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Remarks Before the Governors Highway Safety Association, New Orleans, LA
Mark V. Rosenker
Governors Highway Safety Association, New Orleans, LA

On behalf of the National Transportation Safety Board, I am extremely pleased to have this opportunity to be in New Orleans to meet with you and share how this new Safety Board wants to assist and partner with you in your efforts to improve highway safety in your states.

For more than 36 years the NTSB has been serving as the conscience, if you will, of our nation's transportation community. We do this by investigating accidents and incidents, making recommendations to ensure that similar events don't recur, and providing safety oversight of the transportation industry and the regulatory agencies. We base our recommendations on facts science and data; not supposition, guesswork, or desire. We are also very proud of the fact that the Board has averaged an 82% acceptance rate of its recommendations - leading to numerous significant safety improvements resulting in fewer injuries and fatalities.

While we may be best known in the media for our investigation of airplane accidents, our federal charter covers all modes of transportation.

The NTSB is a little different today than it was just about 100 days ago. In March of this year, the United States Senate confirmed three new Board members at one time. This has never happened before. Normally, Members come to the Board over staggered one year periods. Chairman Ellen Engleman, Member Dick Healing, and I were all sworn in virtually at the same time. Each of us brings to the Safety Board a special expertise and diverse perspective. But of all of us share a deep commitment to highway safety and especially working with you as equal partners in making our highways safer.

Each Board Member has taken 10 States and each has adopted specific safety issue areas. My States are Alabama, Colorado, Georgia, Hawaii, Mississippi, Montana, North Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming. I also have American Samoa and Guam. My personal issue area is driver distraction. I am looking forward to meeting the Governor's Representatives in my states before I leave today, so please come up and say hello.

As I noted earlier, this Board wants to work with you and with others in your States as part of task forces, coalitions, or other groups that want to act on reducing highway fatalities, injuries and crashes. As Safety Board Members we will do whatever it takes to help close the safety recommendation loop. Just recently, Member Healing met with Dick Perkins, the Governor's Representative in Maine and Col. Sperry of the State Police to get their perspective on upcoming activity. He also met with Delaware DOT representatives on impaired driving issues. Chairman Engleman met with Vince Burgess the GR from Virginia to discuss how we can work together in Virginia.

Recognize that the Safety Board can bring something a little different to the table in addition to its national perspective; we are an effective bully pulpit, holding services daily and sharing our safety sermons. The fact is we made a bit of history this year. We did it in Illinois. We had three issues on our Most Wanted List enacted in one State in one year. Thanks to Senator John Cullerton, who championed the legislation, Illinois now has a primary seat belt enforcement law, a booster seat law, and a law restricting the number of teen passengers that can ride with a teen driver. Congratulations to Illinois. Their children, their teenagers, and everyone will be safer as a result.

Our Board Members are eagerly available to you, so let us know if we can help you. Feel free to call either Elaine Weinstein or Kevin Quinlan at the NTSB HQ: 202-314-6170 gets you to either one of them. I encourage you to let us know when you have meetings or conferences or testimony if you feel we can be of assistance in supporting your efforts.

At the first Board meeting of the three new Board Members, we asked the staff to do a 30-day review of our national advocacy program to determine if there were things that we could do differently to be more effective in closing the safety loop on our open recommendations. On behalf of Chairman Engleman and the other Board Members, I am pleased to announce that the ping pong exchange of letters between the Safety Board and your Governor is ending, effective today!

As of today, when we complete a report with new recommendations to the States, we will send only the original recommendation letter and the report to the Governor's office and to you. Thereafter, we will communicate directly with you until the action is complete and the recommendation is closed. We only ask for an annual update.

Let me move now to the theme of this meeting - which is Risks, Remedies, and Reauthorization. I would like to tell you where the Safety Board sees the risks and the remedies by describing a few of our recent crash investigations.

Driver Distraction
The first issue I want to discuss pertains to driver distraction. The Board investigated a crash near Largo, Maryland where a Ford Explorer traveling northbound on Interstate 495, at an estimated speed of 70 to 75 miles per hour, veered off the left side of the roadway, crossed over the median, climbed a guardrail, flipped over, and landed on top of a southbound Ford minivan. All 5 persons in both vehicles were killed.

The Safety Board's investigation found that the probable cause of the crash was the Explorer driver's failure to maintain control of her vehicle in windy conditions due to a combination of inexperience, unfamiliarity with the vehicle, speed, and distraction caused by the use of a wireless telephone.

The Board concluded that all drivers should be educated about the risks of distracted driving; including the cognitive demands associated with use of interactive communication devices. We recommended that driver education courses and manuals be updated to include warnings about the dangers of distracted driving.

Clearly, learning how to drive and getting comfortable in traffic requires all the concentration a novice driver can muster. As a result, we asked that States prohibit young novice drivers from using cell phones while driving.

We hope that you will seek to add these measures to your state's graduated driver licensing system and work to improve both driver distraction information and crash reporting.

15-Passenger van safety
The Board has also recently focused on the safety of 15-passenger vans. In the past 3 years, the Safety Board has investigated 11 accident involving 15-passenger vans. A total of 60 people were killed in these vans and 77 injured. These numbers are unacceptable. These accidents have involved a daycare center transporting children, church vans, a college sports team, farm workers, and a family. Let me describe one of those crashes to you.

