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 again.

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 automobile.

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.

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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 percent.

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 safety improvements.

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 action.

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 restriction.

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 well.

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 year.

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 wear PFDs.

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 enforcement.

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.

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