Remarks of Jim Hall, Chairman

National Transportation Safety Board

before the National Association of Governors' Highway Safety Representatives

Nashville, Tennessee

September 13, 1996


Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for inviting me to speak with you today.

With me today is the Director of the Safety Board's Office of Surface Transportation Safety, Jim Arena. As you know, Jim is a past-Chair of this organization. Jim's work with New Jersey's Highway Safety Division, as well as his years with NAGSHR, give us a rare combination of investigative and administrative expertise.

Also with us today is an old friend of yours, Barry Sweedler, Director of our Office of Safety Recommendations, who has worked with you for many years on a variety of highway safety issues.

Although you have invited me here, as a Tennessean, I wish to welcome you to this capital city and hope you enjoy the benefits of my beautiful State. It is fitting that you have chosen Tennessee for your annual meeting because this State's rich history of dedication to community and State service has made it known as the "Volunteer State."

And that spirit of volunteerism has been key to some of the major successes in highway safety. You know that I speak of such groups as Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Remove Intoxicated Drivers, and other grass roots groups, especially those who promote all the safety issues of interest to us. Their efforts have paid rich dividends in terms of lives saved, injuries reduced, and costs saved. We need more volunteers, not just in the "Volunteer State", but in all States and communities. Equally important, we need adequate funding to aid both the volunteers and those of you who have the privilege of working for our citizens.

I am honored to address this meeting of one of the most important highway safety groups in the country. You are the coordinators, planners, and the vanguard of highway safety in your States, and comprise our best hope for reducing the daily and nightly tragedies that occur on our roads. But our task is daunting and at least some of the cards are stacked against us. If we continue business as usual, we are going to fall behind and our citizens will suffer.

As a former State official, I know one of the problems some of you confront is consistency in State oversight of highway safety. Whether you work directly in the Governor's Office or have been assigned to your State's Department of Transportation, you must ensure that this vital responsibility is not allowed to fall between the cracks.

As many of you know, the National Transportation Safety Board is an independent Federal accident investigation agency charged by Congress to investigate transportation accidents, determine their probable cause, and make recommendations to prevent their recurrence. We are not part of the Department of Transportation and have neither regulatory authority nor grant funds. The Board is a very small agency with only about 350 employees. It costs each of our citizens about 15 cents a year to fund my agency.

You may know us for our high-profile aviation work, but we also investigate significant accidents in surface transportation -- highway, rail, pipeline and marine. We have had nearly 30 years of experience in investigating more than 100,000 aviation accidents and thousands more in the surface modes. Historically, we have seen unacceptable risk-taking in transportation by individuals, but unfortunately we've seen risk-taking on the corporate and agency level, as well. Any time you have a company fail to properly train its employees, or a regulatory agency fail to exercise its oversight responsibilities, you are witnessing unacceptable risk taking.

Over the years, we have made great progress in reducing some of this risk-taking. Yet, we have experienced an increase in highway fatalities for the last 3 years, and, for the first time in a decade, an increase in alcohol-related fatalities. Clearly, more must be done.

These increases have occurred during a time of great turmoil at the federal and State levels. Funding sources have been cut. States have clamored for and have received more responsibility and flexibility from the federal government. We are relinquishing certain federal government responsibilities to the States and at least some States are giving more responsibility to local government. Some of these responsibilities involve transportation safety.

This so-called "devolution" can be a good thing in that it can promote personal, local and State responsibility, volunteerism, and innovation. But, devolution can also be a bad thing when it creates a patchwork of laws or regulations that confuse our citizens, impede economic growth or cause preventable injury or death.

At the federal level, we have seen the repeal of the national maximum speed limit, the motorcycle helmet law, and safety belt incentives, and attempts to repeal one of the most effective highway safety measures in our history, the National Minimum Drinking Age Act. In many States we need to strengthen the age-21 laws, not eliminate them.

The effort to roll back age-21 laws is still alive in Congress. According to a recent press account, age-21 repeal is a high priority of the alcohol beverage industry for 1997. Should this nation allow an industry to hide behind the banner of State's rights when in truth it is endangering our children's lives merely for the sake of commercial profit?

Although we all hope there will be no change in the federal mandate, you must be prepared to defend your State requirements if the federal stick is removed. The potential for a youth fatality disaster is real because the efforts to repeal the federal law coincides with a dramatic increase in our youth population. Our educators are expecting a 25 percent increase in students in grades 9-12 over the next ten years. You know what that means - more students, more young drivers, more crashes, and more fatalities. We need to take stronger action, not weaker, and we must defend our youth against destructive devolution of government.

