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Remarks for Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles, Richmond, Virginia
Marion C. Blakey
Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles, Richmond, Virginia

Thank you Vince for that kind introduction.

It truly is a pleasure to be introduced by such a good friend, who has provided close counsel over the years, especially during my tenure at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Through his work for the National Association of Governor's Highway Representatives, Vince has proven himself to be a great leader in promoting traffic safety. And, I certainly look forward to working with him again in the near future.

It brings me real personal satisfaction to address a group with whom I share the same principles, goals and vision.

The Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles and the National Transportation Safety Board have a common objective - - to ensure the safety of the nation's citizens as they travel not only across Virginia's highways, but also across America.

This objective, however, was given new meaning on September 11th. As I am sure many in this room felt, striving to ensure the safety of our fellow citizens was no longer just an agency priority or a department mission - - it was a personal duty. Whether in our personal or professional lives, our focus changed.

This was certainly the case for many of our employees at the NTSB. From the day of the attack, the NTSB was called upon to assist the FBI - - 65 NTSB employees were deeply involved in the investigations at all 3 sites, and in assisting families of the victims. As you would expect, our folks undertook this difficult and disheartening work with their traditional excellence.

I had the opportunity to tour Ground Zero and FreshKills to see the work of our employees as well as numerous other agencies. Much has been said about the heroic contributions of police, fire and rescue personnel. But, it is impossible to say too much.

Observing their efforts certainly had a profound impact on me.

The collective spirit shown by everyone involved in the recovery effort inspired me. I am confident that this same spirit exists both in this room here today and among all members of America's transportation system. Indeed, our focus has changed - - safety and security have become our collective responsibilities.
Even though our nation is focused predominantly on security, safety is a priority that cannot be compromised.

But to say we can't do both would be shortsighted. I am confident we can increase security without compromising safety - - we just need strike a balance. And this will take time. Certainly, we at the Safety Board are sensitive to the pressures that law enforcement is facing on a daily basis.

Therefore, we should look for ways to increase both security and safety at the same time. For example, we can increase security and safety by strictly enforcing traffic laws. Police officers, who patrol the highways everyday are not only the first line of defense against terrorist attacks, but are also the best weapon we have to reduce traffic fatalities.
I believe we can find the balance between safety and security - - because, as everyone in this room knows, we still have work to do on the safety front.
And, here's the unfortunate part - - the overwhelming majority of deaths on America's highways each year result from accidents that we already know how to prevent. No need to develop new technologies or install high-tech equipment to dramatically reduce the death toll resulting from these accidents. Rather, we need to affect public policy, encourage safe behavior and push for stronger legislation.

What can we do? Let me briefly discuss 4 areas of concern where we can make the most significant impact. First, we need to encourage more states to enact standard seat-belt enforcement laws. Second, we must remove hard-core drunk-drivers from our roadways. Third, we need to ensure that our youngest citizens are properly restrained when they're in a vehicle. And, fourth, we need graduated licensing laws in every state.

"All politics is local" -- especially when it comes to saving lives on the highway. We all know enacting standard seat-belt enforcement laws is the single most important measure a state can take to prevent unnecessary loss of life on its roadways.

The statistics speak for themselves:

We've made great progress -- but 30% of Americans still do not wear their seatbelts.

60% of the 41,730 people that died on America's roadways last year were not buckled up. In Virginia, in 2000, 54% of those killed in motor vehicles weren't using restraints.

Only 17 states, and the District of Columbia, have standard enforcement laws. Unfortunately, Virginia isn't on that list. This is the crucial point -- states with standard enforcement laws have a 17% greater seat-belt usage rate than those states that have not passed such laws.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that if every state upgraded to standard enforcement 2,064 lives would be saved each year, 49,400 injuries would be prevented, and the country would save 3.4 billion dollars annually.

As the statistics demonstrate -- standard enforcement laws save lives.

A second issue -- removing hard-core drunk-drivers -- the repeat offenders -- from our roadways is equally critical.

Although we have achieved great progress in reducing alcohol-related fatalities from 28,000 in 1980 to 16,652 in 2001- - recently that progress has been stalled. In fact, in 2000, Virginia lost 341 of its residents - - 37% of all motor vehicle fatalities - - in alcohol-related crashes. And we all know the hardcore offender is a major contributor to that problem.

We know what works and we must continue the effort.

We need to encourage states to pass more rigorous laws for those who drive with a high BAC.

States should require assessment for anyone who drives with a high alcohol content and treatment and alcohol ignition interlock devices as warranted in some cases, separating hard-core drunk drivers from their vehicles by impounding their license plates or seizing their vehicles. And, immediate license suspension and revocation systems help identify and halt offenders. Frequent, visible sobriety checkpoints not only deter repeat offenders, they remove from the roads those who continue to drive with suspended or revoked licenses.

Other measures for repeat offenders, such as home detention with electronic monitoring, intensive supervision probation, frequent and unannounced testing are also effective. Moreover, states should improve their DWI records and increase the period for retaining offenses to 10 years -- making it harder for repeat offenders to slip though the cracks.

