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Remarks before the Texas Transportation Summit, Irving, Texas, August 10, 2005
Ellen Engleman Conners
Texas Transportation Summit, Irving, Texas

Before I begin, I want to thank the leaders in Texas transportation and the countless staff who have made this summit possible. I am honored that you asked me to speak with you today about the challenge of moving America safely and securely.

Today, more than ever before, Americans realize how important a safe and secure national transportation system is to our cultural freedom, economic strength, and personal and national security.

Fifty years ago, President Eisenhower had the vision of an interconnected, high-speed system of roads that would be a vital piece of a truly national transportation system. That vision of the original defense highway system, engineered and designed to protect and serve in time of war, has also served to support commerce and the movement of people and goods every second of every day.

Texans know just how important intermodal, interconnected, and international transportation is to their way of life and their economy. According to U.S. Department of Transportation statistics, in 2004, Texas was the leading state overall for U.S.-NAFTA merchandise trade moved by all freight modes, with over $114 billion.

In 2004, land modes of transportation carried 89% of U.S. goods trade with Canada and Mexico, with double digit increases over 2003 numbers in truck, rail, and pipeline trade, an economic boom in growth that is being experienced as well in air and maritime trade. And if anyone doubts those numbers, they just need to talk to the people of Laredo, El Paso or Hidalgo.

Transportation is also important in the war on terrorism. President Bush has stated that key ingredients to the war on terrorism are to keep our economy strong, secure our borders, and fight the terrorists where they live, not where we live.

And as you all know, transportation is the key to keeping our economy strong.

So now comes our part as members of the transportation community. Whether it is a national security incident or a local safety accident, traffic can seemingly come to a stop; and it then becomes all of our jobs to get it moving safely and securely once again. Each time an incident or an accident occurs, we are putting a temporary stall on the economy, and so it must be that safety and security work together.

I have the privilege of serving at the National Transportation Safety Board. The role of the Board, as the name suggests, is safety. We provide independent oversight of the nation's transportation system, investigate the cause of accidents, and make recommendations to the transportation community for needed safety improvements. And we have had some great success in increasing safety over the years.

I have a motto: "From tragedy, good must come." Not "could come," "should come," "might come," nor "ought to come." Good MUST come. And this booklet, Lessons Learned and Lives Saved: 1975-2005, highlights how from tragedy, good has come, in part due to the hard work of the NTSB staff over the past 30 years.

Here are a few examples of how the NTSB's work has increased transportation safety, across all modes. In aviation, the Board's work has resulted in things such as aircraft icing prevention, fire protection, anti-collision devices and fuel tank hazards being addressed, as well as emergency evacuation equipment and procedures, which were so important in the recent commercial carrier incident in Toronto, Canada.

In highway transportation, we have pushed for tougher legislation to combat driving under the influence and hard-core drinking drivers, passage of primary safety belt legislation and child safety measures such as stronger booster seat laws.

In commercial motor vehicles, our work has resulted in anti-lock brake systems on large trucks and buses and support for the Congressional action to mandate a national commercial driver's license.

In maritime, we have advocated for tougher fire safety improvements on all passenger ships and use of personal flotation devices by children.

In rail, we pushed for a national database to track, monitor and inspect about 3,500 highway-railroad crossings with interconnected road signals and rail warning lights.

And in pipelines, we recommended periodic inspections and testing of hazardous liquid and gas transmission lines.

I could go on and list dozens more significant safety measures in all modes. The point is that, while we have a great record of success in safety, there is much more to be done. So while we focus on investigating the accident, it is the issuing of recommendations and their implementation that closes the safety loop. And when the safety loop is closed, then commerce -- people and goods -- are moving safely; and public confidence in the system is increased.

Before I move on to my final point, I want to illustrate why our mission is so important to those of us in the transportation safety community. Allow me to view the recently released highway fatality numbers from that perspective.

When it comes to highway safety, we have seen a decrease in the number of highway fatalities, from 42,884 in 2003 to 42,636 in 2004; and we have witnessed a decrease in the number of alcohol related fatalities from 17,105 in 2003 to 16,694 in 2004. That is progress; but to those of us in the safety field, we also see considerable room for improvement. We realize all too well that those numbers represent roughly 43,000 notifications to families that a loved one, perhaps a son on his way to a camping trip, a daughter on her way to soccer practice, a husband running a quick errand to the store, or a wife on her daily commute to the office, won't be coming home, ever again. That is why we do what we do; we want to stop those notifications from having to be made in the first place.

Highway safety is just one of several issues that require additional attention. Among others, we have significant challenges when it comes to safely moving cargo alongside the traveling public. For example, we have over 800,000 shipments of hazardous materials each and every day, and over 2.1 million miles of pipelines, some of which now move through heavily populated and environmentally sensitive areas.

So, how are we going to continue moving people and goods safely alongside one another? A combination of technology, common sense, and a willingness to consider things other than traditional approaches hold the key. Maybe we should consider the use of truck-only lanes? Maybe we should more widely deploy new sensor technology at ports and major motor carrier shipping hubs? Perhaps we should embrace the construction of corridors that multiplex all modes of transportation?

Transportation is, after all, intermodal, interconnected, and international. The transportation networks of tomorrow must do more than one job; they must be interconnected to all modes, they must utilize smart technology where possible, they must be built for today and tomorrow, and they must include "outside the box" thinking.

The bottom line question is: How do we get the job done efficiently, quickly, safely and securely? Answering that question is the challenge to all of us.

I look forward to helping answer that question with you. And I thank you, again, for inviting me to speak with you today.