The effects of raising speed limits remain to be seen. New data suggests that we may be seeing an increase in crash severity. No matter what we do, we can't repeal the laws of physics. The same physical laws apply to the use of motorcycle helmets and safety belts. These are devices of proven effectiveness, yet many legislators feel that the right to take risks by not using safety devices is somehow inalienable. What about the rest of us who have to pay for the risk-takers?

We may be operating in a different governmental climate, but we still need to keep our people safe. We can do this by enacting good public policies. We have administrative license revocation in 41 States and the District of Columbia; we have safety belt laws in 49 States and the District, only 10 of which are primary enforcement laws; we have 14 States that set a blood alcohol standard below 0.10 percent; we have low BAC laws for youths in 42 States and the District, but 5 of those States need to make them zero tolerance laws; and most States need to better prepare their young drivers through graduated licensing and enhanced education and driving experience. These must be done. Why? Because they work!

For both the 21- to 34-year-old group and for persistent drinking drivers, we need to consider a high BAC offense as an "aggravated" offense or a repeat offense. We need to condition hardship licenses and restoration of licenses with treatment, periodic monitoring, and interlock use. For this group of persistent drinking drivers, if suspending their driver's license doesn't keep them off the road, then perhaps we need to separate them from their vehicles by impoundment, immobilization or even confiscation. We need to push our leaders to act. States that don't take action need to think about the rest of us who have to pay for the risk-takers.

Our staff has been working on ways to focus attention on the big issues. For months now, headlines have followed every new development in the ValuJet and TWA flight 800 investigations. But, as horrible as these accidents have been, we cannot forget that such tragedies 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.

Yet, the sad toll on our highways continues to elude the public consciousness because we don't kill 100 people in one moment in one spot. They died by one or two or three at a time, in accidents spread over millions of square miles. No "satellite city" is built to bring hourly bulletins of these people's deaths. No federal Go-Team rushes to the scene to investigate. But the people are dead, nonetheless, and by year's end they will outnumber airline deaths by 100 to 1.

We need to launch a publicity campaign that rivals the coverage given to major transportation accidents, because we have a major transportation accident every day, it just takes all day to happen, and it occurs in every State of the Union. We need to publicize this death toll on a continuous basis, day-to-day, week-by-week. We see plenty of publicity for the continuing climbing public debt, or the number of rainless days in a particular area. Why not keep a national running count of highway fatalities, so that our nation's population can appreciate the level of carnage we experience on our roads?

And, Americans must be made to know that the impact of highway crashes goes far beyond the terrible human statistics.

NHTSA estimated that motor vehicle crash costs in 1994 was almost $151 billion, or $580 for every American; 2.2 percent of our Gross Domestic Product. Every fatality costs over $830,000 and every critical injury costs nearly as much, $706,000.

o Consider how the costs are spread across government-or absorbed by each of us as responsible taxpayers.

o Consider the effects on police, emergency providers, and health care professionals.

o Consider that too many of the injured do not have health insurance or have inadequate insurance.

o Consider that the taxpayers pick up the costs at public hospitals and that Medicaid or Medicare may pick up the costs making the taxpayer pay again. About one-quarter of the medical costs and about 10 percent of all crash costs come from public revenues.

And who provides those revenues? You and I do, the responsible majority, those who buckle up, wear motorcycle helmets, and drink responsibly or not at all. It is we who subsidize the high-risk driver who thumbs his nose at safety laws, at responsible behavior and at the rest of us.

We need to help the majority of responsible citizens understand how much money is being taken out of their pockets by this irresponsible minority. We need to stop subsidizing and thereby reinforcing negative behavior. How can we do it? Besides publicizing the extent of the tragedy, the cost of the tragedy, and personalizing the tragedy, we need to do something new.

As the management people say, we need to think "outside the box."

o Why should the taxpayers pay benefits for those who are irresponsible?

o How do we recover the costs for those who are irresponsible?

o How do we pay for our very expensive system to deal with the over 41,000 fatalities, 5.2 million injuries, and 27 million damaged vehicles every year?

What kind of message are we sending when incentive grants are reduced or eliminated? The current federal $125 million program has shown better than a $30 return for each dollar invested. But I think we all know that if existing federal programs are turned into block grants for the States, safety programs will suffer.

Now, I'm all in favor of downsizing government, but that does not mean we should downsize safety. And where the federal government has relinquished its authority, the States must step in. What you need are the resources necessary to get the job done.

We can look to North Carolina and perhaps to British Columbia for some answers. Safety Board staff have been looking at ways to develop consistent, dedicated funding to maintain and to improve highway safety. I know you've heard about North Carolina's program until you're blue in the face, but they have been successful on several levels. They also have the serendipitous effect of identifying and arresting felons and fugitives. The North Carolina alcohol "Booze It and Lose It" and safety belt "Click It or Ticket" checkpoints increased safety belt use to over 82 percent, cut illegal BACs at checkpoints for nighttime drivers in half, and achieved a reduction in alcohol-related fatal crashes.

