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Remarks before the 2nd Annual North Texas Transportation Safety Summit, Irving, Texas
Jim Hall
2nd Annual North Texas Transportation Safety Summit, Irving, Texas

Good evening, I want to thank Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson for inviting me to address this most important transportation conference. I also would like to thank the City of Irving for sponsoring the summit.

I'm glad to be here in the great state of Texas. It's clear to see why your motto is "Don't Mess with Texas." Texans have a lot to be proud of. You lead in the high tech and oil industries and Texas is the home of two leaders in the aviation industry - American and Southwest airlines. You have a first rate university system and you have the current division leading professional baseball teams in both leagues. However, I feel compelled to point out that while your UT (Texas) has been number 1 in football in years past, my alma mater the University of Tennessee is the current number 1 in college football.

Now, that said, let me say you should also be proud of this summit. This meeting is a model of effective regional communication and cooperation. If we are to make the most of our efforts, we need to do more to promote federal, state, regional, and local partnerships and action. This gathering is a step in that direction. I am pleased to note that this is the second such summit and hope that you will continue your endeavors to improve transportation safety.

As you all know, transportation is becoming an increasingly important element to our nation's economy. The latest U.S. Department of Transportation figures indicate that transportation currently contributes almost $800 billion a year to our gross domestic product. And, demands on the transportation system continue to grow. For example, the number of domestic airline passengers is expected to grow from 561 million last year to over 850 million in 2010. Also by 2010, highway miles traveled by passenger vehicles are projected to increase to over 3 trillion miles annually, heavy truck miles will rise by 27 percent, and truck weight will increase by 32 percent. Between 1997 to 2010, annual train miles will increase by 50 percent, to over 750 million. The other modal industries, marine and pipeline, are also expected to grow at similar rates.

This expansion will, by necessity, bring more congestion and more exposure to accidents, injuries and death. As the population here in North Texas grows -- it's expected to double over the next 25 years -- the transportation infrastructure must continue to grow with it. Therefore, it's essential that we plan for these changes now.

When people, companies or government don't plan well enough - or execute well enough - accidents happen. And that is where we come in. For the past five years, I have had the honor to lead the world's preeminent transportation accident investigative agency, the National Transportation Safety Board. You may have heard of the Safety Board because of our high profile aviation accident investigations such as TWA flight 800 off Long Island and American Airlines flight 1420 in Little Rock, but we investigate accidents in all modes of transportation.

The NTSB was established 32 years ago by Congress because it believed that agencies shouldn't both regulate a transportation industry and investigate accidents involving the system being regulated. The Board was created as an independent agency, serving as the eyes and ears of the American people at accident sites. Our mission is to find the probable cause of transportation accidents and to make recommendations that will prevent similar accidents from happening again. We don't regulate; we investigate. We don't tell anyone what to do; rather, we point out what should to be done - based on our three decades of seeing what works and what doesn't - and then we ask the appropriate entity to take action.

Because we must react quickly to situations as they arise, we have placed regional offices in key cities across the country. If fact, as some of you may know, we have an office near here in Arlington, Texas, staffed with aviation and highway investigators who focus their efforts on accidents in this region. As a result, we've investigated a number of accidents in the North Texas area. And, just recently, we held a public hearing in Dallas on Union Pacific safety issues.

This evening I want to focus on what is by far the leading cause of transportation deaths across the country and especially in Texas. Highway crashes resulted in more than 41,000 deaths last year nationwide. Over 3,500 of those deaths were right here in Texas. Each year, highway deaths account for more than 90 percent of all transportation fatalities and they are the leading cause of death for young Americans ages 6 to 27. We continue to allow these very preventable accidents to destroy lives and steal futures. Everyone in this room should be angry about that - and this summit should have a plan to stop these needless tragedies from continuing.

We, as a nation, are mortgaging our future in terms of needless lives lost, in unfulfilled potential, and in monetary costs. Nationally, motor vehicle crashes cost at least $151 billion dollars every year. That's at least $580 out of the pockets of every person in this room, each member of your family, each of your constituents, and all Americans. We shouldn't be willing to tolerate this waste - as individuals, as parents, as Texans, or as Americans.

Unfortunately, Texas leads the nation in preventable highway deaths. Let me share a few more statistics with you.

  • Texas is number 1 among the States in the number of deaths involving young drivers. In 1997, 808 people were killed in Texas in crashes involving 15- to 20-year-old drivers. That's 23 percent of all highway deaths in Texas - although teenagers comprise less than 6 percent of the driving population. We expect those numbers will rise because as the youth population increases by a projected 22 percent over the next 10 years.
  • Texas is number 2 to California in the number of total traffic fatalities. Although the two states have roughly the same number of highway fatalities each year, Texas has only about 60 percent of the population and registered drivers as California.
  • Texas is number 4 in the United States in the percentage of people killed in alcohol-related crashes. Half of all people killed on Texas highways die in alcohol-related accidents - that's a full 10 percentage points above the national average. Is that a record to be proud of? Numbers 1, 2, and 3 are the District of Columbia, Rhode Island, and Alaska where alcohol kills about the same number of people in a year as Texas does in one week.

Texas is also substantially above the national average in fatalities per vehicle mile traveled, fatalities per population, grade crossing fatalities, alcohol-related fatalities, and speed-related fatalities. As Texas' population increases, and if there are no significant changes in driver behavior, this situation can only get worse - much worse.

But, there is no reason for that to occur. There are some concrete and easily attainable measures that Texas and you can take that will reverse these statistical trends and, more importantly, save lives. Let me enumerate just a few of them.

