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Remarks before the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE), Washington, DC, May 9, 2005
Ellen Engleman Conners
Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE), Washington, DC

Whether you work for or with one of the "Big 3" or one of the "Big 7," the men and women in this room produce the best-made automobiles the world has ever seen. And you have also played a major role in the advancement of transportation safety.

Progress in automotive design, manufacturing and technologies over the past few decades has truly been remarkable. Designs are more appealing and more safety conscious, manufacturing quality and safety equipment advances continue to impress, and hybrid drive systems and cleaner fuels are moving from the drawing board to the road in increasing numbers.

The members of the SAE play a major role in all the advances I just mentioned. That is why the NTSB is here today: to thank you for the improvements you have helped bring about in automotive safety, and to encourage you to do more.

We have a safety epidemic in our country: over 42,000 highway and road fatalities each year, along with thousands of serious injuries. The numbers of automotive deaths and serious injuries in our country are unacceptable, and the human costs to the families and loved ones of those involved in an automobile accident are equally as tragic as those experienced when a major airline accident occurs. However, one big difference between the two is that the human tragedy of automotive fatalities is experienced every day, all across the country, in a relatively unseen way; but the tragedy of loss resulting from a major airline accident in this country, while rare, happens in a very visible, sense-shocking manner.

And in addition to the unimaginable human toll, in an economic sense, the costs of those lives lost are also staggering. For every death and serious, life-altering injury, it is estimated the economic impact to the economy is about $1 million.

Engineers built the world as we know it, and they did so by striving to build things better than they were built before. In that vein, your creativity and focus can help save even more lives on our highways.

A prime example of an issue where NTSB goals and engineering achievement can save lives is electronic data recorders on automobiles.

At the NTSB, we are looking for probable cause, not guilt; and seeking probable cause and a way to eliminate it or alleviate it is at the heart of engineering.

The NTSB is also focused on the implementation of our safety recommendations. We seek to close out recommendations as a way to close the safety loop, by pushing for full implementation of our recommendations, not compromising their intent nor simply considering our responsibility ended after we have issued a letter.

A common challenge to the NTSB and the engineering world is that of the public's perception of what drives our safety recommendations, policies, and manufacturing decisions. That is why we need the data items such as electronic data recorders can provide: data that will be used to create data-driven, agenda-neutral recommendations to the transportation community.

With data-based recommendations and policies, not guesswork and supposition, we can better address and generate greater understanding of issues such as human fatigue as a factor in automobile accidents and other human factors, such as driver distraction and hard core drinking drivers.

To reach that point where recommendations and policies can be more increasingly based on data than ever before, it simply follows that we all need more and better data. When conducting safety studies and analyzing data, government and industry should strive to develop and utilize formats and timelines that are consistent and parallel; doing so will enable both parties to more quickly and assuredly identify strengths and weaknesses in the data as well as the causes of differences within the data. Those identifications are crucial to developing policies and manufacturing processes that result in greater highway safety.

My mantra is, "Out of tragedy, good must come." Data provided from one accident that could be applied in such a way to prevent future accidents is but one example of how such good will come.

Thank you, again, for all you have achieved in automotive design safety, and thank you for all you will achieve as we implement the knowledge gained from future advances in technology and data collection.