So, in North Carolina, belt use is up dramatically and alcohol-related crashes are down dramatically, but even more important to the consumer, auto insurance costs have decreased dramatically. North Carolina has gone from one of the most expensive insurance states to the 6th lowest in the nation. Rate request increases have been reduced by $33 million and $110 million has been refunded, with more expected. Insurance companies have contributed to the North Carolina highway safety program.

Can you do this in your State? Why not? I've been told that all you need to do is to ask your insurance commissioner. But let's say that we need more than rate reductions and voluntary contributions. Maybe we need a dedicated fund. What would you do, how much more effective could you be, how many lives could you save if you had double or triple the resources you have now? It is possible.

At this point, I'm going to take off my Chairman's hat, because the proposal I'm about to suggest has not been considered by the NTSB. This is my personal opinion.

There are ways to obtain that dedicated funding. We can institute a modest program that would generate additional safety funds that could augment current federal funding.

Did you know that there were nearly $114 billion dollars in auto insurance premiums written in this country in 1994? Nearly $97 billion for private passenger auto insurance and nearly $17 billion for commercial vehicle insurance. The average auto insurance expenditures varied from $365 per year in South Dakota to over $960 in New Jersey.

Why not allocate one-tenth of one percent of auto insurance premiums to highway safety? This would have generated over $110 million in 1994.

But why only ask the insurance industry to participate? We could be even more creative by spreading contributions to the safety fund across all who contribute to the problem. To generate more than twice as much funding to the States as NHTSA provided, let's say $400 million dollars per year, we could also ask for:

o 25 cents for every registered vehicle;

o $5 for each new car sold each year;

o One-tenth of a cent for each gallon of fuel; and

o 5 cents for each gallon of alcohol sold.

No one would feel pain if stipends to the safety fund are spread across highway users and those industries that contribute to safety problems on our highways. Together, these contributions would total more than $375 million a year, every year.

This level would be base level funding. It could be implemented at the federal level or in all 50 States. But these funds must be managed properly. That's where you come in. The governor's highway safety representatives and coordinators have been effective in using funds in your States to meet the safety needs of your states and communities. But they need more help.

The insurance industry partnership has been shown to be important in both North Carolina and British Columbia. Insurance companies have been active partners with us in the past, and this partnership can be more rewarding in the future. It's a win-win situation. In British Columbia, the provincial insurance company received an $8 reduction in claims for each dollar invested in their safety program. This can work. Let me quote Jim Long, the North Carolina Insurance Commissioner: "If we want high-risk behavior to change, we have to build a strong comprehensive prevention network and teach prevention to children, parents and other adults." We also need to maintain high profile, clear, and credible deterrence.

Ladies and gentlemen, what I'm saying is that we need good public policies such as the laws I mentioned earlier. We need checkpoint operations, vehicle tag and vehicle confiscation for those who refuse to change their ways, but we must prevent the next generation of bad drivers from developing and we are already behind that curve. You may not agree with the setaside idea at first blush, but it's already been used in the United States for other purposes, for example, to fund arson and auto theft prevention programs. Why not use it for the number 1 transportation killer? Can't we afford one-tenth of 1 percent of the auto insurance premiums or 25 cents per year on each registered vehicle or $5 on each new car or light truck sold or maybe $1 on each used car or light truck sold or one-tenth of a penny on a gallon of gas or 5 cents on a gallon of pure alcohol? Of course we can.

We need to think outside the box and these are some ways to look at it. Transportation Secretary Pena challenged the U.S. to reduce alcohol-related fatalities to 30 per day or 11,000 per year by 2005. However, we seem to be going in the wrong direction in both crashes and in some proposed federal legislation.

Because of my belief that there would be pressures on the federal government to relinquish what some might perceive as "heavy handed" regulation, regardless of the outcome of the 1994 elections, I designed and implemented a 50-State Program at the Board. As these issues have arisen around the country, I or one of my colleagues on the Board have made themselves available to State legislatures to support stronger highway safety initiatives. In recent months we've been to North Carolina, Colorado, Texas, Georgia and Virginia.

As government devolves, funds will devolve, diminish, and dissipate. We cannot afford that. Funds need to be applied to the most effective measures in your states and communities. I ask for your continued support in a national program to put the emphasis where it should be - on those 41,000 fatalities and 5.2 million injuries every year.

Please don't hesitate to let us know if we can help you in the future. We on the federal level and you on the State level serve the same constituency -- the American people.

Thank you.


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