Honorable Mark V. Rosenker
Chairman, National Transportation Safety Board
Remarks before the
Association for Safe International Road Travel
Washington, DC
June 16, 2008

 

 


Good evening, I’d like to thank the Association for Safe International Road Travel and President Rochelle Sobel for inviting me to discuss the importance of focusing public and government attention on the outrageous carnage on our highways. 

I recently attended an international meeting on transportation safety in St. Petersburg, Russia, and I am sorry to tell you that very little attention was paid to road safety at that meeting.   Yet, nearly 1.2 million people of all ages are killed annually as result of road crashes worldwide, averaging nearly 3,300 fatalities every day. Groups like yours are essential to drawing attention to this problem and to waging the battle to reduce highway deaths and injuries. I am proud to be here to support the association’s call for ongoing programs emphasizing the “Three Es” of traffic safety: Education, Enforcement, and Engineering solutions.  And for greater compliance of existing safe driving laws by motorists and full implementation of graduated driver licensing laws for our teenagers and young drivers.

As many of you know, the NTSB does not mandate or regulate — our mission is to determine an accident’s probable cause and make recommendations aimed at improving transportation safety. We have investigated more than 130,000 aviation accidents and th0usands of surface mode accidents in our 41-year history in all modes.  A few notable ones are the 1989 Exxon Valdez tanker oil spill in Alaska, the 1996 TWA 747 crash off Long Island, and two recent accidents: the 2006 Interstate-90 Connector collapse of a tunnel ceiling in Boston, and the Interstate-35 West bridge collapse in Minneapolis, which happened last August. Our goal is to figure out WHAT happened and then, more importantly, WHY it happened so that we can recommend changes to prevent similar accidents in the future.

The Safety Board has relatively limited resources. Our staff comprises fewer than 400 people, covering all modes of travel and responding to events across the country.  Let me give you some background on the extent of the Safety Board’s work to improve highway safety.  Over the past four decades, we have issued more than 2,100 highway safety recommendations.  More than 1,800 of them have been acted on — most of those led to safety improvements, such as improved protection for gas tanks on school buses, redesigned air bags, and a whole host of state highway safety laws that were implemented.  But we have much more to do, and a long way to go because the vast majority of U. S. transportation deaths, in fact 95 per cent, occur on our nation’s highways.

There are nearly 250 million vehicles registered in the United States and their operation results in 6 million police-reported crashes and more than 42,000 fatalities annually — that’s an average of 117 people dying each day.

For several decades, the number of fatalities and fatality rates in the United States has been dropping. These improvements can be attributed to the use of seatbelts and child restraint systems; the development of airbags, antilock brakes, crash-absorbing vehicle frames; and campaigns to reduce drunk driving.

Unfortunately, the decreases in fatalities and injury rates in the United States have leveled off in the past few years. We have reached some practical limits in combating the physical forces involved in crashes.

Because I know it is nearing dinnertime, I want to briefly discuss   the safety technology for crash avoidance and the highway safety improvements on the Safety Board’s Most Wanted List.  This is the list you have on your tables of our most important safety recommendations. If you open it up, on the right hand side are the recommendations in the highway area that NTSB believes can have the most impact in reducing deaths and crashes on our highways.

Let me start with an area that I think is the most promising.  In 2001, the Safety Board conducted a special investigation of technology to prevent rear end collisions and asked the government to complete rulemaking on performance standards for adaptive cruise control and collision warning systems. The Safety Board recently added this issue — preventing collisions using enhanced vehicle safety technology — to the list last November.

Such technologies can also provide a huge economic benefit. Every day, 19,000 crashes occur on America’s highways. These crashes incur an enormous cost: $230 billion dollars a year — that equates to $800 per person. We can no longer be satisfied with trying to protect people who get into crashes. We must instead use the technology at our command to prevent crashes from happening.

Let me offer a practical example of how vehicle technology is affecting safety. Every parent's nightmare is to back over a young child in the driveway. Nearly 200 fatalities and approximately 7,000 such injuries were reported in the U.S. in 2006, though that is surely only a fraction because many of these events occur on private property. Back-over avoidance systems are being marketed as “parking aids” using ultrasonic or radar technology to warn drivers as they approach an object. Initial evaluations indicate that camera-based systems offer the greatest potential, but driver use of these systems is still under evaluation.

