Before the Students Against Destructive Decisions National Conference

​​Thank you, Shaina — for the selfie, for honoring me with the Change Maker Award today, and for your leadership. You’ve done so much, as National President and as a dedicated SADD member. 

Good morning, SADD Nation! Look for yourself in that photo, which I’ll tweet out later today. I know Twitter is a platform for us older folks, so I’ll also add this to the NTSB Instagram account: @ntsbgov. Bryan is posting it for me right now…Go ahead and “double tap.” 

I’m proud to be here with you in Orlando for your National Conference. Thanks for all you’re doing to create a healthier and safer world, one positive decision at a time. I say that as the head of the National Transportation Safety Board and as a mom. And I have special guests with me on both fronts. 

Bryan Delaney from the NTSB Safety Advocacy Division has deep roots with SADD…he was even the 2015 National Student of the Year! He started at the NTSB as an intern and we’re incredibly lucky he agreed to join us full time as a Transportation Safety Specialist.

Also here is Kelly Hessler, who recently joined us from the National Safety Council and works with me in the Chair’s office as a senior advisor.

I’m also so glad my daughter, Lexi, could be here with me. She’s 14 years old and a rising high school freshman. 

She loves math, science, and soccer…and her dream job is to conduct experiments on the International Space Station one day.

Lexi: I am so proud of you. I know it’s not easy to have a safety zealot for a mom!

Lexi knows that if there’s a school field trip, I’m the first parent calling to ask questions: How are you getting there? Does the school bus have seatbelts? Lap belts only or shoulder belts too? I’m that parent! 

But we often talk about other topics as well. The typical parent “stuff,” like how to know if it’s safe to get in the car with someone. How to recognize signs of depression or anxiety in herself or among her friends. How to handle peer pressure around drinking, vaping, or using drugs. And how to speak up for herself — and others — and ask for help. 

Mobility safety. Mental health. Substance use. Leadership. These are ALL areas where SADD has helped young people since 1981. I want to thank you…each of you…from the bottom of my heart. NTSB has been able to rely on SADD as a partner for decades. Congratulations on 40 years of making positive change! 

This morning, I’d like to share my perspective on what makes an effective change maker. 

But first, let me ask, who here knows who the NTSB is? It’s okay if you don’t. You probably know us even if the name “NTSB” doesn’t ring a bell. We’re the people in blue windbreakers you see on the news when something goes terribly wrong on our transportation system. 

We investigate plane accidents. Helicopter accidents. Car crashes. Train and boat accidents. Pipeline explosions. We even investigate commercial space launch and reentry accidents. Our job is to find out what happened, how it happened, so it never happens again. 

After we investigate, we issue recommendations to prevent future tragedies and save lives. But the most important part of the job comes after we complete an investigation. That’s when we fight to get our recommendations implemented. Because safety isn’t improved until people act on the lessons learned.

If you’re wondering who we make recommendations to, it depends. It can include other federal agencies, or your state Department of Motor Vehicles, which is where you get your learner’s permit and driver’s license. We could even issue one to SADD to educate teens about a particular issue, though we haven’t yet.

We can also make recommendations to companies that manufacture airplanes, helicopters, spaceships, passenger vessels, trucks, and cars. I could go on. 

The point is, we spend a lot of time and effort fighting to make changes…changes to make our roads, railways, skies, and waterways safer. That’s what Bryan and his team do. Together, we advocate for change to honor the people who lost their lives or were injured.

We do this so it never happens again.

We do this because we know they’re preventable. 

We do this to save lives. 

Traveling on our roads is the most dangerous mode of transportation in the U.S. by far. You probably know that motor vehicle crashes are the second leading cause of death for teenagers.

117 people will die on our roads today. About 7 of them are teens. 

Hundreds of teens are injured every day. 

Last year, the number of fatalities for children under 16 was up 6%.

For people between the ages of 16 and 24? Up 7%. 

And for young adults ages 25 to 34? Up 10%.

Deaths among people not wearing their seat belt were up 3%. 

Deaths from crashes involving alcohol and speeding were BOTH up 5%. 

These are not statistics. These are lives lost, forever changed. Siblings, classmates, cousins, and friends…gone. They’re why we need SADD more than ever!

