Before the North Carolina Traffic Safety Conference and Expo 'Behind the Buzzword: A Safe System for North Carolina'

​Good morning! Thank you, Mark, for that warm welcome. I want to thank you, Governor Cooper and Secretary Boyette, for your safety leadership. 

North Carolina is somewhat of a second home for my family. My husband was born and raised in New Bern; we both hope to one day call it our permanent home. 

How many are here from law enforcement? Quite a bit! Your partnership with the NTSB on scene during our investigations and in the weeks and months that follow is essential. 

If you’re not familiar with the NTSB, we investigate aviation, railroad and transit accidents, pipeline leaks and explosions, marine incidents, serious commercial space launch and re-entry mishaps, and significant roadway crashes. 

Law enforcement, fire fighters, paramedics, and others are the first on-scene when these tragedies occur. We couldn’t do what we do without you. Thank you for all you do to protect and serve. 

Violence against law enforcement is increasing. There’s a patrol car just down the street with a black cloth and flowers on it in memory of Deputy Byrd, a 13-year veteran with the Wake County Sheriff’s Office. A few weeks earlier, Sergeant Fishman from the Wayne County Sheriff’s Office was also killed. In total, 13 North Carolina law enforcement officers have been shot in the line of duty in 2022. 

On behalf of the NTSB, I’m so sorry for your loss. Let’s take a moment of silence to remember Deputy Byrd and Sergeant Fishman.  

Exactly four years ago today, one of the worst speeding offenses in the state hit the news. How many of you remember this? A 22-year-old posted a video racing his Dodge Challenger and bragging about going 198 miles per hour (MPH). That was right here in Wake County. By the way, the speed limit is 40 MPH. Luckily, someone sent the video to Highway Patrol.

For all the law enforcement personnel: Think about the people you’ve pulled over for speeding. It can be any time over the course of your career. How fast were they going…and what was the posted speed limit? 

Raise your hand if you’re comfortable sharing. If I point at you, shout it out. How about you? 

Thanks for sharing. 

Like all of you, I have a front-row seat to this growing public health crisis — and it is a public health crisis — on our roads. 

We lost nearly 43,000 people on U.S. roads last year — 10.5% more than the year before…and nearly 7% more than the year before that. It’s the highest number of fatalities since 2005 and the largest annual percentage increase in the history of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS). The entire history of FARS, which was created in 1975! 

That’s not all:
  • Seat belt use is down. 
  • Impaired driving crashes are up 5%.
  • Crashes involving large trucks, up 13%.
  • Pedestrian fatalities, also up 13%. 
  • Bicyclist fatalities, up 5%. 
  • Motorcyclist fatalities continue the trend, up 9%.

In fact, deaths among vulnerable road users are at an all-time high.

And then there’s speeding — a problem each of you know was made worse by the pandemic. 

Fatalities in speeding-related crashes jumped 5% nationally last year, killing 11,780 people — more than a third of all fatalities on U.S. roads. 

A recent study of traffic data from Virginia — my home state — found that the chances of a driver going 10 MPH or more over the speed limit rose more than 50% in the early months of the pandemic. 

The trend has continued…it’s a new, deadlier status quo.

You all live this reality every day: nearly 1,800 people died on North Carolina roads last year. Nearly a quarter of those deaths…428 people…died in speeding-related crashes.   

On good days, you all are redirecting traffic around crash scenes and providing care to the injured. But, on the worst days, you’re knocking on doors, delivering devastating news to victims’ families. 

Show of hands…how many of you have had to do that? 

Come find me afterwards.  I have something for you: my NTSB challenge coin. I reserve them for leaders who make a difference in transportation safety — and that’s each and every one of you.  

I know what talking to families is like. It’s the hardest part of my job. It’s even harder knowing that their loved one’s death was preventable. 

Let me repeat that: every single death or serious injury on our roads IS preventable. 

That’s not to say there won’t be crashes. There will be crashes because people make mistakes. Some crashes involve errors in judgment; some involve dangerous decisions; others involve medical conditions, including mental health conditions. 

The point is: no one should lose their life or be seriously injured because of those mistakes. ALL crashes, regardless of human error, are preventable.

Let me tell you a personal story. 

This past November, I was headed into the office. I decided not to take the train because I thought I might miss the last one home given a big meeting. There was massive traffic on I-95, so I got off an exit to get over to Route 1. 

