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Remarks at the National Association of Governor's Highway Safety Representatives annual meeting, Long Beach, California
Marion C. Blakey
National Association of Governor's Highway Safety Representatives annual meeting,Long Beach, California

Good afternoon. Thank you for inviting me to join you here today. I appreciate the opportunity to speak about highway safety issues of concern to us all. Before I begin, I want to introduce the Safety Board staff here with me today: Elaine Weinstein is the Director of our Office of Safety Recommendations and Accomplishments and Kevin Quinlan is the Chief of our Safety Advocacy Division.

This is not the first time I have attended NAGHSR's annual meeting. In fact, I was in Biloxi last year to work with you on ways to reduce the hardcore drinking driver problem. It is an issue that I have been involved with for many years - both in the public and private sectors.

And several years ago I joined you when I had the privilege to lead the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in the early 1990s. I valued that experience and the hard work of the NHTSA staff. That opportunity, as well as many others over the years, has given me a strong appreciation for the importance of the Governors' Highway Safety Offices and the work that you do every day to improve the safety of our nation's highways. I also want to acknowledge the many other safety organizations represented here today -- your support has been critical to getting our recommendations implemented.

Today's luncheon honors those who have made exceptional contributions to highway safety and I want to extend my personal congratulations and thanks to those being recognized.

I'm very pleased that this is my first public appearance as Chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) because each of you shares my concerns about the safety of our roads and you work every day to make every American safer. But, while I want to commend you for all of your endeavors to date, we all recognize that much more needs to be done if we are to make our citizens truly safe when they travel our roadways.

I know that you are all dealing with many competing safety and security priorities - even more so since the events of September 11th. The terrorist attacks have changed all of our lives in very fundamental and profound ways. As you may know, the NTSB was called upon to assist the FBI in its investigations into the crashes at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and in Pennsylvania. Some of our staff members are still on scene helping to find the black boxes from the two aircraft in New York.

Soon after I became Chairman, I had the opportunity to visit Ground Zero. None of the thousands of pictures we've all seen can adequately prepare you for the magnitude of the devastation at the site. Nor can they help you truly comprehend the tremendous toll that it has taken on the heroic members of New York's police and fire departments and the representatives of the countless other government agencies who continue to work there 24 hours a day. Nor can those photos help you appreciate the renewed sense of compassion, teamwork, resilience, and creativity that the attack has engendered.

While there, I also visited an abandoned building near the center. One of the empty apartments had been set up as an observation post. There, investigators armed with video cameras and binoculars surveyed the wreckage as it was being removed - all in an effort to find those black boxes. But, what was even more striking was their surroundings. Everything was coated in inches of debris, ash, and dirt and seemed frozen in a moment in time. Even the remains of the former residents' breakfast still sat on the kitchen table.

I left there to visit the FreshKills landfill where rubble from the site is being taken so that it can be filtered for evidence, aircraft parts, and personal effects. As you can imagine, the conditions there were horrendous. Yet, just as at Ground Zero, teams of police and firefighters worked alongside members of the investigative organizations - doing what needed to be done. Not surprisingly, they've found very innovative ways to tackle the problems they've encountered. They quickly discovered ways to segregate the wreckage so that steel girders and other heavy materials were sent to other areas - eliminating the need to move them yet again. They also found creative ways to make use of equipment at hand. One gentleman was operating a combine to help sift through the mounds of debris.

The "can do" spirit of everyone involved in the recovery operation - and, in fact, throughout the nation - has been truly inspiring. I hope that the sense of fellowship and purpose continues as we all move forward - because - as this endeavor shows us - together we can accomplish any goal.

Although we all hope that the current feeling of unease among our fellow citizens is a short-term situation, we all know that the problems on our roadways are not. We are also equally aware that our nation's highways are the most dangerous place we encounter on a daily basis.

It is for that very reason that this meeting, and its theme "Drunk, Distracted and Dangerous," is so timely. Although more Americans are beginning to fly again, many are not yet convinced of its safety. That means there will probably be many more of us on the roads, especially in the upcoming holiday season.

I'm sure everyone is aware of the current statistics, but they are worth repeating:

  • Highway crashes are the leading cause of death for Americans between the ages of 4 and 33;
  • They account for more than 90 percent of all transportation fatalities - almost 42,000 deaths and 3.2 million injuries in 2000;
  • More than half of all fatally injured occupants are unbuckled;
  • Alcohol is involved in 40 percent of all fatal crashes; and

Deaths and alcohol-related fatalities are increasing. Last year, more than 41,800 people died in motor vehicle crashes and over 16,600 were killed in alcohol-related crashes.

