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Keynote Address Lifesavers Conference, Orlando, Florida
Marion C. Blakey
Lifesavers Conference, Orlando, Florida

Thank you, Chief Berger.

Thank you all for being here today. It is indeed an honor for me to speak to a group of people with whom I share the same principles, the same goals and the same vision.

I believe that much of the driving force behind all of us in this room today is that we know how to prevent the overwhelming majority of deaths on America's highways. We all know what we need to do, and yes it's frustrating sometimes - - very frustrating. But, at the same time it provides us with some clarity. And, the belief that if we continue to work together to affect public policy and encourage safe behavior - - we will save countless lives.

That, in fact, was the impetus behind the very first Lifesavers conference twenty years ago - - when ideas such as graduated licensing systems, primary enforcement laws and administrative licensing revocation provisions weren't even part of the vocabulary … when booster seat laws barely existed … when almost every state had a drinking age below 21 ... and when seat belt use rates were a fraction of what they are today.

As the Lifesavers organization itself likes to point out - - who knows how many lives have been saved over the years because somebody attended a conference like this one, put a program in place, held a childseat check, helped pass some legislation, or set up an enforcement checkpoint?

Atila Mermer would happily tell you his life is one of those you have helped save.

This past March, Mr. Mermer was driving down Center Street in Manchester, Connecticut when police Sergeant John Marvin stopped him as part of a safety check program. Mr. Mermer got a ticket and a $37 fine for not wearing a seat belt. He buckled up as he drove away, and ten minutes later made a sharp turn to avoid hitting another car. His car flipped on its side, but Mr. Mermer walked away unharmed - - thanks to his belt.

It really can be something that simple - - and that vital - - that makes the difference between living and dying.

As your opening video noted, we have made real progress in the last 20 years. But I think all of us would agree that we still have work to do. And, the fact that this is the most heavily attended Lifesavers conference tells me you all agree.

As the American philosopher and writer Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. once wrote, "the great thing in this world is not so much where we stand, as in what direction we are moving."

Who can know how many other lives Sergeant Marvin may have been able to save that day? Perhaps not so immediately as in Mr. Mermer's case, but at some point down the road, when someone was wearing her seatbelt or had secured his child's safety seat because of a safety check program like that one … the kind of program that didn't exist twenty years ago … and the kind of program that we hope will only continue to grow in the years to come.

Today I would like to discuss the Board's highway safety priorities with all of you. I would like to talk about where we stand … and in what direction we are moving.

Since it is quite clear our mission and priorities are mutually shared, I don't need numbers to paint you a picture of the seriousness of the issues. We all know the statistics and the facts. But, we need to talk about the basics - - getting people to wear seat belts … getting the hard-core drinking drivers off the road … getting our young drivers home safe and sound.

Where do we stand on seat belt enforcement? I think we would all agree that we need to continue to hammer away at getting people to buckle up.

Just a few weeks ago I was out at a Maryland State Police seat belt check. In the one hour I was there, the police issued 12 tickets for failure to wear seatbelts … and one for the failure to properly restrain a child.

Obviously, some people still aren't getting the message. If the risk of death doesn't work - - and this particularly seems to be the case with our teens, who often think they are invincible - - then tickets and fines may be the best way to get people to buckle up. As one of the Board's Most Wanted items, it is my goal to use the authority and resources of the Board to encourage more states to pass primary enforcement laws.

We also need to do more to remove hard-core drunk-drivers from our roadways.

Here again is an area where we have made definite progress. Thanks to MADD and others - - Drinking and driving is no longer socially acceptable. But, the hard-core drunk-drivers - - you know them, the repeat offenders and first time offenders with high BACs' - - they pose a particular challenge.

We need the states to require treatment and alcohol ignition interlock devices for repeat offenders. In some cases we need to separate hard-core drunk drivers from their vehicles by impounding their license plates or seizing their vehicles. Other measures for repeat offenders are also effective, such as home detention with electronic monitoring, intensive supervision probation, and frequent and unannounced testing.

And states need to work to improve their DWI records and increase the period for retaining offenses to 10 years. We need to do everything in our power to make sure that these offenders don't slip through the cracks … and onto our roads where they pose such a danger.

Two other issues that remain priorities on the Board's Most Wanted list are graduated drivers licensing and booster seat legislation.

The issue of graduated drivers licensing interests me not just because I work for the NTSB, but also because I am the mother of a 14 year old daughter - - who will soon be asked to turn over the car keys. Needless to say the numbers are not comforting - - 16 year old drivers have the worst crash rate among any group.

While 46 states have adopted some form of graduated licensing requirements, the Board would like to see some uniformity across the country. For us, effective graduated driver licensing requires a three-phase system, including:

· a learner's permit, a provisional license, and then full licensing;
· a 6-month minimum holding period for the learner's permit and the provisional license;
· nighttime driving restrictions;
· and a supervised driving requirement to increase driving experience.

In addition to graduated driver's licenses we also need booster seat laws in 38 states, and we look forward to working with you to get these laws passed.

Seat belt enforcement … removing hard-core drunk drivers from our roads … graduated drivers licensing and booster seat legislation - - all of these are priorities for those of us in this room because we know they will make a difference, we know they will save lives, and we know they are the right direction to be going in order to improve highway safety.

