The Honorable Jennifer Homendy Chair, National Transportation Safety Board Remarks Before the Lifesavers National Conference On Highway Safety Priorities

​​As Prepared for Delivery

Thank you, Sam — I can’t tell you how wonderful it feels to be back with you all in person! How fitting that we get to be together again, in person, to ring in 40 years of Lifesavers! Congrats to Tara, the Lifesavers Board, and the team for planning such an impactful event. I’ve been here attending sessions since Sunday and I’m blown away by the content and speakers, but most of all, the energy. 

I also want to thank every single person in this room and on the livestream for never letting up on safety these last two years; this community has shown incredible resilience during the pandemic. Thank you for your persistence, despite the circumstances, which we all know were devastating at times. This is true for us as individuals, as safety professionals, and as people. 

I’ve never been so aware of my place in this interconnected world as I have since the pandemic started. When it comes to public health, we really are a global society. Our futures are intertwined and mutually dependent. 

The feeling is not unlike what astronauts report experiencing after seeing Earth as a small, blue ball from space. It’s called the Overview Effect. That feeling that we really are a borderless, human species sharing this “blue marble” we call home. 

I felt this phenomenon another time in my “pre-pandemic” life. In 2017, I traveled with a Congressional Delegation to Europe and the Middle East. When we landed in Jordan, we drove about 90 miles to a refugee camp near Jordan’s border with Syria; it was about six years into the still-ongoing Syrian civil war. 

We met with the United Nations Refugee Agency, whose mission is to save lives, protect rights, and build a better future for refugees; a few State Department folks; and two people who’d fled Syria. 

The first refugee I met was a woman who was teaching other women in the camp how to make and sell soaps and perfume. In essence, she was helping other women support themselves and survive. The other person I met was an 18-year-old young man who was attending engineering school in Jordan. 

It took a lot to find that out. For some time, we tried to talk with them through the UN — we weren’t connecting. The silence was deafening. I’ll be honest: it was painfully awkward. Then one of the women from the State Department asked if she could use the opportunity to practice her Arabic. 

When she started speaking, it was like watching a bright light go off. You could see the barriers dissolve. With just a little bit of language — their language — we connected. It makes me think of a quote from Nelson Mandela: “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.”

The second that barrier dissolved, that’s when we learned about them. About how tough it was to live there. About how refugees were caring for children that weren’t their own. About the people they left behind…and the people who didn’t survive the journey.

It was one of the most moving conversations I’ve ever had. I’ll never forget it…it’s why I’m determined to learn Arabic one day. But we wouldn’t have had the conversation if we didn’t find a way to bridge the divide between us. 

In many ways, this story is about a border. On one side of an arbitrary line on a map, these two incredible people were safer in the refugee camp — dire as their circumstances were. In this case, the line was a literal border, complete with barbed wire and armed forces.

Today’s front-page news is similarly centered around borders, with Russia’s attack on Ukraine. It’s heartbreaking. 

Looking beyond the tyranny and the violence, we also see heart… and humanity: Polish mothers leaving strollers at train stations for parents fleeing Ukraine. Heroic efforts to get food, water, and other supplies to Ukrainians on routes where bombing continues. And we’re seeing Russian citizens risk arrest and beatings by participating in anti-war protests in dozens of cities across the country. 

Reflecting on all of this has led me to think about the other areas of life where we need to find a way to “bridge the divide” — and how much it matters. Especially in safety. 

Based on the sessions I sat in over the past several days, it seems we’re agreed that this is a watershed moment for roadway safety. Finally, some things we’ve all been advocating for are now part of the first-ever National Roadway Safety Strategy from the U.S. Department of Transportation. These things include a national call for a paradigm shift in traffic safety to the Safe System Approach, which is on NTSB’s Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements; the goal of zero; and a stop to the claim that 94% of all crashes are due to human error. 

That statistic isn’t true and lacks the original caveat; it’s downright dangerous. It leads the public to think there’s nothing anyone but the driver can do to prevent crashes. It gives a “pass” to everyone else who shares responsibility for saving lives.

At the highest levels, we’re now talking the same language. Systems thinking isn’t new — it’s certainly not new to other industries. But systems thinking in highway safety used to be a radical idea only discussed by experts at events like this. Congratulations to each and every one of you for shouting our safety message from the rooftops — you’ve moved the needle! 

But we all know this is also a watershed moment for much darker reasons. Traveling on U.S. roads is the deadliest it’s been since 2007. In fact, it’s deadlier than any other mode of transportation. Think about that: walking, the oldest form of transportation, is the deadliest. 

I know I don’t need to review the numbers with this group, but I’m going to mention one: over the last two decades, nearly 715,000 people have been killed on our roads; many thousands more were injured. We often focus on fatalities but, for many, these are life-altering injuries. 

These aren’t just numbers. These are people. Children like four-year-old Zy’aire Joshua, who was fatally struck in April in the Brightwood Park neighborhood of D.C., and five-year-old Allison Hart, who died while riding her bike in a crosswalk, also in D.C. It also includes my friend, Larry, who died while riding his bike in Montgomery County, Maryland.

I want to pause for a second. If you feel comfortable, stand up or wave if you or someone you know has been a victim of traffic violence. Look around. This is who you are fighting for: mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, daughters, sons, friends. 

