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Keyntote Speech presented at the World Traffic Safety Symposium in New York, NY
Christopher A. Hart
New York, NY

​Thank you, Mark [Scheinberg], for that kind introduction. And thanks to the World Traffic Safety Symposium for inviting me to speak today on behalf of the National Transportation Safety Board.

Both as the Chairman of the NTSB, and as an engineer, I look forward to the Designs for Safety Awards, because the incredible designers and engineers who compete each year complement the work that we do at NTSB to find ways to make transportation safer. So let’s hear a brief round of applause for all of this year’s safety visionaries (Lead Applause).

These designers and engineers are not quite as young as the teen drivers who are the focus of this safety symposium, but like teens, they might personally witness an end to motor vehicle crash deaths. That is an amazing possibility.

Mark, I have been promised a tour of the auto show and I am looking forward to that as well. I know that I will be especially fascinated by the many new safety features that are coming down the pike.

And it’s even more exciting because you’re not doing this alone.  Among the gaming consoles and computers and smart-phones at the most recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas there were cars and concept vehicles demonstrating how all of these technologies – and others -- might merge with passenger vehicles. There was even a concept vehicle with its own drone.

It’s a sign of the times that motor vehicles are being rolled out as consumer electronics. Companies that are better-known for websites and smart-phones are making cars. Automobiles are merging with other technologies at a dizzying pace.

And the pace is dizzying because of the demand, as all of us, and especially teen drivers, increasingly expect cars to be more and more connected, just as with so many of our other gadgets.

This might seem ominous in the near-term, from the point of view of driver distraction. Nationwide, distracted driving has grown to rival impaired driving as a killer of our teens.

But other technological advances hold great promise in advancing safety. The technology in motor vehicles themselves might one day help make fatal crashes a thing of the past.

Here in New York City, Mayor De Blasio has begun a serious push toward “Vision Zero,” the global initiative that boldly declares a goal of zero deaths or serious injuries in traffic crashes. In an urban environment, this means going beyond the vehicle and the driver and including pedestrians.  In that regard, the NTSB will be convening a forum on Pedestrian Safety on May 10, chaired by our Vice Chairman, Dr. Bella Dinh-Zarr, whom many of you know. I hope you will mark that date and attend. 

Vice-Chairman Dinh-Zarr calls fatal crashes an epidemic on wheels – but we have wiped out epidemics before, both in medicine and in transportation, and we can also do it here.

One mode of transportation has actually achieved “Vision Zero” in many recent years, commercial aviation.

Last year, not a single U.S. airline passenger died in a crash.  When I was a teenager, that seemed unimaginable. Today we dare to imagine also eliminating crash deaths on our roads and highways. Yet as we speak, the tragic truth is that here in the U.S. alone, there are more than 32,000 motor vehicle crash fatalities per year.

As I speak today about Vision Zero and teen driver safety, a motor vehicle crash is the single most likely way for a teen to die.

With Vision Zero in mind, the challenge for today’s teen drivers is to stay alive until that safer future.

So it might help us to consider how we reached zero passenger deaths in commercial aviation in 2015 – and in many other recent years.

First the history. US commercial aviation enjoyed a rapidly falling crash rate for several decades, but by the early 1990s, the rate had begun to “flatten out” on a “plateau.” Meanwhile, the FAA was projecting that the volume of commercial aviation would double in the next 15-20 years.  If that occurred, the public would see twice as many plane crashes; and with each crash, more would-be passengers might choose not to fly at all, on any airline.

Aviation’s response was the Commercial Aviation Safety Team, or CAST. CAST brings together all of the key industry participants, including airlines, manufacturers, pilots, air traffic controllers, and the regulator – i.e., everyone who has a "dog in the fight" – to work collaboratively. 

The result has been a major win-win. CAST reduced a stuck flat fatality rate by 83 percent in only ten years.

What can this success story, from such a different mode, have to do with highway transportation?

It abundantly demonstrates the principle that everybody who is involved in the problem should be involved in the solution.

This principle is interesting for highway safety in two ways: First, in how automation in new vehicles can continue to advance safety; and second, in how we can eliminate crashes through driver behavior – especially teen driver behavior.

In May of 2015, the NTSB issued a safety study entitled, “The Use of Forward Collision Avoidance Systems to Prevent and Mitigate Rear-End Crashes.” To be clear, this was a study of tools that the automotive industry had already developed. We studied their efficacy, and found that properly implemented, they worked very well. We also asked how well they were selling, and automakers at the time told us there was limited demand for them.

We recommended to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) that it include the performance of collision avoidance systems in its 5-star safety rating system, and on the Monroney label that discloses this rating.

We also recommended to 30 automobile manufacturers that they install, at a minimum, a forward collision warning system on all new vehicles. Once NHTSA published standards for autonomous emergency braking, or AEB, we recommended that the automakers install AEB on every new vehicle.

We urged automakers to make these features standard, just as air bags and seat belts are standard, rather than part of a luxury option package.

Then NHTSA began to work with the industry. Now 20 automakers have agreed to make AEB standard equipment by 2022. They agreed to do so voluntarily – years earlier than would happen through a rulemaking process, according to Administrator Mark Rosekind.

This demonstrates that, just as with CAST, collaboration can get us there much faster than a prescriptive regulation.  The automakers and the regulator are collaborating to keep pace with new technology, because technology is moving at the pace of new model years, not at the pace of government.

