Setting a National Motor Vehicle Occupant Safety Agenda

Remarks by
Mark V. Rosenker, Acting Chairman
National Transportation Safety Board
to the
Meharry State Farm Alliance

National Safety Summit: A Progress Report to the Blue Ribbon Panel
July 6, 2006
Washington, DC


Good afternoon. I am Mark Rosenker the acting chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board.  Thank you for inviting me to this important conference.

 

Earlier this year, Safety Board Member Debbie Hersman joined you in Columbia, South Carolina when the Alliance honored five lawmakers and the South Carolina Legislative Black Caucus for their leadership in promoting a primary safety belt law.  I am glad to again join with the Meharry State Farm Alliance and I fully support the work you are doing to increase seat belt usage and to make our highways safer.

 

Today, I’d like to tell you what the NTSB does and how we are targeting highway safety through Our Most Wanted List of safety improvements.  I’d also like to touch on accident prevention technologies that can override the human errors that lead to accidents  -- such as adaptive cruise control and electronic stability control.

 

The Board was established 39 years ago as an independent, investigative agency that determines what went wrong and recommends measures to hopefully prevent future accidents, injuries, and fatalities. There’s no safety benefit, no lives saved, no deaths and injuries prevented unless the recommendations are adopted.

 

The Safety Board investigates accidents in all modes of transportation– highway, aviation, marine, pipeline, and railroad.  But some may think we only investigate major aviation crashes because they receive a lot of public and media attention.  Ten years ago on July 17th the media was riveted on our investigation of one the worse aviation disasters in the nation’s history – the crash of TWA flight 800 shortly after taking off from JFK airport and killing all 230 on board.

 

These catastrophic aviation accidents are becoming rarer in the United States. We have had no passenger fatalities on the large carriers in the past 4½ years – a remarkable record.

 

I wish we could point to better progress on our highways. Last year 43,200 people died in motor vehicle crashes, almost 600 more than in 2004.  These numbers are totally unacceptable. Reducing highway deaths should be a much higher national priority.

 

It’s a top priority at the NTSB because we see the same causes over and over again, and the needless loss of life over and over again during our highway accident investigations.

 

We’re trying to get the attention of the public, state and local safety official and the Congress.  That’s why we have a Most Wanted List of safety improvements that we believe are critical if we are to cut the number of deaths on our streets and highways.

 

The list urges a series of safety upgrades that if fully implemented by Federal, state and local governments – and if they are vigorously enforced – will save lives.

 

Our Most Wanted List urges Federal regulators to put a stop to motor carriers that operate their vehicles with mechanical problems and allow unqualified drivers behind the wheel.  We have a real problem because the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration is falling woefully short in this area.

 

We also want the Federal government to establish a comprehensive medical oversight program for interstate commercial drivers; ensure that examiners are qualified and know what to look for; track all medical certificate applications; enhance oversight and enforcement of invalid certificates; and provide mechanisms for reporting medical conditions. 

 

Passengers on motorcoaches and buses need better protection during crashes.  We’re asking NHTSA to require a redesign of motor coach window emergency exits so passengers can easily open them.

 

We want stronger bus roofs to prevent them from collapsing during rollovers and upgraded standards to better protect passengers when from being thrown out of their seats, or ejected when a bus sustains a front, side or rear impact.

 

Now the tough part -- encouraging and convincing the leaders of all 50 States and U.S. territories to enact – and enforce -- stronger highway safety laws.

We’ve had successes, and the Safety Board has an aggressive advocacy program, but there is much more to do.

 

Recommendations on our Most Wanted List urge States to require booster seats for young children and increase the number of people who wear seat belts through tough primary enforcement. From 1995 through 2004, more than 3,800 child occupants between the ages of 4 and 8 died in traffic crashes. More than 51 percent of those 3,800 children were unrestrained. In 2005, 55% of those who died in traffic accidents were NOT wearing their seat belts.  This must change.

 

Today, we have heard about the challenge of low seat belt use rates by African Americans, and the NTSB strongly endorses the efforts of this panel to increase seat belt use among all Americans, and especially among minority Americans. The fact remains, however,  that crashes don’t discriminate.

We’re asking the States to enact graduated licensing laws to eliminate a national disgrace—the fact that teen drivers are substantially over-represented in fatal crashes.  Here’s a grim reminder: more than 26,000 people were killed from 1997 through 2004 in crashes involving 14- through 17-year-old drivers.

This is totally unacceptable because we know graduated driver licensing laws save lives.  Studies from nearly a dozen States show that deaths and serious injuries from traffic crashes involving young drivers declined by as must as 58 percent following enactment of graduated licensing provisions, depending on the provisions of the law.

We need all States to restrict the number of passengers traveling with young novice drivers and we need to take away distractions by prohibiting the use of wireless communication devices by young novice drivers when they drive.

And we need to get habitual drinking drivers off our roads.  These are the so-called hard core drinking drivers who repeatedly drink large amounts of alcohol and drive. In 2004, hard core drinking drivers were involved in more than 9,000 highway fatalities, the estimated cost of which was approximately $8.9 billion. States should enact effective sanctions that deny impaired driving offenders from using their vehicles, set up programs to monitor and treat underlying alcohol problems, and create individualized sanctioning programs, such as “DWI” courts.

 

To make all these improvements happen, we need active participation of every citizen to demand strong laws and strong enforcement.  We need “political permission” of our governors and state legislatures. Then these laws must be strictly and fairly enforced. That means we need the commitment of thousands of lawmakers, hundreds of thousands of law enforcement officers in every town and city.  We need the commitment of millions of parents of young drivers, and we need the commitment of the public to prevent these highway tragedies. 

 

New technologies such as adaptive cruse control, and electronic stability control must also play a vital role in the near future of automotive safety.

 

Adaptive cruise control adjusts the throttle and brakes to keep a safe distance from the vehicle in front of you if there are changes in traffic speed or if a slower vehicle cuts into your lane.  If the system senses a potential collision, it typically will brake hard and tighten the seat belts.  Once it knows the lane is clear or traffic has sped up, it will return your car to its original cruising speed, all without your input.  You may override the system by touching the brakes.

 

Electronic stability control builds on existing antilock brake technology by providing speed sensors and independent braking for each vehicle wheel.  When a vehicle rapidly swerves to avoid an object or when traveling on slippery roads, for example, electronic stability control responds to the loss of control and applies brakes automatically and independently to the appropriate wheel to keep the vehicle under control.  If this technology were implemented in all vehicles throughout the country it could save 7,000 lives per year and prevent 800,000 vehicle accidents, NHTSA estimates.  New research by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety confirms that electronic stability control reduces the risk of all single-vehicle crashes by more than 40 percent and the risk of fatal crashes by 56 percent.

 

These technologies – as well warning systems for lane departure, collisions and drowsy driving -- will, someday, be in all cars in our country but that will take a long time.  In the meantime, all of us need to work for comprehensive highway safety laws that will raise seat belt use, improve teen driving, ensure children are appropriately restrained, and prevent impaired driving.

 

Thank you again for this opportunity.  In the next few minutes, I’d also be happy to answer ay questions you have.