  • Institute Child Safety Measures. Study after study has shown us that children should be in child restraints to the age of 4 and booster seats until the age of 8. Here in Texas, a 2-year-old can legally be restrained by a seatbelt - even though we know that seatbelts, like air bags, were designed for adults. Texas needs to join almost all other states in changing that law.

    Children should also be required to ride in the back seat - the safest location in a vehicle. Texas was one of the first states in which a child was killed by an air bag. There have been six other deaths since that time. And, as cars with first generation air bags are resold to 2nd and 3rd owners, we may see more needless deaths. These deaths can be prevented. Demand that the legislature require children under 12 ride in the back seat.
  • Establish Fitting Stations. Texas can be a leader in child passenger safety by making it easier for parents to know if they are using their child safety seat correctly. For as long as there have been child safety seats, parents and caregivers have had to ask two questions each time they buckle their child into the car: One - did I buckle the child restraint into the car properly? And, two - is my child properly buckled into the restraint system?

    Texas can establish fitting stations where parents can go at their convenience to have their safety seat installed and find out if they are using the right restraint for their child. Based on a Safety Board recommendation, DaimlerChrysler recently announced that they would provide this service to their customers and I have urged the other automobile manufacturers to do the same. But, Texas does not need to wait for the carmakers. These inspections can be done by trained mechanics at locations such as automobile repair stations, firehouses, health centers or when the annual motor vehicle inspection is done.
  • Enact Graduated Licensing. Earlier, I described the serious, but preventable, young driver crash problem you have here in Texas. Unless something is done, the problem will worsen as the population of young drivers continues to increase, as it has every year since 1993. The Texas legislature needs to enact a graduated driver licensing law similar to one implemented by other States that will allow parents to protect their children and help them be better drivers. The legislature failed to enact such a law in 1999. As a result, using even the most conservative estimate, at least 80 Texans will die each year in young driver crashes until a graduated licensing bill is passed. That is a terrible price to pay for inaction.

    Your neighbor to the West, New Mexico, enacted a graduated licensing law this year that can serve as a model. It requires a mandatory six-month holding period for a learner's permit and established a mandatory one-year holding period for an intermediate license. While driving with each of these permits, there is nighttime driving restriction and a limit on the number of teens that can be in the car without an adult present. With each of these permits, you have to have a clean driving record in order to move to the next level or to get a full license. In that way you reward good driving and good driving habits with a full license.

    Contrary to popular opinion, especially among teenagers, the purpose of the law isn't to punish young drivers, but to help them learn to drive in the safest possible environment, with a parent or adult and to reward teens with safe driving records with a full license.
  • Enforce Zero Alcohol Tolerance. In 1997, the Texas legislature enacted a zero alcohol tolerance law for drivers under age 21, but because of inconsistencies in the Texas Code, it is very difficult to enforce. Call on your legislators to fix the law and can save lives.
  • Enhance Blood Alcohol Limit Laws. Texas needs to get serious about alcohol-related crashes. I commend the legislature for enacting a 0.08 BAC law this year. That's a good step forward. But, more needs to be done. I can't believe the citizens of Texas willingly tolerate nearly 1,800 alcohol-related fatalities each year. Drivers who drink and drive put you, your family, your friends, and your neighbors at risk. A combination of highly visible enforcement measures, sobriety checkpoints, and increased safety belt use have proven extremely effective in North Carolina and Tennessee.
  • Stop Hard Core Drinking Drivers. Texas also needs to get serious about repeat and high BAC alcohol offenders. Those who continue to drink and drive should forfeit their cars and should be confined in jail-treatment facilities where they can get help getting to the root of their problem and, hopefully, solving it. The Safety Board is currently investigating this issue in a special report and will probably make additional recommendations to the States later this year.

Finally, I'd like to address a problem that affects drivers all around the country -- large truck safety. During the past 32 years, NTSB has been a major force behind hundreds of truck and bus safety improvements, including a national license for commercial truck drivers, a special license or endorsement for drivers hauling hazardous materials, alcohol/drug testing program for commercial operators, and mandatory requirements for anti-lock braking systems.

This year, the NTSB is pushing for more safety improvements. In April, we held a hearing to look at how well regulators and the industry enforced safety requirements; in May, we held an international symposium to focus attention on the need for recorder devices for trucks and buses. This month, the Board will explore technology applications for heavy vehicle safety. This fall, the Board will convene a hearing on safety issues related to NAFTA; our final hearing will be on the adequacy of the CDL license process and medical issues affecting truck and bus drivers.

In addition to these efforts, we are currently conducting a special investigation of motor coach accidents to examine them more closely. Unlike automobiles, there are no crash protection or body joint strength or bus rollover standards. We also expect to complete a safety study this fall on intrastate trucks that are not subject to federal or state regulations.

It's time to make "Don't Mess with Texas" more than a slogan. Make it your rallying cry to improve highway safety for all Texans. Make Texas number one in lives saved rather than lives lost on your roads. Be proactive and involved. Work with the legislature to enact laws that will protect all of you -- especially our young people.

Texas, like Tennessee, is a great state -- full of caring people. We are both proud of our youths and want to provide them as much safety and security as possible they grow into adulthood and set out on their own lives. But that safety and security doesn't happen automatically -- it takes everyone's concerted effort. We can no longer consider drinking, speeding and driving as acceptable rites of passage for our young people. In far too many cases, those rites of passage have led to the last rites for too many of our citizens.

This summit can take important steps to prevent highway crashes. By putting children first, you can make all Texans safer. Take a moment to reflect on the almost 33,000 lives needlessly lost on Texas highways in the last ten years. As you think about those sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers, husbands, and wives, I am confident you will find the courage to make the right decisions that will make a difference and save lives.

Thank you for the opportunity to come to back to the great state of Texas and for your time and attention. I will be glad to respond to your questions.