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Remarks for the American Automobile Association National Conference, Chicago, Illinois
Marion C. Blakey
American Automobile Association National Conference, Chicago, Illinois

Thank you Vice Chairman for that kind introduction.

On behalf of the National Transportation Safety Board, it gives me great pleasure to congratulate the American Automobile Association on its centennial - - this is truly an important milestone in history.

It is no coincidence that this milestone comes just a few short years after the 100th anniversary of the automobile itself. Almost immediately after the development of the automobile, driving clubs appeared across America. (We're a convivial sort, natural joiners). Following its founding in 1902, AAA's campaign for better roads helped establish the automobile as a permanent symbol in American culture. A symbol of individualism, freedom, independence and mobility - - the ideals embodied in both the automobile and the American dream.

Over the last 100 years, AAA - - through its efforts and services - - has been instrumental in making driving a more enjoyable experience. Your maps and good counsel guide generations of Americans to their vacation destinations. Your logo is a "seal of approval" for that unfamiliar roadside motel in the dark of the night. You are the cavalry coming to the rescue when there is a flat tire, a broken radiator hose or when the car just "mysteriously" runs out of gas.

But, more importantly - - AAA's work to advance highway safety keeps the American dream alive for millions of people who take to the roads everyday.

The National Transportation Safety Board and AAA have a common destination; we both strive to achieve the same objective - - to ensure the safety of the nation's citizens as they travel across America's highways.

For more than 30 years, the NTSB has been charged with investigating accidents and determining their probable cause. We conduct thorough, independent and objective investigations and issue safety recommendations to correct the problems we discover. And, together with organizations and companies that provide specific expertise needed in particular investigations, our small agency of 500 employees has investigated thousands of aviation, railroad, marine, highway and pipeline accidents.

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

Let me give you a recent example. Unfortunately, like most of the accidents we investigate - - there's real tragedy involved.

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.

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

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.

Unfortunately, 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.

This is where our partnership is critical. Together, the NTSB and AAA, with your membership of 45 million dedicated individuals, can continue to improve transportation safety.

What can we do? Let me briefly discuss 3 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. And, third, we need to convince more states to pass graduated licensing laws.

"All politics is local." - - especially when it comes to saving lives on the highway. 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 bucked-up.
  • Only 17 states, and the District of Columbia, have standard enforcement laws.
  • However - - and 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, we must not become complacent. 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 treatment and alcohol ignition interlock devices for repeat offenders and 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.

As a founding member of the Administrative License Revocation coalition in 1990, I want to applaud AAA's hard work and dedication toward fighting hard-core drunk drivers.

Finally, through encouraging more states to adopt graduated drivers license laws, we can effect meaningful change. 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 - - who will soon be asked to turn over the car keys. 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.

Graduated licensing laws reduce the accidents, injuries and fatalities. For this reason we've been following AAA's "License to Learn" campaign - - launched in 1997 - - with great interest. When AAA began the program, only eight states had graduated licensing laws. Today, thanks in large part to AAA's efforts, all but a handful of states have passed graduated driver's licensing laws. Congratulations.

Several individuals deserve recognition for their hard work and dedication.

Don Lindsey, of East Tennessee's Auto Club, worked tirelessly for years - - through testimony, press conferences, and coalition building - - to persuade legislators to pass a graduated license law in Tennessee. In Texas, under the leadership of Ann O'Ryan, AAA persuaded the Texas legislature to do the same, and, in Nevada, AAA's Lisa Foster's constant advocacy put it over the top there also.

As many of you know, graduated licensing is one of the Safety Board's "Most Wanted" recommendations. Together, we can focus our efforts and persuade those remaining states of the value of graduated licensing. As in the past, the Safety Board is eager to work with you.

Indeed, strengthening highway safety is a shared destination.

I want to congratulate you again on your 100th birthday. I am confident that the next 100 years will witness the same great strides in transportation safety that defined this past century.

Thank you.