Intelligent Transportation Society (ITS) of America World Congress

​​Thank you, Laura. ITS America has a powerful voice that’s only gotten stronger under your leadership. I value your advocacy to advance lifesaving technology across our transportation system.

Most people know the NTSB for our work in aviation. We also investigate railroad and transit accidents, pipeline leaks and explosions, marine incidents, commercial space launch and re-entry mishaps, and significant roadway crashes.

One of my top priorities since becoming Chair a year ago has been to draw attention to the public health crisis on our roads. 

It’s the most dangerous mode of transportation by far. About 95% of all U.S. transportation deaths take place on our roads.

We lost nearly 43,000 people on U.S. roads last year. Millions more were injured. The fatality rate climbed 10.5% over the year before and nearly 7% more than the year before that. 

Last year’s fatalities were the highest number of road deaths since 2005 and the largest annual percentage increase since the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) started tracking in 1975.

Yesterday, we heard there was a slight decline in traffic fatalities in the second quarter of this year, but NHTSA rightfully cautioned the number of traffic fatalities during the first half of 2022 is still higher than the same time period the previous year.

And we all know: the risk isn’t shared equally. Our roads are becoming deadlier for everyone, particularly vulnerable road users:

  • ​Nearly 1,000 bicyclists died last year — a 5% increase. 
  • Motorcyclist fatalities rose 9% to over 6,100 riders. 
  • Pedestrian fatalities spiked 13%: that’s over 7,300 lives lost. 

Think about that. The oldest form of transportation, walking, is now one of the deadliest. 

The risk is compounded for Black, Brown, and Indigenous road users. ​

New data from NHTSA show American Indian and Alaska Native people have, by far, the highest fatality rates under any measure. They are five times more likely to die walking than white people and nearly three times as likely to die in passenger vehicles, per mile. 

Black and African American people are roughly twice as likely to die, per mile, than white people.

So how do we get from nearly 43,000 road deaths to zero? 

Show of hands: how many of you think zero road deaths is a realistic, achievable goal? No wrong answers. Nearly every time I do this, tons of hands go up. 

Thank you for your honesty. I admit, zero sounded crazy to me the first time I heard it.

If not zero, what should our goal be? What is a realistic number? Keep a number in your mind. 

Got it? 

Last question: What number of roadway fatalities is acceptable for your family? 

The theme of ITS World Congress is “Transformation by Transportation.” To get to zero on our roads…and we can!...we need to transform our approach to road safety.

That means adopting the Safe System Approach. It’s on the NTSB’s Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements — and for good reason: it’s a proven, holistic approach to safety that’s saved lives in other transportation modes as well. 

The Safe System Approach starts with the belief that zero is the only acceptable number of roadway fatalities. 

A truly safe road system is one that prioritizes the lives of people over traffic. It’s human centric. A safe system recognizes that human error is inevitable, but it should never cost someone their life or a serious injury. 

Yes, that means protecting people even when they make a mistake or an unsafe decision! 

How? By building in redundancy.

Other modes of transportation address single points of failure with redundancy to ensure safety. They learn from tragedies and work to prevent them.

If only we did the same on our roads.

We are far too focused in this country on changing the behavior of that single point of failure: the human driver. 

Yes, driver behavior is a part of it. 

But so is the speed limit.

So is the road infrastructure.

So is the vehicle design and the safety regulations — or more likely, lack thereof.

And so is whether first responders have the tools, training, and other resources they need to save lives at the scene of a crash.

This is vastly different from our traditional approach to road safety.

Here’s a personal story.

I was in Helsinki over the summer. 

While there, I noticed the road infrastructure was designed for all road users. The culture wasn’t solely focused on cars. I regularly saw drivers yield to pedestrians and cyclists. That’s why I’m excited to hear Minna on the panel.

Then, I went to Florida for a conference. Drivers did not care about yielding. In fact, it felt like it was their road. It felt like I had to accept the risk because I dared to walk instead of drive.

I’m sure we’ve all felt this. 

Our roads have been designed and built for cars — not people.

The focus has been on speed and throughput — not safety. 

We’ve relied almost exclusively on education and enforcement to save lives.

Hear me: we are NOT going to educate and enforce our way to zero. If we could’ve, we would’ve by now. 

Education and enforcement are still necessary. But we’ve over-relied on these interventions for decades. 

We need to look more broadly at the entire transportation system, including the role of public transit in eliminating fatalities and serious injuries on our roads. That means looking at everything that can prevent a crash. That’s the kind of transformational thinking that’ll get us to zero.

And we need to embrace technology’s role EVERY step of the way. 

The NTSB has a long history of embracing technology to save lives, in all modes of transportation. Our Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements calls for requiring collision-avoidance and connected-vehicle technologies on all vehicles. 

NTSB Member Mike Graham has been a fantastic leader for us on this.

I know you’re all passionate about it. 

Laura and ITS: Thank you for your advocacy around vehicle-to-everything (V2X) technology. 