I stopped behind a long line of cars — about half a mile — at a light. I looked in my rearview mirror and saw an SUV heading towards me. It wasn’t slowing down, and I couldn’t move. There was traffic on my right and a lane divider on my left, so I just braced. He rear-ended me. I was sandwiched between him and the car in front of me. 

I thought: I’m not going to walk away from this. 

Luckily, I was wrong. I walked away with one bruise on my arm and a concussion. That’s because, just three weeks earlier, I had purchased a Subaru with all the safety features. 

The police officer on scene told me the driver never slowed down; he was going about 45 MPH when he hit me. He was cited for reckless driving.

But the officer told me something even more interesting. He said they respond to crashes at that location almost weekly. 

Now THAT is a system failure.

Sometime later, I returned to the location and looked around. The speed limit was far too high for traffic that has to go down a long hill to that light. The road wasn’t designed to slow traffic before a major intersection. The light intervals could’ve been off given frequent and long backups at the light. The vehicle the guy who hit me drove should’ve had automatic emergency braking. 

In fact, it did. I looked up the VIN. And you know what? Drivers can turn it off, something the NTSB has asked the U.S. Department of Transportation to prohibit. 

In a truly safe system, my crash never would have occurred — even if the driver who hit me made a mistake. 

I want to pause here and ask a question: who thinks we will never see a day with zero roadway deaths? It’s okay; there’s no wrong answer here. 

If we can’t get to zero, what’s a good goal? What’s an acceptable goal for your family? Shouldn’t zero be the goal for everyone? 

There is no acceptable amount of death on our roads…no loss of life. 

But we can’t keep doing the same things we’ve been doing the past few decades — over and over and over again — and expecting different results.  

So how do we get to zero? 

We need a paradigm shift away from the traditional approach to road safety, where roads have been designed and built for drivers, rather than all road users — where the focus has been on speed and throughput, rather than safety. An approach that has relied almost exclusively on education and enforcement to drive down deaths and serious injuries. 

That’s not to say we don’t need education and enforcement. We absolutely do. You are needed. You are doing more than your fair share. 

Who else needs to do their part? 

When you look at traffic safety holistically, there is so much more we can and should be doing…demanding of others…to save lives. 

Kea Wilson wrote an article in Streetsblog yesterday. She said:

“If ending car crash deaths is our actual goal, and not just a catch phrase, we will treat collisions…as both an outrage and a tragedy — and more important, an opportunity to talk about how to build a world where, as author Jessie Singer famously put it, there are no accidents.” 

Kea goes on to say:

“We can do so much more than mourn and shrug and cast blame after people die…Instead, we can radically expand the radius of our compassion and urgently pursue lifesaving strategies outside our comfort zone. Because if we don’t, true Vision Zero will forever remain out of our reach.”   

She’s right; we should be outraged. People are dying. 

Five people are dying every day on North Carolina’s roads. That means five people will die today. Five more tomorrow. Five more the day after that. And the next day.

We know…everyone in this room knows…how to save their lives…what needs to be done.

I’m calling on everyone, from city planners and traffic engineers…policymakers and legislators…public health professionals…advocates and educators… manufacturers of vehicles and smart phones…insurers…rail and transit providers…fleet managers…the media…federal, state, and local governments…entire communities…ALL of us in this room, including me, to take action now…
to radically expand the radius of our compassion and urgently pursue lifesaving strategies.

To pursue an approach that is proactive rather than reactive. An approach that helps road users make safer decisions. An approach that prevents a fatality or serious injury — even when poor decisions are made. 
THAT is the Safe System Approach. Safe road users. Safe roads and infrastructure. Safe vehicles. Safe speeds. Post-crash care.

Let’s talk about the Safe System Approach as it relates to speeding-related crashes, which is where I began. 

When it comes to road users, certainly, we need to improve the culture of traffic safety. We need drivers to make safer choices:
  • ​To choose to wear their seatbelts every time they get behind the wheel.
  • To obey traffic laws.
  • To eliminate distractions.
  • To be aware of and actively share the road with pedestrians and cyclists.
  • To refrain from operating a vehicle impaired or speeding. 

To achieve to zero roadway deaths, we must think beyond the driver.

Consider this: people buy 15 million new cars or trucks in the U.S. each year. That’s 15 million opportunities to save lives. How many commercial large trucks and buses are registered in the U.S.? About 12.5 million. School buses? About 500,000. 

That’s a lot of vehicles on our roads — and a huge opportunity to improve safety.

The NTSB has called for the adoption of in-vehicle technologies that can help prevent a crash before it happens. 