It’s up to all of us to reverse this deadly trend. To create that safe system so that no one loses their life or is seriously injured in a crash. The only way we succeed is together: united, never divided. 

I don’t think I’ll surprise anyone when I say there are a lot of opinions in the road safety community — myself included! This is a spirited, passionate group because you care. You’re what gives this conference so much energy. And you may not know it, but you inspire me every single day. 

But there are some deep divides within our ranks…some borders drawn. I’m not saying we always need to agree. We shouldn’t — it’s not healthy and it’s not realistic. In fact, if we all thought the same way, the death toll on our roads would likely be much higher. 

We must never lose sight of the fact that we’re on the same side. We want the same thing: zero. We all have different ideas on how to get there and different experiences to bring to the table. No matter your position, opinion, or background, we have to approach this growing public health crisis with a spirit of “how can we work together?” 

The question can never be “if” we can work together. Every hour wasted is an hour we lose another four people to traffic violence. Think about that: by the end of this lunch, four people will have died.

It’s our duty as safety leaders to keep talking with one another… but, more importantly, to listen. 

In 2019, I went to my home state of Connecticut to testify in favor of legislation that would require all motorcyclists and their passengers to wear helmets. The Connecticut Motorcycle Riders Association opposed the bill. 

Before the hearing, we were all waiting outside the hearing room on opposite sides of the lobby. I decided to walk over and introduce myself. Fast forward to after my testimony: several bikers came up to talk to me. They asked questions about the data I shared. I asked them about their concerns. We listened to one another. 

While our disagreements were, quite literally, “on the record,” we agreed on one fundamental truth: No one wanted to die or be seriously injured on our roads. At the end of the day, everyone wants to return home safely to their family. 

Unfortunately, the bill didn’t pass — but that’s not relevant. What is relevant is that these conversations are possible. By the way, it also inspired me to get my motorcycle endorsement, not because I want to ride (although it is fun!), but because I wanted to feel their passion, understand where they were coming from, understand their language, what was in their hearts. 

Before we leave today, I want to talk about how YOU can help bridge the divide. About how we can unite to fight for zero.

#1: Be inclusive. Ours is a small world. Maybe too small. Which is why we need to BOLDLY erase the arbitrary lines we draw around who we consider part of the solution and what those solutions are. To use a tired phrase, we need to break down the siloes. 

Take a moment. Think about your professional network. Do the people you work with on road safety look like you? Are they from the same generation? Do they have the same socio-economic status? Level of education? Physical and mental ability? Are they all roadway safety people? 

These conversations shouldn’t be limited to our small world. That work should have no limits, no boundaries. This means we need to keep recruiting new partners in road safety. New voices, new groups. Like public transit. First responders. Faith leaders. Delivery drivers. Running groups. Girl Scout troops. Employers. Survivors and victim advocates.

Think about it this way: if you had a seriously ill child, spouse, or loved one, you’d stop at nothing to pursue a cure or a treatment. You’d go to every appointment…find the best specialists…do your own research. You’d fight harder than you ever had. You’d go to any lengths. 

#2: Be a beginner and listen with your heart. When we’re learning about a new topic, we ask a lot of questions. We put aside our pre-conceived notions about an issue, listen with an open mind, and challenge ourselves to see the world from another’s point-of-view. We may even allow others the opportunity to change our minds. And even if we decide we don’t agree, we can agree to focus on our shared passion: zero. So, listen with your head, but also your heart.

#3: Be vulnerable. Open to criticism. If we don’t, we’re going to miss some tremendous opportunities for growth and new and innovative ways to reach zero. 

We’re taking our own advice at NTSB. Later this spring, we’re kicking off a series of Safety Summits, organized by mode. The purpose of these sessions to get new ideas on how we can better serve our safety mission. I don’t need to hear what’s going well; I’m much more interested in where we’re falling short, missing the mark, or could do more. I want to hear where we disagree…where we don’t see eye-to-eye. So, stay tuned.

 And one final thought: Be bold!

A few weeks ago, someone asked me, “What keeps you up at night?” I told them it’s the next mother, father, sister, brother, daughter, son, or friend that I have to speak with on the worst day of their lives. What makes it even more devastating is having to explain that the NTSB has issued safety recommendations that would’ve saved their loved one’s life. 

Let me ask you: What’s the one thing you’re going to do when you leave here today or close the livestream? I’m not talking about an easy thing. I want you to dig deep. Pick a hard thing. The “I would, if it weren’t for…” thing. Put it in writing: tweet me your personal commitment: @jenniferhomendy. Use the hashtag #Lifesavers2022.

My personal commitment: Mourn the dead and fight like hell for the living!

That’s a motto of the labor movement. What they’re saying here is that working people shouldn’t have to risk their lives to make a living and support their families. Take that to road safety: no one should lose their life on our roads, whether it’s driving, walking, or rolling… no one!

The horrific toll of people who’ve died on our roads and their families… millions of people who were injured… are counting on us to “fight like hell” for the next family. To give a voice to those who no longer have one. 

They’re counting on us to be bold in who we listen to, work with, reach out to. They’re counting on us to shout our safety message from rooftops to mountaintops. 

They’re counting on us to unite and fight this crisis.

They’re counting on us to unite and fight for them.

They’re counting on us to unite and fight for zero.

We can do this! Because I’m a lifesaver. You’re a lifesaver. We are lifesavers!

Thank you.