Like you, the NTSB is alarmed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) decision to shrink the spectrum by 60%. We’ve recommended the FCC protect V2X communications from harmful interference.

And the entire Board recently filed comments in support of a waiver request made by automakers, state departments of transportation, and equipment manufacturers to deploy cellular V2X immediately. 

But more is needed.

According to NHTSA, connected vehicle technology can help significantly reduce roadway fatalities and prevent 615,000 crashes.

These technologies hold so much promise because they align with the Safe System Approach.

V2X can improve safety for vulnerable road users by helping vehicles detect bicyclists, motorcyclists, and pedestrians — and in the future, even the other way around: by alerting road users to oncoming vehicles. 

The technology can help drivers navigate the road infrastructure more safely, such as making a left turn, merging, and crossing through an intersection.

In vehicles, pre-crash sensing helps drivers detect an oncoming crash sooner; cooperative collision warning helps them avoid it. Do-not-pass and wrong-way-driving warnings help prevent head-on collisions.

V2X technology can warn drivers to slow down in work zones, speed zones, and around dangerous curves, while dynamic speed harmonization recommends target speeds on roadways to reduce crashes.

V2X can also help with post-crash care, an often-overlooked piece of the Safe System. 

But it shouldn’t be.

What happens — or fails to happen — in the seconds and minutes following a crash often means the difference between life or death.

Two out of five people who eventually died on our roads in 2020 were alive when first responders arrived.

Twenty-five percent of trauma deaths are preventable with optimal emergency and trauma care.

Severely injured patients are 25% likelier to survive if they’re treated in a hospital that is a level I trauma center. 

How can connected vehicles help? 

By automatically alerting 911 when there’s a crash.

Giving signal priority to emergency response vehicles.

And alerting other drivers that an ambulance or fire truck is approaching.

Post-crash care really is “the last best chance” to save a life. 

The first time we recommended collision-avoidance and connected-vehicle technologies was in 1995, nearly three decades ago. There had been a deadly, multivehicle crash in Menifee, Arkansas.

The lead vehicle entered dense fog and was struck in the rear. More collisions followed — nine vehicles in total.

Five people died. 

One survivor described it as “white out” conditions. He couldn’t see beyond the hood of his car.

That’s when the NTSB first recognized the need for a collision warning system that wasn’t limited by line of sight or weather. 

Again, that was 1995. We’re still waiting. 

Fortunately, the industry isn’t. 

February 16, 2012: just before school started, a school bus crashed into a fully loaded dump truck. The bus was carrying 25 elementary school students. The bus driver stopped at an intersection before crossing the road. Thinking it was safe, he proceeded. 

But he didn’t see an oncoming dump truck, which had the right of way. 

The truck driver, who had limited line of sight, swerved, trying to avoid the bus unsuccessfully.

It ended tragically with the death of an 11-year-old girl who was on the bus. Fifteen other children and the bus driver were injured.

We determined that connected vehicle technology likely would’ve prevented the crash. 

Technology could have saved that 11-year-old girl. It could have spared her family unimaginable grief. Their lives will never be the same. 

We issued two safety recommendations to NHTSA as a result: 

  • ​Develop minimum performance standards for connected vehicle technology for all highway vehicles.
  • Require that the technology be installed on all new vehicles.

Today, the little girl who died in this crash would be 21 years old. Instead, we’re still waiting for action. 

I was on scene for this next crash. It was the NTSB’s first opportunity to address V2X in an accident report since the FCC reduced the spectrum. 

Fast forward to 2020. It’s 3:30 a.m. on January 5. There’s light snow. A motorcoach carrying 59 passengers is traveling around a curve on the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

There’s a 55 MPH advisory speed — but the bus is going 77 MPH. 

Excessive steering, plus the light precipitation, ends in disaster.

The bus ran off the road, hit the adjacent embankment, and overturned. Within seconds, two tractor trailers hit the motorcoach from behind. A passenger car and a third tractor trailer drove off the road trying to avoid the wreckage.

Five people died that day — including a 9-year-old child. Fifty other individuals were injured.

Our investigation showed that all three tractor trailers had collision avoidance systems, but that the crash circumstances were likely outside the system capabilities.

The ability to see around a curve.

Deal with inclement weather.

And process the unexpected position of the overturned motorcoach.

It’s easy to understand why: the driver said the motorcoach looked like “a black wall” — very difficult to see.

We found that connected vehicle technology, if it had been installed, could’ve alerted drivers to the hazard they were approaching.

We called on the U.S. Department of Transportation to implement a plan for nationwide deployment of connected vehicle technology and we reiterated our recommendations to NHTSA from the Chesterfield bus crash nearly a decade earlier. 

The third investigation I want to share happened this past summer near Mendon, Missouri. Once again, I was on scene. 

An Amtrak train was traveling from here in L.A. to Chicago. It had 270 passengers and 12 crew on board. The train was going 87 MPH when it hit a dump truck in the grade crossing. 