Earlier, I mentioned automatic emergency braking. There’s also:
  • ​Forward collision warning.
  • Lane-departure warning and assist. 
  • Blind spot detection. 
  • Vehicle-to-infrastructure technology that could prevent certain grade crossing collisions — that’s one we’ve recommended since the 1990s. 
  • Technology that can prevent drunk driving. 
  • And advanced speed-limiting technology.

New York City just announced a new pilot program. Fifty vehicles in the city fleet are getting active intelligent speed assistance technology, which limits vehicles to posted speed limits. 

North Carolina could do the same. In fact, can you imagine the purchasing power if states, cities, or even private companies banded together to purchase fleets with lifesaving tech on it?

Unfortunately for consumers, these safety features are often only available on higher trim levels. Safety should never be a luxury. 

The average American worker makes $51,000 annually. You know what the most expensive Ford F-150 is? Over $85,000. 

We cannot get to a place where only the wealthiest among us can afford the safest cars. That’s why the NTSB wants NHTSA to require automakers to make lifesaving technology standard on all new vehicles. 

How about our transportation infrastructure? What if we planned, designed, and engineered our transportation system for safety instead of convenience or speed? And for all road users, not just drivers? 

Infrastructure improvements, like safer intersections, maybe adding roundabouts, to slow people down. Dedicated bike lanes and raised pedestrian walkways. And investment in public transit, light rail and intercity passenger and freight rail to get vehicles off our roads. 

What if we reconsidered how we set speed limits in this country — especially in areas where there are a lot of vulnerable road users? 

Think about this: the average risk of a pedestrian being severely injured in a motor vehicle crash is 10% at an impact speed of 16 MPH. The risk increases to:
  • ​25% at a vehicle speed of 23 MPH. 
  • 50% at 31 MPH.
  • 75% at 39 MPH. 
  • 90% at 46 MPH.

I likely would’ve been killed in my crash if I were running or biking — both activities that I love to do. 

We need to nix the 85th-percentile approach. 

For those who aren’t familiar with it, federal guidance that dates back to the 1950s says states should set speed limits at or below which 85% of vehicles are traveling. 

In other words, our speed limits are set by speed. Speed limits should be based on safety for all users. 

And local communities should have more authority to reduce speed limits based on their needs.

What if we empowered state and local agencies to implement their own speed safety camera programs?

North Carolina doesn’t currently allow for this. You came close in 2017 when the General Assembly considered a bill that would have authorized a pilot program for the city of Durham. Although we were disappointed that the bill did not pass, we commend this legislative effort and hope similar efforts will get more traction going forward.  
Now, I’ve heard all the arguments against automated enforcement of red lights and speeding, including how they’re just used to generate revenue. That’s because there have been really poor models in the U.S. 

What does correct implementation look like?

Leading road safety groups — including AAA, Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, the Governors Highway Safety Association, 
the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, and the National Safety Council — have developed an Automated Enforcement Program Checklist you should check out. 

You might also look at Wales, which has the largest safety camera program in the UK. It’s called GoSafe. The program is not for profit. They make clear that safety cameras are there to make roads safer — not to make money; to slow overall speeds.

Assuming a driver isn’t driving recklessly for their first offense, drivers can choose to take a speed awareness course in lieu of fines or points.

They put cameras in places where people have been killed or injured, where excessive speeds have been recorded, or a spot reported by the local community. And they publish the location of the cameras.

When everyone knows where they are, they act as a deterrent.

Before the GoSafe program, 70% of traffic was traveling over the speed limit. After? It was reduced to 27%. Fatal and serious collisions were reduced by almost 50%. Not perfect, but a massive improvement. 

And, finally, we don’t talk enough about post-crash care. We need to be ready to respond when there is a crash. 

We need to ensure emergency responders have the training and resources they need — not just to protect public safety, but also their own. 

So YOU go home to your family at night. 
I could go on about so many issues. But I’m going to close with this: we’re all here this week because we’re committed to achieving Vision Zero. Zero IS attainable. 

When I look over the agenda, I get so excited. You have so many fantastic speakers and session topics. Everything from using the right data to advance safety…injury prevention…ARIDE training…looking at rail incidents…the role of advocacy in achieving Vision Zero…engineering and designing for safety…to traffic safety culture.

Congratulations to Mark and the entire team for putting together such an impactful, inspiring event! 

I hope what each of you learn over the next few days encourages you to “radically expand the radius of your compassion and urgently pursue lifesaving strategies outside your comfort zone.” 
Thank you.​