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Speeches

Presentation at the NOYS Teen Safe Driving Summit
Christopher A. Hart
Alexandria, VA
10/19/2015

​Good morning.  Thank you for that kind introduction, and thanks to NOYS for inviting me to speak to you again on behalf of the National Transportation Safety Board.

When I spoke to last year’s Summit, I was amazed at the energy of the teen delegates. So to those of you who were at last year’s summit, hello again!

For those of you who were not, welcome!  I hope you will find this Summit to be helpful because we are relying heavily on you to teach your peers about safer driving. Our experience has demonstrated that many of your peers may dismiss traffic safety messages from me as so much babble from an old fuddy-duddy who is a wimp about risk. But they are more likely to listen when it comes from you because it’s advice from someone like them, someone they can identify with.

What can I bring to the table? As the Chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, I can tell you about what we have learned, and some of the trends that we have seen, from investigations of highway crashes.

And as an old fuddy-duddy, I can pass on to you how important it is for you to help your generation play its part in the long-standing struggle for safer roadways.  As teens, you are more likely to die because of a motor vehicle crash than from any other cause. And that will continue well into adulthood.

In 2013, about 2,500 teens died in motor vehicle crashes.  That’s particularly troubling for me because there were about 2,500 students at my high school, so that means that my entire high school is being eliminated each and every year by traffic crashes.  That is simply unacceptable.

How do I know that you can help your generation reduce this carnage?  Because in 1979, the number of teens who died in motor vehicle crashes was nearly four times the number in 2013.

So to be positive, more than three decades of safety efforts from the traffic safety community, including young people working with their peers as you are doing, have saved the lives of young people who have become truly extraordinary, and left their marks in the sciences, or in entertainment, or in government or business – or who were simply able to experience all the challenges and joys of life.

All of these safety efforts have resulted in three large high schools, every year, filled with young people who are with us today.

So what do I mean when I refer to several decades of safety efforts?

In 1979, new cars were required to have seat belts, but wearing them was a matter of personal choice. Now, every state requires and enforces seat-belt use.

In 1979, only a few cars offered air-bags as an option. Since 1998, every new car has had them.

In 1979, there was no Mothers Against Drunk Driving, and attitudes about impaired driving were very different. You were likely to be offered “one for the road” before you got behind the wheel.

Since then, there has been tremendous progress toward better laws, better awareness, and high-visibility enforcement. The whole culture around drinking and driving has changed.

And these are just a few of the many changes since 1979.

Yet despite this amazing progress, we are still losing about 2,500 teens every year in motor vehicle crashes.  This means that the safety journey must continue, and you’re all at this Summit to help us continue that journey. You’re here to learn how to save lives. And for that, I thank you.

Let me tell you a little about what we at the NTSB have learned since I last spoke to NOYS a year ago.

Let’s start with the NTSB’s report about a tragic crash last year on the New Jersey Turnpike. You might remember this as the crash in which comedian Tracy Morgan was seriously injured as a passenger in a limo van, and one other passenger died. Four other limo van passengers were also seriously injured.

The crash happened near Cranbury, New Jersey – for those of you from the Garden State, that’s near Exit 8A.

A tractor-trailer struck the rear of a mini-van that had slowed down because of construction ahead on the Turnpike.  That collision was the first of a number of collisions that ultimately involved 21 people in six vehicles.

What can all drivers, including teen drivers, learn from this crash?

First, the driver of the tractor trailer had no business behind the wheel that day. He had been awake for 28 straight hours at the time of the crash and he fell asleep at the wheel.

But fatigue is an issue that affects every driver, not just commercial truck drivers.

That’s why, about a year ago, the NTSB held a forum called “Awake, Alert, Alive: Overcoming the Dangers of Drowsy Driving.” We were delighted, but not surprised, to see that some NOYS members attended our panel on concerns about novice drivers.

By the way, former Board Member and fatigue expert Mark Rosekind presided over that forum. He is now the Administrator of NHTSA, and I am pleased to see that he will be presenting just after me, on a wide range of safety issues.

So lesson number one is that you need to be well-rested to drive safely. And I’m not just talking about all-nighters; missing even small amounts of sleep can lead to a crash.

What else can teen drivers learn from Cranbury?

Time after time we learn that seatbelts save lives and reduce injuries. But not one of the passengers in the limo van was wearing a seatbelt, and the results were tragic.

As youth safety leaders, you probably wear your seat belts whether as drivers or passengers. But people tend not to wear them when they ride in a vehicle with a professional driver.

Few of us regularly ride in a luxury van, such as the limo van in Cranbury, but many of us ride in cars that are driven by professional drivers, such as taxicabs and airport vans. People generally use their seat belts much less in those situations than in cars that they or their friends are driving.

In this regard the Cranbury crash was unfortunately all too reminiscent of a head-on crash of a tractor-trailer with a motorcoach in Orland, California, which also occurred last year. The bus was carrying 42 high-school students - students about your age.

They were on their way to Humboldt State University for a weekend visit. For reasons that we were unable to determine, the tractor trailer crossed over the median and crashed into the bus, which was travelling in the opposite direction.

And only one of the 42 students in that bus was wearing a seat belt.  As a result, five of the students were killed and the remaining 37 students suffered injuries, some of them serious.

We made a number of recommendations in these two crash investigations. In both, we recommended that passengers in such vehicles get safety briefings.

So when you go back to your schools and do your best to help your peers reduce the likelihood of being injured, or worse, in a crash, there’s a lesson here for teen passengers as well as teen drivers.

If there are limo rides in your school’s future – prom season comes to mind, but also for any other occasion – don’t forget your seat belts.  They’re just as important in a vehicle for hire as in your own family car or in a friend’s car.

So, you may ask, what about school buses?  Accident investigation experience has shown that it’s safer to take the school bus than to drive or be driven to school, even though many buses don’t have seat-belts. So if you take the bus now, you’re already going to school and back as safely as you can; and if that bus has belts, you’re even better off if you use them.

In addition to fatigue and seat belts, I’d like to discuss another issue I spoke about at your summit last year -- distracted driving.  Since then, the NTSB has held a distracted driving roundtable.

As you’ll learn at this summit – if you do not already know - it’s not just texting that can distract a driver. Texting has certainly resulted in more crashes, but distraction can also come from a hands-free headset or a built-in system. Still other distractions have nothing to do with electronics, ranging from trying to read a street sign to “wowing” over that 1955 Thunderbird. Distractions like reading a street sign are often part of finding your destination, so your challenge there is to be careful to read the sign in a way that minimizes the possibility of a crash.  Electronic distractions, on the other hand, can wait -- whether it’s texting, calling, or using electronic devices in any other way. That goes for handheld phones, hands-free headsets, and even in-vehicle systems.

And to truly eliminate distraction, you have to actively focus on the task of driving. Studies show that this is more difficult to do with several teen passengers in the car.

That’s why many states don’t allow more than one or two teen passengers until you get a license with full adult driving privileges. The NTSB supports graduated driver licensing, because it’s another proven way to save lives.

I’ve talked about several safety issues in these past few minutes, and you’ll hear about many others in the next two days. These problems all demand continued dedication – new steps on the never-ending safety journey.

Because so many who came before you have taken step after step along this journey, three large high schools of students will go on with their lives this year, who otherwise would not.  But there’s still one large high school full of students, every year, that needs our help. I thank all of you for your active engagement and participation, and I am confident that with your efforts, we can continue reducing the number of teens who are lost every year to traffic crashes.

So thank you for setting out with us on this vitally important safety journey. Thanks also for inviting the NTSB again, and we look forward to working with you as we pursue our shared objective of improving traffic safety.