school bus driver training video on the subject.
o Missouri developed a warning notice to be
placed inside each signal house so that changes in the crossing
design cannot be made without getting the approval of both the
railroad and the highway authorities.
Grade crossing safety involves coordination
between the rail and highway sectors of our industry, and it involves
oversight by you and your transportation authorities. There are
almost 1,300 pre-empted grade crossings in the States represented
here today. I know you will do what you can to make sure the tragedy
of Fox River Grove is not replicated in your States.
Another area that merits attention is recreational
boating safety. Whether it be on Percy Priest near here, or your
favorite waterway, boating is one of the great pleasures that
we are able to enjoy. However, we also need to recognize that
boating is a form of transportation, and that it can be hazardous;
about 840 persons died in recreational boating accidents last
What is most frustrating is that so many of
these tragedies could be easily avoided. For example, eight out
of ten boating fatalities are from drowning, rather than some
form of traumatic injury. We estimate that 714 of these drownings
could have been prevented by the simple act of wearing a personal
flotation device. Also, it is estimated that alcohol is involved
in at least 50 percent of all boating accidents.
For more than a decade, the Safety Board has
sought improvements in boating safety, including in State boating-while-intoxicated
laws and the consideration of a minimum boating safety program.
While 11 States in this region have adopted BWI laws, five States
need to take action to prohibit impaired boating, including implied
consent to testing.
The record on a cornerstone of any boating
safety initiative, mandatory personal flotation device use, is
not as good. Most experts have concluded that the age limit for
this requirement should be set at children ages 12 and under,
yet only five states represented here today have adopted that
standard. Several other States have standards less than the recommended
age. We believe you can save lives by increasing the level of
PFD usage. At the very minimum, children should be required to
PFDs are invaluable after an accident has occurred,
but how can we prevent accidents themselves? A boat operator can
rent or buy a vessel that can operate at speeds in excess of 50
miles-per-hour without demonstrating a knowledge of basic safety
rules or skills. We think States should require recreational boat
operators to demonstrate a knowledge of safe boating rules and
an ability to operate the vessel. Currently, 3 of the 7 States
that have instituted mandatory education programs for recreational
boaters are in the Southern Region: Florida, Mississippi and Alabama.
The requirement to possess a certificate of completion or an operator's license should also be considered. Alabama has successfully instituted a program to license boat operators -- the first true licensing program in the nation.
You can also play a role in improving aviation
safety in your States. The FAA prohibits pilots flying an aircraft
with a BAC of .04 percent or more. However, without a parallel
State law there is no enforcement of this regulation because your
police need legislative authority to test surviving pilots. Please
enact flying-while-intoxicated laws so that the FAA can keep impaired
pilots out of the air.
As proud as I am of my agency and the professionalism
of its staff, I must be candid in telling you that there is nothing
magic in what we do, we just maintain an independent view of the
facts, refuse to prematurely adopt pet theories, maintain a corps
of investigators second to none, and always remember that our
ultimate boss is the American taxpayer. We are the eyes and ears
of the American people at accident sites.
In drafting our safety recommendations, we
look at our extensive investigative experience and analyze the
vast body of transportation statistics compiled by federal, State
and local authorities.
You can do the same thing on the State level.
There are plenty of data available to you. Please feel free to
call upon us and our resources. And don't hesitate to take advantage
of the many other resources of the federal government, all of
which are funded by you and your constituents.
For example, the National Highway Traffic Safety
Administration has developed a demonstration program in five States
to link crash data with emergency room and hospital admissions.
This can give you information on safety belt or alcohol use, and
can focus on local problems. Using this program, Utah found out
that over 70 percent of the crashes in its southern counties were
out-of-state drivers and that fatigue was a significant factor.
By focusing on a problem they hadn't realized they had, these
Utah counties are using this information to work with the National
Park Service and local towns to educate tourists and provide visible
Whether on the road or in the water, our citizens
have the right to some basic protections, protections that only
State authorities can provide. While your taxpayers expect you
to plan for the economic growth of your States, they also expect
you to keep them safe.
That can result only from your legislation,
your appropriations and your oversight. We are ready, willing
and able to help you. We conduct safety studies at taxpayer expense,
we investigate major accidents at taxpayer expense, and we are
prepared to work with you on the State level to achieve what we
cannot on the federal level.
I have instituted a 50-State Program at the
NTSB in which I or one of my colleagues on the Board have testified
before legislative bodies in support of the safety initiatives
I've described today. In the south this year we've been to Georgia,
South Carolina and Texas. Please don't hesitate to take advantage
of our assistance in the future.
Thank you, and I look forward to visiting you
in your Capitol.