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Remarks before the Governors' Highway Safety Association, Honolulu, Hawaii, September 28, 2004
Ellen Engleman Conners
Governors' Highway Safety Association, Honolulu, Hawaii

Aloha. And thank you for inviting me to address this important group of State leaders. You are the ones who make highway safety work in the States. And for your work and dedication, I applaud you. I am especially pleased to be able to participate in your awards luncheon - to recognize the people who are in the trenches every day - making a difference, working to save lives.

I have the best job in the world. I represent a small agency, only about 429 dedicated people. I like to say that NTSB employees don't have jobs; they have a mission - to improve transportation safety. Notice I said "transportation" meaning all modes.

Our mission is consistent with the theme of this conference - "Highway Safety: Priority One." And that is as it should be. For too long, too many people have died in preventable crashes. And I think, perhaps, that political leaders in the States may not have a real understanding of the magnitude of the problem and the availability of solutions. We need to make highway safety Political Priority One! We must do this if we are to achieve the goal of one fatality per 100 million miles traveled.

You know all too well the important concerns that preoccupy legislators and other political leaders in your States. Budget shortfalls continue in some States. Education, economic development, security, and other important issues top the political agenda. Short-term crises often override long-term solutions. Rarely do we see highway safety as a political priority. And, that must change.

Our local and State leaders need to recognize the staggering toll of highway crashes within their State. I know you do your best to make it known. Our leaders need to understand that more than 42,000 persons died nationwide last year. How many were killed and injured in your State? They need to understand that every day over 100 families get a call to tell them that a loved one is not coming home. They need to understand the personal cost of traffic crashes.

More importantly, elected leaders should be hearing it from their constituents. Is there one Governor who is notified within 24 hours of each automobile fatality that occurs in their State? Some American corporations have such a safety focus that the CEO is notified of every workplace fatality, cause or causes, and actions needed to prevent such fatalities. Aren't highway fatalities important enough for our elected leaders to know about the cause of each one?

Our leaders need to hear about solutions, measures that have worked in other States. They need to know what actions are truly effective and which are not effective. They need to focus on facts, science and data, not on supposition, guesswork, and desire. And they need the political will to make safety changes happen.

While there are many ways we can increase safety on our highways, I want to highlight four areas that are Safety Board priorities.

First on the list is to increase safety belt use. I was pleased to see the recently released results of the national occupant protection use survey, which showed that 80 percent of observed front seat occupants are now using their safety belts. And I want to applaud our host State, Hawaii, for leading the nation with 95 percent usage.

However, this 80 percent number hides several important concerns. One, the use rate varies widely among the States, from below 50 percent to 95 percent. We need to get the States with low usage rates up if we truly want to make a dent in that 42,000 annual fatality number. Two, the steady increase in use in recent years has been gratifying, but further increases will become more difficult. Business as usual won't reach those who still refuse to wear their seat belt. We will need to be creative in our message and consistent in our enforcement. Three, the use rates in some commonly used vehicles such as pickup trucks and among some groups such as teenagers are unacceptably low. We will need to focus extra effort on these groups.

Increasing safety belt use requires a combination of tough laws, enforcement, and effective education. And, there must be an ongoing effort if we are going to create a culture of use by all. NHTSA estimates that traffic fatalities cost each American $820 in 2002. We cannot continue to let the 20 percent who don't wear seat belts take money out of the pockets of the 80 percent who do.

For the 28 States that do not permit primary enforcement of their safety belt use requirements, this is the single most important step that you can take to reduce deaths and injuries resulting from highway crashes. This needs to be your State's Priority One in 2005!

Second on the priority list is to eliminate Hard Core Drinking Driving. Eliminating alcohol-related crashes is probably the single most effective thing we can do to lower the annual highway fatality rate and get to Priority One. More than 17,000 persons were killed nationwide in alcohol-related highway crashes in 2003. Let me ask again - Is your Governor made aware on a daily basis of how many people die in your State as a result of alcohol-related crashes? Let's take a look at some statistics - 3 States (Texas, California, and Florida), account for over 27 percent of the alcohol-related fatalities in 2003. There are 25 States whose alcohol-related crashes are higher than the national average of 40 percent. Of the 25, 13 States exceed the national average by 5 percentage points or more. Much work needs to be done and both executive and legislative leadership involvement is critical.

Policymakers must be made aware of the ongoing toll of deaths and injuries resulting from drunk drivers and perhaps then they will be more inclined to take action and make it their Priority One. A daily report on fatalities might help.

Every State has now adopted 0.08 percent as its blood alcohol limit for DWI offenses. But, this alone does not solve the problem. We need to target the most dangerous drivers - the hard core - those who repeatedly drive intoxicated, or have a high blood alcohol limit on their first arrest. We know what works. We need systemic improvements in deterrence, enforcement, adjudication, treatment and sanctions. Courts, State and local law enforcement agencies, other executive branch agencies, everyone who potentially has contact with impaired drivers, must make this a higher priority.

