Honorable Deborah Hersman, NTSB Board MemberStatement of
Deborah A.P. Hersman
Member
National Transportation Safety Board
at the
2006 Kentucky Lifesavers Conference
Louisville, Kentucky
April 26, 2006

 


Good morning.

It is a privilege to be with you at this conference. I've enjoyed renewing an old friendship, with Deputy Secretary Adams and making new ones. Many of you may be familiar with the work of the NTSB through our accident investigations, but I'd like to put an exclamation point on what Brian said last night. The NTSB will be featured prominently on the national news for the work we do investigating aviation accidents, but we rarely get the same attention for our work on highway accidents even though ninety-five percent of all transportation fatalities are on the highways. But while many challenges remain in focusing the public's attention on highway safety, today is a day to celebrate. And indeed, you should be celebrating. The Kentucky Legislature has enacted two important measures that will significantly improve Kentucky's highway safety laws:

Graduated Licensing. Kentucky had one of the nation's weakest laws prior to the enactment of this year's legislation. Although teenagers make up only 6 percent of the driving population in Kentucky, they were involved in 18 percent of the fatal accidents. Kentucky's rate of fatal accidents involving teen drivers is among the worst in the Nation. With the addition of a 6-month intermediate phase with both nighttime and passenger restrictions, you can expect to see significant improvements in those numbers.

Primary enforcement for seat belts. For your state, passing this law is like winning the Derby. Kentucky's seat belt use rate of 66.7% is the fourth worst in the nation. With the enactment of primary enforcement, you have the opportunity to enhance both educational and enforcement efforts. This law sends a loud and clear message to all Kentuckians that there is no excuse for not wearing a seat belt.

In following the debate, I was especially impressed that these laws were approved in a bi-partisan way with leadership on both sides of the aisle. Gov. Fletcher's strong support of primary enforcement and GDL and, as was recognized last night, Transportation Secretary Bill Nighbert's effective leadership truly made a difference.

The Safety Board occasionally recognizes leaders in transportation safety who, through their efforts and political courage make a difference. To date we have recognized legislators in Indiana, Virginia and South Carolina.

When it comes to graduated licensing, everyone in this room is familiar with Representative Tom Burch's longstanding personal efforts to enact graduated driver licensing. His efforts were truly a personal crusade, following his granddaughter's tragic death in a highway crash. For years, you have led the effort that resulted in this year's success. Undoubtedly, hundreds or thousands of crashes involving teenagers will not occur because of it. You are truly a Kentucky Lifesaver. Thank you, Representative Burch.

We'll also be recognizing Senate President David Williams at a later time. He helped revive primary enforcement when it appeared to be dead.

I've heard it said that failure is an orphan and success has many fathers. Looking around the room today, I see many proud parents. Many organizations and individuals represented here today who made critical contributions in building support for these two important measures. That public involvement and interest is essential to success in the legislature. You all deserve awards because it wouldn't have happened without you! Thank you.

The past two days have been a great opportunity for each of you to learn and to share your wisdom and experiences with colleagues from around the State. This interchange of program ideas is the critical next step in improving the safety of Kentucky's highways. You heard from Brian Walker last night on how to reach the media, how to find the means to reduce impaired driving, and you've had the opportunity to network with one another to learn information and establish connections you can use all year. This week's conference is itself a resource that should strengthen all types of safety programs in all parts of the State. I trust that you will leave here better equipped to build effective implementation programs. Take advantage of these resources to make highway safety a public priority, so that reducing traffic crashes receives ongoing attention.

Although there is much to celebrate, much more needs to be done. Nearly 1,000 people (985) were killed on Kentucky highways in 2004. While the nation has reduced highway fatalities by four percent since 1975, Kentucky has moved in the opposite direction with highway fatalities increased by 12 percent. The good news is that at this conference, we've heard statistics that 2006 numbers are trending in the right direction.

While much has been accomplished in the legislature this year, there still are significant gaps in Kentucky's highway safety laws. Earlier today, Patsy asked the members of the Governor's Executive Committee the question, "What is next? What is your big passion?" Let me focus on two of the Safety Board's passions that are on our "Most Wanted List" of highway safety improvements: Child passenger safety and drunk drivers.

First, there is no requirement in Kentucky for children to use booster seats or ride in the back seat. Kevin and Doug, I suspect everyone with small children or grandchildren in this room can relate to your comments. Our kids are the most vulnerable passengers and they cannot make safety decisions for themselves. Currently, Kentucky's law protects only those children who are 40 inches tall or less by requiring them to ride in a child safety seat. You need to expand this law to require that children ride in booster seats up to age eight and in the rear seat until age 12.