We also need to encourage the continued development and implementation of lane departure avoidance systems and curve-speed warning systems to target the most fatal type of events — run-off-the-road accidents. For example, electronic stability control, required on all new vehicles by model year 2012, should significantly reduce loss of control crashes and resulting rollovers.

Why am I a strong proponent of highway safety technology? Because we have seen electronic devices and automated systems used in commercial aviation to improve our ability to operate in complex environments. Beginning in the 1950s, radio navigation aids, radar, and air traffic control technology dropped the number of accidents per year. Further refinements came with long-range radar and precision approaches. The aviation industry has since implemented computerized flight management systems, windshear alert systems, ground proximity and mid air collision warning systems, and fly-by-wire electronic control of aircraft. We are now seeing real-time weather and traffic displays in the cockpit; precision landing systems for zero visibility conditions, hybrid vision, and remotely operated drones. Technological advances have made commercial aviation the safest mode of transportation and I believe similar technologies may enable us to repeat those successes in highway travel.

While aviation offers an example of technology benefits to safety, distinct differences between drivers and pilots must be factored into the development of new technologies. Unlike pilots, drivers receive minimal qualification training, no recurrent training, no medical evaluation, and their education and language skills vary widely. Drivers may be totally inexperienced in their vehicle type, may have conducted no trip planning, and believe they can drive and do a combination of other things at the same time — like talking on a cell phone, reading the newspaper, shaving, putting on make-up and text messaging. Many drivers don’t take the time to understand their cars and how their own driving habits may affect their safety. Let’s face it: many Americans don’t even read their owners manuals. But manufacturers are taking steps to fill this need, using video pod casts, instructional DVDs, emails, and one-on-one training at the dealers. As the technology offered in cars evolves, manufacturers will be faced with evermore difficult challenges in training drivers to learn about and take full advantage of system capabilities.

I am confident that highway automation will greatly improve safety, but I am not naïve about what it will take to see these benefits. We have to work to ensure that the safety promises of these systems become reality. System integration, for example, is an important consideration. Different manufacturers make antilock brakes; stability control systems, collision avoidance systems — and these systems must work in concert to avoid a variety of road hazards.

While I am enthusiastic about high tech safety advances, our Most Wanted List also calls for other important highway safety improvements.

We strongly believe government and industry need to do more to prevent medically unqualified drivers from operating commercial vehicles by establishing a comprehensive medical oversight program for interstate commercial drivers; making sure that examiners are qualified and know what to look for; tracking all medical certificate applications; improving oversight and enforcement of invalid certificates, and providing mechanisms for reporting changes in medical conditions.

We want better protection for school bus and motorcoach passengers when a bus sustains a front, side, or rear impact or rolls over. We want to prevent motor carriers from operating if they put vehicles with mechanical problems on the road or unqualified drivers behind the wheels.

In this country, many highway safety laws are the responsibility of individual states.  So, our Most Wanted List also targets state legislatures. We want every state to have laws requiring booster seats for young children up to age 8, and primary seat belt laws to increase the number of people who wear seat belts through stronger enforcement.

We want to reduce the unacceptable number of young drivers who are killed and injured on our highways.  We urge all states to enact graduated driver licensing legislation that teach teens to drive gradually, restrict the number of teen passengers traveling with young novice drivers, and prohibit use of wireless communications devices by young novice drivers.

Another tough problem in the United States is hard core drinking drivers - those with high blood alcohol concentration levels of 0.15 percent or greater or who are repeat offenders with drunk driving arrests or convictions. In 2006, people identified as “hard core drinking drivers” –– were involved in more than 53 percent of the alcohol-related fatalities and more than 22 percent of the total highway deaths. Between 1983 and 2006, more than 210,000 people died in crashes involving hard core drinking drivers.

To tackle this problem the Safety Board’s recommendations to the states calls for a wide range of actions, including frequent, statewide sobriety checkpoints; stricter sanctions for those arrested for the first time with a high blood alcohol concentration of 0.15 or higher; zero blood alcohol requirement for convicted driving while intoxicated offenders when they get their license back; and vehicle sanctions such as ignition interlocks for these offenders.  So, not to put a damper on the evening, but if you haven’t identified a designated driver for tonight, it’s not too late to so so — you never know where those sobriety checkpoints will be.

As I mentioned earlier, we have a long way to go, but the goals are attainable if we work hard and have the support organizations like yours. Thank you again for this opportunity to speak to you tonight.

Speeches & Testimony