Since I left NHTSA in the early 1990s, there have been important changes in driver attitudes and practices regarding safety. Almost all states have implemented graduated licensing systems and the number of teenage driver-related fatalities has declined by 10 percent for 15 to 20-year-old drivers in the last decade. In addition, the seat belt use rate has increased from 54 percent in 1990 to 71 percent today, people are much more responsible about drinking and driving, and families are shopping for vehicles based on their safety features. That's the good news. Now we face the difficult task of reaching those people who are more resistant to change.

There are five areas that I believe must be addressed in order to reach these individuals - hardcore drinking drivers, teen drivers, commercial drivers, primary enforcement laws, and child passenger safety. These are issues that the Safety Board has focused its attention on in recent years and ones that will continue to be priorities during my tenure at the Board.

Hardcore drinking and driving

Although public attitudes toward drinking and driving have changed significantly since the early 1990s, we saw a rise in the number of alcohol-involved fatalities last year. Hard-core drinking drivers, those drivers who repeatedly drink and drive and those who drive with high amounts of alcohol, over 0.15 percent blood alcohol concentration in their systems, cause a substantial number of the alcohol-related fatalities.

It will take a comprehensive approach -- such as the one recommended by the Safety Board last year -- to reduce the incidence of alcohol-related crashes, injuries, and fatalities caused by hardcore drinking drivers. The Board's report outlined a model program that includes sobriety checkpoints, administrative revocation of driver's licenses, adoption of an aggravated DWI offense, use of vehicle sanctions, alternatives to jail and use of jail/treatment combinations. Over the years, I worked closely with Mothers Against Drunk Driving and The Century Council, who both have excellent and very similar programs, to get hardcore drinking drivers off the road. I am pleased to report that a number of states and advocacy organizations have been responsive to this shared approach and I am convinced that together we can really tackle this problem and succeed.

Teen drivers

We also need to reduce the incidence of crashes involving young novice drivers. NHTSA recently reported that young driver involvement in fatal crashes had decreased by 11 percent between 1990 and 2000, despite an approximately 22 percent increase in young drivers. However, highway crashes are still the leading cause of death among teenage drivers and they are responsible for roughly one-third of all fatalities.

The Safety Board is currently investigating an accident in Oklahoma involving a teen driver. On September 27, a van loaded with five teenagers ran off a road near Lawton and struck several trees, killing two and seriously injuring two others. The driver was 16 years old. None of the five teenagers was wearing a safety belt. The police report indicates that the van was speeding and that alcohol was involved. It is a story we hear far too often.

Graduated licensing laws work. New research from two states with comprehensive laws that include both an extended learners' permit phase and a nighttime driving restriction -- Michigan and North Carolina -- reaffirms the effectiveness of graduated licensing. In Michigan, research shows that 16-year-olds were 25 percent less likely to get into a crash; in North Carolina, the risk of a crash dropped by 23 percent. Further, in North Carolina, nighttime crashes involving 16-year-olds declined by 43 percent and fatal crashes dropped by 57 percent. Currently, there are five states without any form of graduated licensing and 14 other states only have partial systems. We need to encourage and support these states in their efforts to strengthen their graduated licensing laws.

Commercial vehicle operators

Recently, the Board turned its attention to another dangerous driver that we should all be concerned about. Commercial truck and bus drivers who operate while fatigued or who do not have proper medical certification to operate those vehicles put all of us at risk.

The Safety Board has recommended revising the hours-of-service regulations that govern how long commercial vehicle drivers should rest following a tour of duty. Research shows that most Americans need seven to eight hours of sleep each night to be adequately rested. Current federal regulations, however, only require that drivers be off duty for eight hours. That's not enough time for a driver to eat, attend to personal business, shower, and still get sufficient rest before going back on duty. It is time for the regulations to reflect the science. We need to continue urging lawmakers to change the hours of service to reduce the number of fatigued truck and bus drivers on our highways.

Just last month, as a result of our hearings on truck and bus safety and several accident investigations in which a bus or truck driver's medical complications interfered with their ability to safely operate a vehicle, the Safety Board issued a report that addressed serious flaws in the commercial driver medical certification process. We found that:

  • Individuals authorized to perform medical examinations and certify interstate commercial drivers as fit to drive may not have sufficient knowledge and information to determine whether a driver's medical condition poses a risk to highway safety;
  • Because there is no mechanism to track medical certification examinations, commercial drivers who are denied a medical certificate by one examiner may be able to obtain one from another examiner; and
  • Enforcement authorities' inability to authenticate medical certificate data hampers their ability to identify unfit drivers and remove them from service.