You’ve done SO much to help make road users safer by avoiding destructive decisions. Thank you. 

As far as government agencies go, I really can’t think of a better example of a “change maker” than the NTSB. The agency had that reputation long before I got there. But it’s what drew me there in the first place! 

The thing that makes the NTSB a true change maker isn’t what we do. 

What sets this agency apart is HOW we do it…how we look at safety. 

At the NTSB, we know that the cause of any crash is complex. So is the solution.

How many people think that most crashes on our roads are due to human error? That, for road crashes, it’s usually the driver’s fault? 

Alright, I need three volunteers. Volunteer C, you’re my driver. 

You’re driving one evening and your best friend is calling…and calling…and calling. You take the call on your speakerphone, but hands free isn’t risk free. That distraction led to speeding. 

You are approaching a line of cars stopped at a stop light at an intersection. You fail to slow or stop and hit Volunteer B, who then hits Volunteer A. 

Fortunately, you all survive the crash with minor injuries. But the outcome could’ve been much different — especially if you were a pedestrian, bicyclist, or motorcyclist.

So, who’s responsible for preventing the crash in this scenario? 

Certainly, Volunteer C shouldn’t have taken a call while driving. We would likely have some recommendations on that. But we’d also have a lot of other recommendations to issue. 

Because people make mistakes. They always will. But it should never cost a life. 

See, Volunteer C isn’t alone in the responsibility to ensure road safety, that no one dies on our roads. 

We ALL play a role. 

Will everyone whose last name begins with A through F please stand up or raise your hand and stay standing? You all are responsible for the roads and all the infrastructure around it.

You’re responsible for ensuring there are sidewalks and protected bike lanes. You conduct all the engineering assessments, evaluate who is using the roads, and determine what designs should go in place — then you build it. 

Now, in Volunteer C’s case, he was driving on a straight, two-lane road. There were no sidewalks. Just a double-yellow line in the middle. Everyone standing: you could have designed that road to have a roundabout to slow down drivers, prevent distraction and speeding. You could have added a separated, elevated sidewalk or bike lane. Could have had some signals in place for the pedestrian, like walk signs, but that wasn’t the case. 

You could’ve helped prevent this crash.

Last names G through L: Stand up or raise your hand…You’re up! You work for the state department of transportation or the state legislature and determine the speed limits for the entire state, including where Volunteer C was in the crash. 

You determined that the speed limit should be 50, but the road when it was originally built was designed for 35. Over time, the speed limit has increased because residents wanted to go faster. They lobbied hard, showing up to every public meeting to complain. Loudly. So, you approved it. 

Speed matters. We need safe speeds to give people a fighting chance to walk away from a crash. 

Consider this: Nine out of 10 pedestrians would survive being struck by a vehicle that was traveling at 20 miles per hour. At 40 miles per hour? Nine out of 10 pedestrians would be killed.

Remember, a safe speed isn’t always what’s posted on the sign. A safe speed also takes road conditions into account. That’s why the road itself has to support good decision making!

You could’ve helped prevent this crash.

Last names M through Q: You represent the auto manufacturers. 

P through R: You represent the phone manufacturers. iPhone or Android, take your pick! 

The safest cars are the newest cars because they have a lot more safety features. More technologies to prevent crashes BEFORE they happen, like stopping your car automatically if you’re about to hit something…or someone. 

It can also include features geared to teens, like parent-controlled speed limiters. A recent study showed that features like these have the potential to prevent or mitigate up to 75% of fatal crashes involving teen drivers. 

Auto manufacturers have a responsibility to ensure safety technologies that could’ve prevented this crash are standard on all vehicles…because safety should never be a luxury or an upgrade. You have the power to decide that!

But phone manufacturers: you’re not off the hook. 

I saw a headline recently that sums it up: How technology has made your car “a candy store of distraction.”

Things like voice commands to play your favorite song and touchscreen displays that let you browse your contacts make you…and everyone around you… less safe. 

We recently issued a recommendation to Apple on distracted driving. Apple iPhones have something called Focus. You can turn on Focus to prevent calls and texts from coming through when you’re driving. 