Ten years ago, the Safety Board examined the issue of child passenger safety. Of the crashes we examined during our study, we found that children inappropriately restrained by seat belts suffered more severe injuries than children properly restrained. When children outgrow child safety seats, they are still not big enough fit into a seat belt designed for adults. I see many folks in law enforcement out there. You do the seat checks and you know parents look to the laws for guidance. A booster seat is necessary to properly position seat belts for maximum protection. Thirty-six states now have booster seat requirements for children who have outgrown their traditional child safety seats.

Our study also showed that children riding in the back seat were less likely to sustain injuries in a car crash. Other research has shown that moving children to the back seat cuts a child's risk of injury by one-third. Only 15 States have mandated back seat use, and only the State of Washington fully implements the Safety Board's recommendation of back seat use for children 12-years-old and under. Here is an opportunity for Kentucky to take the lead, by upgrading your child passenger safety law and backing it up with good education and enforcement.

Second, Kentucky needs to strengthen its drinking driving laws. Several people on the Governor's Executive Committee identified this issue as "their passion." NHTSA statistics show that 32% of fatalities in Kentucky involve alcohol. But, only around half of drivers involved in fatal crashes are even tested, indicating significant flaws in your system. Even with the limited post accident testing that is done, we know that more than 300 people like Brian's grandmother Mona, are killed each year in alcohol-related crashes in Kentucky. Now this goes back to Boyd's point earlier about using the facts and data to support and justify your priorities good data needs to be collected and it will in turn support your safety agenda.

Almost twenty years ago the Safety Board investigated the tragedy in Carrollton, Kentucky that remains the worst impaired driving crash in American history. In that crash, a 35-year-old driver, who repeatedly drove while impaired and was driving that day with a very high blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.24 percent, crashed into a church activity bus and caused 27 deaths and 34 injuries, many of them serious.

Today's drinking drivers, especially the hard core drinking drivers, comprise a very small proportion of the driving population but they put Americans who share the road with them at great risk. We're not talking about social drinkers here. We are talking about the drivers with very high BAC and repeat offenders who comprise 27 percent of the drivers in fatal crashes.

Hard core drinking drivers tend to be resistant to education and social pressure. In June 2000, the Safety Board issued a report, "Actions to Reduce Fatalities, Injuries, and Crashes Involving the Hard Core Drinking Driver," in which we outlined legislative, prosecutorial, and judicial measures along with vehicle sanctions and enforcement strategies that have proven successful. When combined, these strategies create a comprehensive program to reduce crashes involving hard core drinking drivers.

Everyone in this room knows that enforcement is critical to reducing fatalities. We have recommended the use of sobriety checkpoints since 1983 and checkpoints are the key enforcement ingredient in our model hard core drinking driver program. But we must also intervene in other ways that are effective in preventing drinking and driving. Alcohol interlocks can be put in offenders' cars. If they continue to drink and drive, their license plates can be revoked, their cars can be immobilized or impounded, and for multiple offenses, the car can be confiscated. There are "hot sheet" programs where local police can identify those with suspended or revoked licenses or no license at all. Hard core drinking drivers may be evaluated, and courts can mandate appropriate sanctions and treatment.

Most experts agree that many impaired drivers persist in their behavior because they believe they will not be caught or convicted. Unfortunately, that perception is based on reality. In most jurisdictions that do not have administrative license revocation, such as Kentucky and nine other states, experience proves that drivers have little reason to fear apprehension. In fact, the odds of being arrested for driving while impaired are as low as one in 1,000.

A typical drunk driving case takes an average of 90-120 days, and sometimes as long as a year, to crawl through the judicial system. During that time, the driver retains his or her license, and all too frequently, is arrested again for DWI before being tried for the previous offense. You can have no credible deterrence without strong and visible enforcement and speedy, consistent sanctions.

Based upon the extensive experience of the jurisdictions that have adopted administrative license revocation, it works . It specifically deters those drivers who are caught drinking and driving from doing it again. And, it generally deters those who have not been caught, because they are afraid of losing their driving privileges.

Today is a day of celebration for your accomplishments this year, but today is also a good day to rededicate ourselves to improving highway safety programs and operations and build public consensus to further strengthen Kentucky's laws next year.

It is such an honor for me to be here. As Deputy Secretary Jim Adams noted this morning, we are ready to partner and support you in your lifesaving efforts by providing information, testifying before the legislature or participating in raising public awareness about these important highway safety issues. Thank you for your dedication and your tireless efforts to improve driving safety in Kentucky.