There are a few other challenges I would like to address - especially here in front of such an influential audience.

Twenty years ago it would have been hard to imagine automakers working closely with government on a variety of safety issues. Today, it is common practice, and I want to again acknowledge and commend the automakers' for heeding the Board's call to get children in the right safety or booster seats. Because of your help and the state's efforts, we removed our recommendation on fitting stations from our Most Wanted list.

Not so fast - - you don't get off that easy. I want to challenge the automakers again - - because I believe we can do a better job of introducing lap / shoulder belts for all the seating positions in your vehicles.

For all of the SUV's and minivans that are now touted as the family vehicle of choice - - it's only right that there be one level of safety for all passengers. Unfortunately, many of these vehicles have rear center lap belts only. And, as you know, almost all booster seats are designed for lap / shoulder belts. So, I'd ask you to step up to this challenge with the same vigor you displayed on child passenger safety.

I would also like to recognize State Farm Insurance for its work in an area where we need to do more - - to promote higher levels of seat belt and child restraint usage among our most vulnerable citizens - - minorities and the poor. State Farm's partnership with the Meharry Medical School in Nashville is aimed at doing just that. But I have to ask - - where are the other insurance companies?

I ask you all to follow State Farm's lead and to promote seat belt and child safety seat use.

And since it would only be fair - - I have also challenged the Board to take a good look at how we can improve our business.

The Board's Safety recommendations are its most important product, and we need to do a better job being proactive in getting our safety recommendations implemented. Right now on the state level, we currently have 68 open recommendations to 2,200 recipients. Many of these recommendations deal with the issues I spoke about today.

To address these open recommendations, we have launched a new state advocacy program. The Board members and I have each agreed to be responsible for 10 states. We will meet with state officials and departments to promote the passage of legislation. We will also address open recommendations, speak at public events, target print, radio and television media, and establish contacts with important state groups.

I have also begun meeting with the various regulatory administrators. Just this week I met with the NHTSA administrator, Dr. Jeff Runge. We both agree we need a strong focus on seat belt use and drunk driving. Working together, and with you all, we can accomplished our shared goals.

At this time, I want to pledge our support to you for your state activities. If you need us for testimony or an event, we'll be there. You know how to reach us and I know many of you have worked with Elaine Weinstein, Kevin Quinlan and Steve Blackistone of our safety recommendations team, all of whom are here today - - as well as our newest member of the team, Dannille Roeber.

So that is where things stand: we are moving forward on seat belt use … on getting hard-core drunk drivers off the roads … on graduated drivers licensing, booster seat legislation, promoting lap / shoulder belts and safety programs for those less fortunate. We are also getting our own business in order at the Board.

And as we head into the future, we know there will be new issues and new challenges to address.

Some of you may know the Board is looking at 15 passenger vans and what we believe are inherent risks in their design. This fall we plan on releasing the findings from this special investigation.

Other areas that may warrant our attention can be found in the recent three-car collision on the Washington Beltway, near Largo, Maryland, took the lives of five people - - I am sure you all remember this one.

This accident poses several significant safety issues, which the Safety Board intends to focus on in the upcoming year:

Do certain kinds of cell phone usage by drivers jeopardize safety?

Whether common median barriers effectively prevent high-speed crossovers, especially when they involve large vehicles, such as SUVs?

Finally, the NTSB intends to examine from the standpoint of specific, in-depth accident investigations the crash-dynamics, vehicle compatibility and handling characteristics of light trucks - - SUVs, pick-ups and mini-vans - - which as you well know have grown dramatically in volume and popularity among the US fleet.

Cell phones and SUVs were not part of the equation when Lifesavers held its first conference twenty years ago.

But then neither was graduated licensing … or state seat belt laws … or child restraint laws.

Today, these and so many other common-sense but crucial highway safety issues are not only commonplace … but they are saving lives every single day.

You in this room had a lot to do with that.

Remember, it is not so much where we stand, as in what direction we are moving … and together, we are moving toward safer highways, safer vehicles, and safer drivers.

I don't know if you remember Tillie Tooter. She was the feisty 82-year-old Florida woman who managed to stay alive for 3 days a few years ago after her car was forced off the road into a snake and insect infested mangrove swamp. After falling 40 feet, her car came to rest among the mangrove and willow trees - - she unbuckled her seat belt, and was trapped in a foot-wide space with her head just inches above the water line. But, Tillie managed to survive.

She honked her horn and flashed her lights until the car battery died. She passed the time by singing songs from the 1940's and 50's - - "the good songs," according to Tillie. She stayed alive in the 100-degree heat by capturing rainwater in a steering wheel cover - - sopping it up with a pair of socks, and squeezing it into her mouth.

In an interview a year after her accident, Tillie offered some valuable advice. She said: "Enjoy what you have … enjoy every minute of your life … and always wear a seatbelt. It saved my life."

Tillie's message is Lifesavers' mission: remember what is important in life … and take steps to protect that precious life.

Twenty years from now, when Lifesavers 40 is being held, we may not know which safety issues will be foremost on the agenda, but we do know what the agenda will be. We do know that people will be alive because somebody here today was able to start a program or pass a law or get one more dangerous driver off the road or persuade one more person to buckle up. We do know which direction we are heading - we are saving lives.

Thank you for the vital work that you do … and thank you for asking me to be here today.