But we want phones to automatically prevent drivers from using them while driving, not to have to turn it on first. Vehicles that don’t allow for certain destructive decisions to happen in the first place are safer. 

OK, names that start with S through Z: You’re first responders: We need you because crashes will sometimes happen… even if we make good decisions every time. So, we must be ready. 

That means ensuring emergency responders can get to all three volunteers quickly if they’re injured — God forbid. This dramatically increases their survival chances. In fact, 20% of trauma deaths are preventable with optimal emergency and trauma care.

Now, look around: Volunteer C isn’t alone now. You, the entire system, is protecting him so that if he makes a mistake, you prevent the crash from happening…or make it less deadly. 

When all layers, all parts of the system work together, we save lives.

Now, everyone except my driver please sit down. See how he’s all alone? How unprotected? That’s what happens when we only focus on driver error — the decisions they make…or fail to make. 

Thank you to my volunteers! 

What we all demonstrated together is called the Safe System approach. It’s a proven way to prevent crashes on our roads, and it’s on our Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements. That means it’s a priority we fight for at every opportunity.

It can be tempting to look for the one single, easy solution to a problem. Fight that temptation. It’s way too common. Until recently, there was even a statistic on NHTSA’s website that said: “94% of serious crashes are due to human error.”

That’s not true. Hopefully now you see why. 

If a problem really were as simple as some say…it would already be solved! That leads me to the first quality any change maker needs to have. 

And that’s the ability to see the “big picture…” to zoom out, to see the entire system. 

Change makers understand that the cause of any big challenge is complex and comes from many interdependent factors — and the same is also true of the solution. 

Frankly, young people today are naturally good at thinking this way. 

On the news every single night, there are young people stepping up to lead solutions to society’s biggest issues. 

I’ve personally drawn strength and inspiration from these change makers.

Greta Thunberg was just 15 when the world took note of her climate change activism. She called for “uproot[ing] the system” when it comes to carbon emissions. 

She is a change maker. 

Malala was 17 when she won the Nobel Peace Prize for her work to fight for women's rights and girls' education…the youngest person to ever receive that honor. She once asked UN member countries to “change their strategic policies in favor of peace.” 

She is a change maker. ​

Yolanda Renee King, Martin Luther King Jr.’s granddaughter, issued a powerful call to action at the 2020 March on Washington. She was just 12 when she called for young people to be “the generation that moves from me to we.” 

She is a change maker. 

And of course, we have the students from Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School, just a few hours south of here. They’ve launched an enduring national movement to end gun violence. 

They are change makers. 

All of these young leaders see the bigger picture. But they also have something else in common: They know change is hard…that it takes work. But they show up any way. 

Showing up, even when the going gets tough: that’s the second thing change makers do. 

The hardest part of my job is talking to the victims’ families after a tragedy occurs. It’s truly devastating to look a bereaved child, parent, or sibling in the eye and tell them our recommendations from years ago went unheeded. That their tragedy was preventable. 

I’m not alone. The entire agency shows up every day for safety. Every single person at the NTSB dedicates their work and often their personal time, day in and day out, to preventing accidents and saving lives. I’m so proud to work with such dedicated people. 

Where does that motivation to keep showing up…to keep persisting come from? It has to come from within. You need a purpose that drives you. 

What keeps me going is a desire to fight for a better, safer, healthier world for Lexi, of course. I want her to travel to her soccer tournaments on safe roads. I want her to fly safely when she goes to visit colleges. And I want her to be safe when she eventually travels to work on the International Space Station!

But I also want that for every single one of you. 

I know you want the same for your peers…it’s why you’re here. It’s why you’re part of SADD Nation.

That’s the third and final sign of a true change maker: the passion and drive to fight for other people as hard as you do for yourself or your own loved ones. Maybe even harder. 

What’s your passion? What are you fighting for? Who are you fighting for? What’s YOUR commitment? 

Comment on my Insta post with the change you’re committed to making. 

Here’s mine: I’m Jennifer Homendy and I’m a change maker for zero transportation deaths.

The world will always, always need change makers. Know this: Just being here means YOU are a change maker!

Thank you for your commitment to creating a safer, healthier world, one positive decision at a time. Keep up the great work. Keep making change. 

Thank you.

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