A third area where we can make a real advances is in child passenger safety. Far too many children will die in car crashes this year -- and each one unnecessary. In many cases, children will die because they are not properly restrained or they are not restrained at all.

Briefly, let me cite some facts that demonstrate the challenge we face:

Two years ago, the Safety Board discovered that about 10 million children were traveling in misused safety seats every day.

As the Safe Kids survey found, an unbelievable 14 percent of children travel completely unrestrained.

Nearly 2,000 children under the age of 15 were killed in motor vehicle crashes in the year 2000, the last year for which current figures are available. Virginia lost 51 of its children that year.

Finally, while almost all parents think they have installed their child's safety seat correctly, 80% have not.

At the NTSB, we have made child passenger safety a top priority - - a clear standout on our list of most wanted transportation safety improvements.

Three years ago, the Safety Board recommended the establishment of fitting stations where parents could have their child restraints checked. Today, these fitting stations are in every state.

The auto industry, in particular, responded strongly to the Board's request, even to the point that I might characterize it as "friendly competition" among those in the industry. As the industry has recognized, the scope our work requires a multi-prong. GM's Safe Kids Buckle up program, DaimlerChrysler's Fit For A Kid and Ford's Boost America are all are achieving substantial results.

Our pursuit of this goal should continue to have two components -- Education and tougher law enforcement.

Education is critical. Parents want to do the right thing and most are trying. But mistakes are made. We know from experience that one of the best ways to protect children is to get parents to visit special child safety seat fitting stations where they can learn how to properly install child safety seats. Of course, education alone will not get us to the goal -- we need strong child safety laws and law enforcement. The Board has made a series of recommendations to the states on this issue.

Currently, Virginia requires children under 4 to be in safety seats. Thanks to State Senator Mary Margaret Whipple and Delegate Tom Bolvin, as of July 1st, infants through children age 5 must be properly restrained in an appropriate child safety seat. And, children ages 15 and under must be restrained in some manner regardless of seating position.

However, from the Board's perspective there are still problems in Virginia's laws. Children ages 6 to 8 can be restrained like adults in a safety belt alone and children may ride unrestrained when traveling in the rear cargo area of passenger vehicles. Among other things, the Virginia legislature should require children ages 4 to 8 and weighing 40 to 80 pounds to use booster seats and establish a child occupant protection public education program.

While we may never reach our goal of having every child properly restrained, I ask that those in this room not rest in their efforts. We know that we can educate more parents and caregivers, that we can improve legislation and enforcement, and therefore that we can increase the protection provided for many thousands of children.

The fourth issue I want to touch on here is the need for all states to adopt graduated drivers license laws. This issue interests me not just because I work for the NTSB, but also because I am the mother of a 14-year-old daughter. And, let me tell you, the statistics are not comforting.

16 year-old drivers have a crash rate that is:

3 times higher than 17 year-olds;

5 times greater than 18 year-olds;

and double the rate of 85 year-olds.

17% of those killed on Virginia's roadways in 2000 were between the ages of 16 and 20.

As many of you know, graduated licensing is one of the Safety Board's "Most Wanted" recommendations. Graduated licensing laws reduce the accidents, injuries and fatalities by giving our young adults the necessary experience to operate a fast-moving machine that weighs several thousand pounds. Thanks to State Senator Bill Mims and Delegate Harry Parrish, Virginia has a comprehensive graduated licensing law in place. Incredibly, a few states still have no form of graduated licensing

I want to conclude by touching on some other issues that the NTSB is looking at in a recent example of our work in highway safety.

Unlike in aviation where the Safety Board is charged with investigating all accidents -- the Board investigates only those highway accidents that it believes pose significant safety issues.

You'll see why were investigating this one. On February 1st of this year, a three-car collision on the Washington Beltway, near Largo, Maryland, took the lives of five people.

Earlier that day, a young woman had picked up her new SUV from a dealership. She drove off the lot, followed her boyfriend - who was driving the car ahead of her -- and entered the Capital Beltway. The conditions were clear -- except for reported wind gusts.

After some time, the woman began talking to her boyfriend on her cell phone. Suddenly, she lost control of her SUV, crossed the median, and slammed head-on into a mini-van, killing herself and the four occupants in the other vehicle. A third vehicle -- another SUV -- was unable to stop and slammed into the two vehicles. Fortunately, the driver of the third vehicle and her two young children -- all walked way uninjured in part because they were all properly restrained.

This accident poses a number of safety issues.

First, whether certain kinds of cell phone usage by drivers jeopardizes safety?

Second, whether common median barriers, such as those on the Beltway, effectively prevent high-speed crossovers, especially when they involve large vehicles, such as SUVs?

And, 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.

The Safety Board chose to investigate this accident because it raises important safety concerns. Now these are controversial issues, but by tackling these issues now, we hope to develop ways to prevent similar accidents in the future.

I know that this audience is not one to shy away from the tough issues or the tough fights. No doubt we'll be turning to you for help again - - and as in the past - - the Safety Board is eager to work with you. I applaud you for all the good work you've done and your commitment to highway safety.

Thank you.