On March 29 I participated in a Bloomberg Government panel on the Regulation of Self-Driving Cars. Among the points I emphasized was the NTSB’s extensive experience of the good news/bad news character of increasing automation.

The good news is that automation can improve not only safety but also reliability and productivity. The bad news is, automation can also mean loss of skills and knowledge.

There are many steps along the way to fully self-driving cars. In aviation, despite a much longer history of robust, proven automation, we do not yet board “self-flying planes” because automation is limited to what a programmer can imagine.

We all remember the 2009 ditching of US Airways Flight 1549 just a stone’s throw from here in the Hudson River. Captain Sullenberger had to spring into action to resolve a situation that had never occurred before: the ingestion of Canada geese that caused the failure of both engines. The automation could not have foreseen that the best course of action under the circumstances was to land in the river. It could not anticipate the scenario because its programmers had not imagined it.

With hindsight, a programmer could program an autopilot to replicate the result. But we needed Sully doing what humans do best, rapidly processing and responding to unanticipated situations, because it is impossible for a programmer to plan an appropriate response for every situation that has never occurred before.

In other investigations, the NTSB has found that pilots were confused by what the automation was doing in a given situation. In still others, we found that pilots were over-reliant on automation and allowed their manual flying skills to deteriorate. We have made recommendations for airlines to institute more hand-flying practice in highly automated aircraft.

Automakers aim to market fully self-driving cars, but stay tuned. Assuming that the first wave will be an autonomous vehicle that needs human monitoring, what will happen along the way, when all that day-to-day driving skill goes away? And will the driver take the monitoring role seriously when he or she thinks the car is in charge? What does driver education look like when the car is sometimes driving itself, but at other times needs human intervention?

The same type of collaboration I talked about before – between the regulator, state and local government, automakers, suppliers, and others – will be critical in avoiding unintended consequences as passenger vehicles become increasingly automated.

As regards teen driver safety today, there is another way that everyone who is involved in a problem must be involved in the solution.

It will take parents, educators, teens themselves, manufacturers, safety advocacy organizations, and state governments – working together – to achieve the behavioral changes that can keep teens alive today. Traffic deaths can be prevented, and they should be.

First, we adults should model safe behavior because our teens learn more from what we do than from what we say.

Then, teens should drive safely themselves, and spread the word to their peers, who might not listen to adults.

And last but not least, the states should continually improve driver education, laws, and enforcement.

Today I want to discuss three behavioral change issues that are on NTSB’s Most Wanted List: Impairment, Distraction, and Occupant Protection.

Beginning with Impairment:  For years, alcohol’s role in fatal crashes was declining. Then progress stopped. Every year for more than two decades, about one in three people who died on our roads have died in crashes involving a drunk driver.

This is reminiscent of the stuck, flat rate we saw in aviation. As in aviation, technology, such as ignition interlocks for all DUI offenders, can help. But it will take all of us working together to change the culture of impaired driving.

Today I’m calling on adults not to drive impaired by alcohol or any other drug. Remember, teens learn more from what we do than from what we say.

I’m calling on teens not to drive impaired, and to lead by spreading the word about impairment to their peers.

And I’m calling on each state that I visit to lead – today, to coin a phrase, it’s up to you, New York. The NTSB has recommended a legal blood alcohol content limit of .05 instead of .08.

In Canada, a BAC of .05 can result in civil penalties, with criminal DUI penalties beginning at .08. Experience in Canada and other countries around the world has shown that lowering the BAC reduces crashes – not only at lower BAC levels, but also at higher levels.

New York could be the first state in the U.S. to pass a .05 BAC law.

Turning to distraction:  Portable electronic devices give teens more opportunities for distraction, and distracted driving kills. NHTSA has stated that a texting driver is 23 times more likely to be in a crash. In 2013, 11% of teen drivers in fatal crashes were distracted.

Most states prohibit texting while driving, but amazingly, it is still legal in a few states. In most states you can still talk on handheld phones while driving. No state has yet prohibited the use of hands-free phones while driving except for novice drivers and school bus drivers. However, even hands-free sets create cognitive distraction.  Based on our crash investigation experience, the NTSB has called for a driver ban for all portable electronic devices, including hands-free sets.

Today I’m calling on adults to turn off their devices when they drive.  Once again, if we don’t turn them off, teens will follow our example.

I’m calling on teens to turn off their devices as well, and lead by reminding their peers to do the same.

And I’m calling on New York to lead by becoming the first state to ban driver use of all portable electronic devices that do not aid in driving.

Finally, let’s look at occupant protection once a crash occurs:  Seat belts are the single best protection in a crash, but teens and young adults are the least likely group to buckle up.

Here in the City, some of you might have taken a taxicab or a ride sharing service to this meeting – did you buckle up? Few do. Passengers in commercial vehicles – including taxicabs, buses, and limousines – rarely wear seat belts.

Today I’m calling on adults to buckle up every time they get into any vehicle with seat belts – and remember the example they are setting.

I’m calling on teens to buckle up too – and to lead, by reminding their friends and families to do likewise.

Finally, I’m calling on New York to lead, with primary enforcement of seat-belt use in all vehicles, private or commercial.

Today’s teens could live to see the elimination of fatal motor vehicle crashes – but first, they have to survive today’s driving environment.

Today New York City is hosting the cutting edge of automotive technology – or if you like, consumer electronics – with all of its safety promise and potential safety challenges. Outside in the streets, New York City is embracing Vision Zero.

New York state also has the opportunity to lead – and I hope that lawmakers in Albany will embrace the challenge.