The train derailed, killing four people: the truck driver, who was from a neighboring town; two sisters from Desoto, Kansas; and a grandfather from Kansas City. 

One Amtrak employee had a life-altering injury; almost 150 passengers from all over the country were injured. 

This is still an ongoing investigation, so we don’t have recommendations yet.

But I can tell you this: while on scene, we learned that the community had been sounding the alarm about the grade crossing for years. One local farmer had even posted on Facebook about his concerns. 

It was a passive grade crossing, which means there were only signs — no lights, sounds, or gates.

By the way, the stop sign was at the bottom of a steep hill. It might have been hard for the driver, who was hauling a heavy load, to come to a full stop. The crossing was also on an angle, forcing drivers to essentially look behind them before crossing.

We’ll continue to examine the crossing as the investigation proceeds, among other issues. 

Just imagine if that truck could’ve alerted the driver about the oncoming train. 

What makes this so frustrating is that the NTSB issued a study on passive rail grade crossings in 1998. We recommended back then that NHTSA and others develop intelligent transportation systems that can alert drivers to an oncoming train.

Here’s an excerpt: “Once the in-car technology is available, it will take 15 to 20 years before all vehicles on the road are equipped with the technology.”

Well, the technology is available. Twenty-four years of inaction has led to so many tragedies. 

What are we waiting for? 

I say that as someone who often meets with the victims’ families. 

The hardest part of my job is looking them in the eye and telling them we called for changes years earlier — but nothing happened. 

The hardest part is telling the families that their tragedy was preventable with technology that we have, but we’re just not using. 

It’s unacceptable. 

Technology often makes us safer. And yet, it’s not a cure-all. 

We have a tendency to focus on the “next best thing” instead of implementing the technologies we have right here, right now to save lives. 

So let’s talk about some of those.

Since 2012, we’ve been recommending technology solutions to prevent impaired driving, which is on the rise. Things like in-vehicle alcohol detection technology.

Today, the NTSB released a report on a heartbreaking crash that occurred in Avenal — just a few hours away.

It was 8 p.m. on New Year's Day last year. A driver was traveling in his SUV on Route 33. The speed limit is 55 MPH. He was traveling between 88 and 98 MPH when he began to drift into the shoulder.

In an attempt to correct it, he oversteered and lost control, driving straight into oncoming traffic. 

He hit a pickup truck head-on. 

The pickup had one adult driver and seven children, who were between six and 15 years old.

Everyone, in both vehicles, died. 

​Nine lives cut short at the start of a new year. 

Our investigation found that the SUV driver was impaired by alcohol. His blood alcohol concentration was more than double California’s per se legal limit.

Technology could’ve prevented this crash. 

And it can prevent every one of the 12,000 fatalities from alcohol-impaired crashes that take place in the U.S. every year. So today, we are calling on NHTSA to require that all new vehicles be equipped with passive alcohol-impairment detection systems, advanced driver monitoring systems, or a combination thereof, to prevent impaired driving. And we are classifying our previous recommendations to NHTSA on DADSS as closed, unacceptable action.

We’re also calling on NHTSA, once again, to incentivize manufacturers to adopt intelligent speed adaptation systems.

New York City just announced a new pilot program: 50 vehicles in the city fleet are getting active intelligent speed assistance technology, which limits vehicles to posted speed limits. 

Los Angeles could do the same with its fleet. Speeding contributed to about 12,000 crashes in L.A. last year. Imagine how many of those we could prevent with technology.

Other technologies the NTSB has long advocated for include:

  • ​Automatic emergency braking. 
  • Forward collision warning.
  • Lane departure warning and assist. 
  • Blindspot monitoring and assist.
  • Speed safety cameras – something that’s desperately needed and which we fought hard for in California, with help from people who are here today. 
  • And technology that can end distracted driving through lock-out mechanisms. 

But, remember: technology is not THE solution for saving lives — it’s PART of the solution.

I’d like to close by sharing an excerpt from Kea Wilson’s recent Streetsblog post:

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.

We know how to save lives…what needs to be done.

We have to urgently “pursue lifesaving strategies outside our comfort zone.”

It means implementing technology we have right here, right now, to save lives. 

It means focusing on the design of our roads and our infrastructure.

It means promoting and enforcing safe driving behavior.

It means setting safe speeds.

It means holding manufacturers accountable for how cars are designed and what technologies they include.

And it means getting regulators to act.

It means implementing NTSB’s recommendations — too many of which are years…even decades…old. 

Then, we have to “radically expand the radius of our compassion.”

That means accepting zero as the ONLY goal.

That means redesigning the system to help protect all road users, not just drivers. 

And that means protecting people even when they make a poor decision. 

That is how we get to zero for all — all — road users. 

No matter their race, ethnicity, ability, or income.

No matter whether they’re driving, walking, biking, or rolling. 

THAT is the Safe System Approach.

And technology plays a starring role.

Thank you.​