We know with the right leadership this can be done. Virginia, with the leadership of Governor Mark Warner, passed 25 bills to revamp their alcohol-highway safety laws this year. Let's give Vince Burgess and the Virginia delegation a round of applause. The Safety Board has identified an 11-point program for addressing hard core drinking drivers, and other groups, such as MADD and the Century Council, have made similar recommendations. Nowhere is there research that says that the disease of alcoholism comes with a compelling urge to drive a car. Getting the hard core drinking driver off the road is one of the Board's top priorities! It is on our list of "Most Wanted" safety recommendations. It is also my personal priority while I am Chairman.

The third area I want to discuss is the need to strengthen Teen Driver Licensing Standards. Too many people still are dying in crashes involving teen drivers. I don't have to tell you that traffic crashes remain the leading cause of death among teenagers. More than 9,200 people were killed in crashes in 2002 involving a 15 to-20-year-old driver. Losing any loved one in a crash is tragic, but losing a child magnifies the loss. Again, we know what to do to make teens safer drivers.

All States should have a comprehensive 3-phase system that includes an extended learner's permit holding period with a supervised driving requirement, and an intermediate phase with restrictions on nighttime driving, young passengers, and cell phone use. There is no substitute for time in learning to be a safe driver.

We have seen revolutionary changes in driver licensing practices in the past decade. All but 2 States (Montana and Wyoming) have adopted at least some elements of graduated licensing. Congratulations to Don Smith and the Alaska delegation for enacting graduated licensing this year. But, many teen licensing systems still have significant gaps.

Part of Priority One is to get State policymakers to recognize the tragedies that a comprehensive graduated licensing system can prevent.

The final issue on the priority list is Child Passenger Safety. It is imperative that we do everything we can to make safe transportation decisions for those little ones who cannot make such decisions for themselves. Priority One for children is to get them in the back seat, get their parents and caregivers trained to properly install their child safety seats, and get four to-eight-year-olds into booster seats that can reduce their chance of injury by 59 percent.

Since 1996, we have seen an increase in the number of children riding in the back seat. But according to 2002 NHTSA data, 15 percent of infants, 10 percent of toddlers, and 29 percent of booster-seat-age children are still riding in the front seat of cars. While most parents think they are installing their child's safety seat correctly, NHTSA's 2004 survey shows a 73 percent misuse rate. We are really grateful for the growth of fitting stations nationwide to help parents learn to properly install their safety seats.

22 States still do not require booster seats at all and 18 States fall short of the Board's recommendation to require booster seats through age seven. One of our Board Members is testifying today in Michigan in support of their booster seat bill. We are available to work with you to get to Priority One.

Last year, the Safety Board committed to implement a new, simpler, process by which we seek information from you on your progress in implementing our recommendations to the States. We have eliminated the ping-pong ball letters from the Board to your Governors, which, of course, many of you were drafted to answer. I want to thank each of you who responded to our request for up-to-date information on your State or territory's actions related to our Safety Recommendations. From our perspective, this change has been very successful in terms of both reduced correspondence and increased information exchange. 44 States responded to our May request for updated information.

As a result of what you sent to us, at our State Most Wanted Board meeting two weeks ago, we reviewed 319 actions taken by the States out of a total of 486 actions requested. I am pleased to tell you that we have closed over one-third of these recommendations to the States. This translates, to date, into 173 safety improvements and we know from your responses that many more improvements are in progress. All this happened without having your Governor write a letter or receive one from the Safety Board.

We are also working on evaluation of some other State recommendations that are not on the Most Wanted list. We will notify you of the action taken in our annual letter to you in May 2005. Now comes the good part. This is the first time that the Board has recognized State action at the GHSA conference. Today, I am pleased to present certificates to two States that have completed action on 6 of the 7 Safety Recommendations that are on our Most Wanted list of transportation safety improvements. These recommendations include:

  • Enactment of a booster seat law
  • Enactment of a primary safety belt law
  • Enactment of a 3-stage GDL system
  • Enactment of a nighttime restriction for young novice drivers
  • Enactment of a passenger restriction (0 or 1) for young novice drivers
  • Enactment of comprehensive age 21 laws
  • Adoption of the hard core drinking driver model program (8 of 11 measures)


Two States and the District of Columbia are being recognized, but there are at least 7 other States that are very close to fulfilling the Board's recommendations. Will Roberto Rodriguez, the Governor's Representative from New Jersey and Terry Schiavone from NHTSA Southeast Region who will receive the certificate for Tennessee, please come forward? The District of Columbia certificate will be presented back in Washington.

I am pleased to present the National Transportation Safety Board State Legislative Safety Leadership Certificate to the States of New Jersey and Tennessee. Please, let's have a round of applause for these States. I look forward to presenting more of these certificates at next year's GHSA meeting and I hope that soon we can give a leadership award to States that have completed all 7 recommendations.

In closing, let me remind you that, as you work to reach Priority One, the Safety Board is a ready and willing partner. Each of the 5 Board members is available and anxious to travel to the States to work with you to make the changes we all know can save thousands of lives every year.

Together we can accomplish great things. Thank you.