As a result of these and other findings, the Safety Board has asked the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators to develop a comprehensive medical certification program for both interstate and intrastate truck drivers. Although I recognize that many of the Governors' highway safety program offices do not have direct responsibility for truck safety, your support for these recommendations can help to make our streets and highways safer.

Before I close, there are two other issues I want to briefly discuss -- primary enforcement of seatbelt laws and child passenger safety. Improving the public's occupant protection practices can be one of the most effective ways to reduce deaths and injuries caused by drugged, dangerous, or distracted drivers.

Primary enforcement of seatbelt laws

Enacting a strong primary enforcement law is one of the most important steps that a state can take to save lives on its roadways. Seatbelt use rates in states with primary enforcement laws are about 17 percentage points higher than in states with secondary enforcement laws. NHTSA estimates that more than 14,000 lives could be saved annually if all front seat occupants wear a safety belt. Yet, the national usage rate is still only 71 percent. Primary laws can improve that rate. However, only 17 states and the District of Columbia have primary enforcement laws on the books.

I understand that following the September 11 terrorist attacks, our law enforcement community has been focusing their efforts on other safety and security issues and public perception of enforcing seatbelt use laws may seem less important than before. However, enforcement of safety belt use laws can actually be used as a tool to support those endeavors. For example, between August 27th and September 16th of this yearNorth Carolina police officers issued 2,850 criminal citations, including apprehending 11 fugitives, during the course of their "Click It or Ticket" program seatbelt checks. The Safety Board looks forward to working with all you to enact strong, primary enforcement laws in every state.

Child passenger safety

The Safety Board, under the leadership of my predecessor, Jim Hall, identified a number of measures to improve child passenger safety. These include ensuring that all children are buckled up in age and size-appropriate restraint systems; that fitting stations are available to help parents install their child safety seats properly; that passenger cars are designed with children in mind; and that children are transported to school in the safest manner available. I assure you that I will continue to champion those issues. Together, we can eliminate gaps in state child restraint laws, ensure equal access to child safety seats regardless of a family's income, and expand the use of fitting stations in the states to help reduce safety seat misuse.

There is a wonderful success story on Boost America's website that highlights the importance of ensuring the safety of our youngest passengers. It's about Krista B. in Terre Haute, Indiana. When Krista's mother took her sons, Zachary and Justin, for a visit, Krista insisted that she use the boys' car seats. During the visit, a van hit the grandmother's full-sized vehicle. Fortunately, Justin, two years old and 35 pounds, was in a convertible seat and Zachary, four years old and 42 pounds, was in a belt-positioning booster seat, as had been recommended by a SAFEKIDS car seat inspector. Although the boys were frightened by the crash, when it was all over, they were still sitting in the exact same positions -- uninjured. According to Krista B., the seats saved her sons' lives. She also said "I always call the belt-positioning booster the best $75 I ever spent."
The other Board Members, the Safety Board staff, and I are ready to work with you to reduce the frequency of drunk, distracted and dangerous drivers on highways. We will continue to be vocal advocates for our recommendations; to actively participate in the alcohol, occupant and child restraint coalitions; and to examine safety issues as they arise during our accident investigations and studies.

And, we need you to help us. It is important for the Safety Board to know when and how its recommendations are being implemented, both to ensure that the public is being provided the highest possible level of safety and to identify creative solutions that might be shared with others. Currently, there are about 60 open recommendations that have been issued to the states. In many cases, you may have already taken action that fulfills the intent of these recommendations, but haven't told us.

Last Saturday, Kevin Quinlan, met with NAGHSR's Executive Board to discuss new ways we can work together, including making it easier for us to exchange information on Safety Board recommendations and actions taken by the states to implement them. We want to ensure that you get credit from us for your activities. And, we want to know when we have differences of opinion about what should be done. Sometimes, we may have to agree to disagree, but it is important that we keep the lines of communication open. I am committed to clearing up our backlog of open recommendations and I hope that all of you will work with us to make the system easier and more responsive.

I am proud to be at the helm of the National Transportation Safety Board and I am pleased that I can continue to work with the dedicated individuals here today and throughout the transportation community on these very important safety issues.

Thank you again for inviting me to be here today.