Remarks of Mark V. Rosenker
Vice Chairman, National Transportation Safety Board
JD Power and Associates
International Automotive Roundtable
Las Vegas, Nevada
January 30, 2004
Thank you for your kind introduction and I am delighted to a part of this year's international forum.
Without question, the development of the automobile was among the most significant events of the 20th century. In a little over one hundred years the automobile has been transformed from a horseless carriage, a curiosity and in many cases, viewed by the public at the time as an annoyance, into one of most important modes of transportation in the world today. From a wooden wagon to a sophisticated vehicle that today has as much computer power and technology on board as the early manned space exploration vehicles.
The advent of the automobile has had enormous affects on modern society, shrinking distances and making life in general simpler, more comfortable, and yet at the same time, more complex and sometimes more stressful. The automotive industry has evolved into one of the world's greatest industries; delivering consumers worldwide a broad array of products that offer utility, practicality, luxury, simplicity, enjoyment, comfort, sex appeal, prestige and in my opinion, most importantly, safety. Over the last several decades alone, we have seen incredible advances in, and demand for, vehicles equipped with devices that create a safer environment for both the driver and passengers.
The unfortunate truth, however, is that the automobile remains, despite all the years of safety improvements, one of the leading causes of death and injury in our nation. Last year, nearly 43,000 people died in highway crashes. Additionally, nearly 3 million people were injured in automobiles during the last year. The cost? About $230 billion or $820 per person, per year. While these numbers continue to be disturbingly high, they are significantly lower than the 55,000 Americans who died on our highways during the period I got into highway safety – nearly three decades ago.
These improvements didn't happen overnight, but have been the result of millions of dollars of research and development by industry and government, as well as continued commitment by public advocacy and educational organizations. I think the most interesting benefit of all this investment in safety, besides the obvious, fatality and injury reduction, is the fact is that we have learned that SAFETY SELLS, TODAY AND IN THE FUTURE.
When consumers go to the showroom today they want to know about ABS, ALLWHEEL DRIVE, ELECTRONIC STABILITY CONTROL, TRACTION CONTROL, GPS NAVAGATION SYSTEMS, and even COLLISION WARNING TECHNOLOGY. One of the more simple, yet useful, safety technologies becoming more and more popular is the in-car HANDSFREE SYSTEMS for cell phones.
In this particular case, not only does the consumer recognize the safety and convenience of the technology, but more and more states are enacting legislation and this is a factor as well. New York State, the District of Columbia, and most recently New Jersey, have enacted laws prohibiting the use of mobile phones while moving, unless they are used in conjunction with a hands free system. Over the last 3 years virtually every state in the Union has considered this initiative and it is clearly gaining momentum. Additionally, many European nations have recognized the safety value of hands free technology and have enacted similar laws. It is my personal opinion that the time is right for the auto industry to take the lead in working with the cell phone industry to make this simple technology available in all of its new products because I believe its just a matter of time before all 50 states adopt this driving safety measure.
In the early days of my career, I worked with the American Seat Belt Council, the Motorcycle Safety Foundation, the Safety Helmet Council of America and the American Moped Association. This was during the days when we got in our cars and seldom thought of fastening seat belts. Today, the most recent statistics tell us 79% of drivers nationwide are buckling up, and as a result, an untold number of lives have been saved. This is a prime example of how the ongoing efforts of the auto manufacturers, safety advocate groups and the federal, state and local governments working together can change a culture. The widespread use of seat belts certainly didn't happen overnight and the efforts are certainly not over. But it is undeniable, enormous progress has been made.
Prompting behavioral changes is an extremely affective ways to save lives. But another way is through the development of new safety technology. Seat belts, and now air bags, will probably always be considered effective protection when it comes to saving lives and reducing injuries in crashes. But we are also seeing a whole host of new technologies in a developing "Intelligent Transportation System" (ITS), which will help prevent a broader range of accidents and thus save additional lives.