On May 8, 2001, a 1993 15-passenger Dodge van with a driver and 11 passengers, all members of the First Assembly of God Church, was traveling on U.S. Route 82 near Henrietta, Texas, at approximately 67 miles per hour. The left rear tire blew out, causing the van to leave the roadway and roll over several times. The driver and three passengers died.

The Board found that safe operation of 15-passenger vans requires knowledge and a skill level different from and above that for passenger vehicles, particularly when the vans are fully loaded or drivers experience an emergency situation.

Currently, there are no special licensing or training requirements needed to operate a 15-passenger van. We think this needs to change. Drivers operating vehicles carrying more than 15 passengers are required to have Commercial Drivers Licenses that come with specialize training. We think that the States should establish a driver's license endorsement for operators of 15-passenger vans. We also asked the American Driver and Traffic Safety Education Association to work with NHTSA and others to establish standards that can be used by the States.

The Board has previously recommended that children not be transported in 15-passenger vans because school buses are built with extra safety features that 15-passenger vans do not have; this includes compartmentalization, roof rollover protection, and special safety devices, such as flashing lights, swing-out stop arms, emergency egress areas, fire extinguishers, the bright yellow color, etc.

Our recommendations address improvements in the design of these vans and in the training and licensing of the van operators.

Medical certification of drivers
Another area of risk that the Board has focused on involves crashes in which the driver's age and/or health have been an issue.

In March 2003, we held a public hearing on medical certification and licensing of non-commercial drivers so that we can understand the issue better. GHSA was a party to the hearing and we appreciated their participation. The implications on driving for individuals who have epilepsy, diabetes, sleep apnea, cardiovascular disease and Alzheimers were discussed at the hearing. Our report is examining how medically unqualified drivers are identified through enforcement, State licensing, and reports by medical personnel and what action is taken, if any, once a medical issue is identified. I hope you will invite us back next year to report on our findings.

Driver education
Driver education is another new issue the Board is reviewing. We will be holding a Public Forum on Driver Education and Training on October 28 and 29, 2003 in the NTSB Board Room in Washington, D.C. I hope representatives from the Governor's Highway Safety Association will join us at this forum.

The topic for the forum arose from a crash that occurred near Belgrade, Montana, on January 23, 2003. On that day, about 3:20 p.m., a 1997 Oldsmobile Achieva, operated by a 14-year-old student in the driver education program, was driving on a two-lane rural road that was wet with snow and slush. Also in the vehicle were two other students, ages 14 and 15, and the driver education instructor, age 49. They were all wearing seatbelts.

The Oldsmobile fishtailed, veered into the oncoming lane, and hit a tractor-trailer. All four occupants of the Oldsmobile were killed. The truckdriver, who was also wearing his seat belt, was not injured.

The purpose of the forum is to survey the history and current state of novice driver education and training - both classroom and hands-on, the extent to which it is used, and its quality and effectiveness. The forum will also explore the strengths and weaknesses in driver education and training and what can be done to improve it.

I have focused on some new highway safety issues that the Board is addressing, but we remain concerned and actively involved in many of the important issues that Dr. Runge mentioned. These are the issues on our "Most Wanted" list of safety improvements. They include reducing hard core drinking drivers, increasing booster seat use, and enacting strong graduated licensing provisions and passing more primary enforcement laws.

I concur with Dr. Runge that we have to reduce the incidence of drunk driving in this country. NTSB's focus is on the hard core drinking driver, those people who drive repeatedly intoxicated or have a high blood alcohol level on their first arrest. Nowhere is there research that says with the disease of alcoholism comes a compelling urge to drive a car. We need to get hard core drinking drivers off the road. To quote Mothers Against Drunk Driving "It is time to get MADD all over again." I am pleased to say that we have committed to work as a team with MADD and the Century Council over the next 12 months to push for stronger impaired driving legislation in the states.

Getting the hard core drinking driver off the road is one of the Board's top priorities! It was just added to our list of "Most Wanted" safety recommendations last month and it is Chairman Engleman's personal issue area.

With regard to children, we need to strengthen the existing laws so that children do not move into seat belts too early in their development. They belong in restraints that are appropriate for their age, height, and weight. The advocates in this audience have championed booster seat laws so far in 22 states and DC. We will be there with you to testify and support laws in the remaining states.

We must also be sure that children ride in the back seat and properly buckled up. On Wednesday in the NTSB Board room, we will be joining with the Air Bag and Seat Belt Safety Campaign, the National Safe Kids Coalition, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety to remind parents that even though there is new air bag technology on the market, the safest place for children is in the back seat. It is not often that you find a safety countermeasure where you can cut deaths and injuries to children by one-third by such simple means. But you can do that simply by moving children from the front seat to the back seat.

We also believe that implementing a comprehensive 3-stage graduated licensing system can save many young lives. Unfortunately, 15 states still don't have such a program. We need strong graduated license provisions including restrictions on the number of teen passengers, cell phone use, alcohol on board, nighttime driving, and mandatory seat belt use.

We need to be aggressive in our pursuit of safety - this includes primary enforcement requirements. The emotional toll resulting from people's decision not to buckle up is staggering! And so is the financial cost. We have to redouble our efforts to get primary seat belt laws passed.

To reduce the risks and accomplish the remedies, we need to work together. We are committed to working with you. That way, there will be fewer visits by police officers with tragic information for parents or spouses, fewer sad phone calls to relatives, friends and loved ones, and we can make a permanent change for the better for the next generation.

Thank you.