Electronic Stability Control (ESC) has gained increasing interest amongst automobile manufacturers. The Safety Board recently issued a recommendation that the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) formally evaluate ESC using accident data analysis with an eye toward a phased-in mandate, if the data shows a significant safety benefit. The Board became interested in ESC after analysis of a number of accidents. One accident, in particular, occurred on RT 495 around Largo, Maryland in 2002. An inexperienced young driver lost control of her newly acquired sport utility vehicle during a particularly strong wind condition. Through numerous calculations and computer simulations the Board's engineers and technical staff have come to the conclusion ESC could very well have prevented or mitigated this loss of control, which sent the vehicle careening into a guardrail and launched it into the air, landing in the opposing traffic lane. This resulted in 5 fatalities.
Though rollovers only account for 3% of the automobile accidents, they account for 23% of the occupant fatalities. It appears this is where ESC will be the greatest enhancement to public safety. The Germans, Swedish and Japanese have all compiled data indicating that approximately 20-30% of all crashes can be avoided when a vehicle is equipped with ESC.
Currently only 6% of the vehicles manufactured in the U.S. are equipped with ESC, while most European cars sold in the U.S. have ESC as standard equipment.
It is the Board's understanding that the cost of installing ESC, ranges from $150 to $400 depending on the vehicles standard equipment - such as ABS and traction control. I believe today's consumers feel even $400 is a small price to pay, considering the technology's great potential to save lives; and they will eventually demand not only ESC be an available option, but standard equipment.
ESC is not the only technology that the Board feels will make great improvements to automotive safety. During 2000, the Safety Board studied rear end collisions. We looked at 9 such accidents in which 20 people died and 181 were injured. In these particular accidents there was no evidence of vehicle malfunctions, or drug or alcohol use, or other anomalies. Our conclusions were that the drivers simply were not aware that traffic ahead had either slowed or stopped. As a result, we took a closer look at technologies which may have the ability to alert the operator to an impending accident. One of the more interesting of these technologies is the Rear-End Collision Warning Systems (CWS). Designed to alert drivers to obstacles ahead, it could be of particular value to people driving under low visibility conditions.
The Board is also studying Adaptive Cruise Control (ACC). While it is presently considered more of a convenience feature, this technology, which slows the vehicle to match the speed of the automobile ahead, appears to have significant safety possibilities. Once again, we are beginning to see trucking companies install this technology to bolster their safety record and add to the bottom line.
In addition we are looking at Infrastructure-Based safety systems, which alert drivers to traffic conditions on the road ahead.
The Safety Board has made recommendations to the Department of Transportation to further examine each of these technologies. We firmly believe these efforts will yield very positive results.
In March of 2000, the Safety Board investigated an accident in which a train struck a school bus in a rural area, killing three students. Whenever children are involved in accidents there is usually greater media and public interest. In this particular case it was fortunate there was an eyewitness who made a 911call. Due to the remote location of the accident, had this person not been there, it could have been hours before authorities were alerted and assistance rendered. This could have resulted in a greater number of fatalities. Consequently the Board began a study of the Automatic Crash Notification (ACN) Systems.
ACN systems are designed to automatically notify emergency responders that an accident has occurred –including information about the severity and location. ACN systems touch into a new base of safety technology – the increased ability to safely communicate in times of emergencies. With our aging population this will become a very important issue with more and more vehicle owners.
We have come a long way in the efforts to improve upon automotive safety. The fact of the matter is that in the last several decades we've seen an incredible increase of miles driven and a decrease in traffic fatalities, but unfortunately, highway related fatalities are still a leading causes of death in this country.
You are in a unique position to influence the industry and the health and safety of our citizens and people around the world. We are not going to see a decrease in truck and automobile use. On the contrary, as emerging markets and the third world begin to find their stride, automobile and truck use will increase exponentially. I want to congratulate and thank you for what you have accomplished in the arena of automotive safety and I implore you all to aggressively continue your efforts. We can sight number after number and statistic after statistic, but we must never fail to remember the cost in human terms – the families that lose children, the children that lose parents and grandparents, the loss of our friends and neighbors. I would dare to say there is not one person in this room that has not lost a friend or relative in an avoidable accident. Real people, living ordinary lives, carrying out their daily tasks, deserve to be as safe as we can make them in their automobiles.