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Remarks at Media Day of the 2008 Washington Auto Show, Washington, DC
Mark V. Rosenker
Washington Auto Show, Washington, DC

Accident Prevention Through Technology


Good morning, I’d like to begin with a thank you to the Washington Area New Automobile Dealers Association for organizing today’s media event, and my hat goes off to WANADA for sponsoring tonight’s benefit fundraiser that will help our local charities do their good work.

The NTSB mission

It is my privilege to serve as the Chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), an independent Federal agency charged by Congress to investigate every civil aviation accident in the United States and to investigate significant accidents in other modes of transportation — highway, railroad, marine, and pipeline. The NTSB does not mandate or regulate — our mission is to determine an accident’s probable cause and make recommendations aimed at improving transportation safety. Our goal is to figure out WHAT happened and then, more importantly, WHY it happened so that we can work to prevent similar accidents in the future.

To perform this important service, the Safety Board draws on relatively limited resources. Our staff comprises fewer than 400 people, covering all modes of travel and responding to events across the country.

Highway Safety - History and the Numbers

There are many ways to measure safety, but no one can argue that the most important is in lives saved. The vast majority of transportation fatalities, in fact 95 %, occur on our nation’s highways. By comparison, we would have to have a commercial airline hull loss every day for aviation fatalities to match those of highway.

There are nearly 250 million vehicles registered in the United States and their operation results in 6 million police-reported crashes and more than 42,000 fatalities annually — that’s an average of 117 people dieing each day on our nation’s highways. For several decades, the number of fatalities has been dropping, and more importantly, the fatality rate—which considers an increasing number of miles traveled—has also been dropping. These improvements can be attributed to the use of seatbelts and child restraint systems; the development of airbags, antilock brakes, crash-absorbing vehicle frames; and campaigns to reduce drunk driving.

Unfortunately, the decreases in fatalities and injury rates have leveled off in the past few years. So, while we have accomplished much in the past decade to improve the crashworthiness of automobiles, we have reached some practical limits in combating the physical forces involved in crashes. In recognition, the auto industry is moving beyond crash mitigation and into a new era where technology will help us prevent accidents.

So this morning, I want to focus our attention on the safety technology for crash avoidance and the use of infrastructure telematics to better inform the driver about their vehicle and the highway.

Vehicle-Based Crash Avoidance Systems

Manufacturers offer an array of crash avoidance technology in many current car models. Vehicles with anti-lock brakes and electronic stability control are common, but we are also seeing market penetration of more advanced crash avoidance systems that target particular types of events. Rear-end crash warning systems, adaptive cruise control, and automatic braking systems are designed to prevent or at least mitigate the most common type of crash – rear end collisions. Lane departure avoidance systems and curve-speed warning systems are being developed to target the most fatal type of events – run-off-the-road accidents. For example, electronic stability control, required on all new vehicles by model year 2012, should significantly reduce loss of control crashes and resulting rollovers.

Let me offer a practical example of how vehicle technology is affecting safety. Every parent's nightmare is to back over a young child in the driveway. Nearly 200 fatalities and approximately 7000 such injuries were reported in ‘06, though that is surely only a fraction because many of these events occur on private property. Back-over avoidance systems are being marketed as “parking aids” using ultrasonic or radar technology to warn drivers as they approach an object. Initial evaluations indicate that camera-based systems offer the greatest potential, but driver use of these systems is still under evaluation.

Depending on the manufacturer, crash avoidance systems may combine a variety of technologies and go by many different names: dynamic stability control, automatic traction control, dynamic brake control, variable active steering, and computer active technology suspension, to name a few. Evaluating their effectiveness is complicated by differences in design and the selection of performance criteria.


In recognition of these technological advances, NHTSA is working to revise its New Car Assessment Program. NCAP tests new cars and ranks their crashworthiness using a 5-star rating system. For the '06 Model Year, 95% of new cars received a 4- or 5-star rating. With every car getting nearly the same score, the ratings don’t provide new car buyers with a clear measure for determining which car is the safest. On the other hand, the similarity of these scores DOES reflect a marked improvement in the crashworthiness of new cars. The Safety Board is encouraged that NHTSA is working to improve the NCAP rating system by factoring in crash avoidance technology. Since September, new car price stickers are required to display the NCAP star rating, and we think consumers will become even more likely to make safety a factor in their buying decisions.

Most Wanted List

In 2001, the Safety Board conducted a special investigation of technology to prevent rear end collisions and, as a result, asked NHTSA to complete rulemaking on performance standards for adaptive cruise control and collision warning systems. The Safety Board recently added that issue, preventing collisions using enhanced vehicle safety technology, to its List of Most Wanted Safety Improvements.

In addition to mitigating the number of fatalities and injuries, such technologies can provide a huge economic benefit. Every day, 19,000 crashes occur on America’s highways. These crashes incur an enormous cost: $230 billion dollars a year — that equates to $800 dollars per person. We can no longer be satisfied with trying to protect people who get into crashes. We must instead use the technology at our command to prevent crashes from happening.

Infrastructure Telematics

Telematics are wireless, location-based services for vehicles and drivers that trace their history back to the days when your neighborhood mechanic hooked into your engine diagnostics. Today, sophisticated technology provides not only on-board navigation and entertainment services but also the means to a higher level of safety. We’re all familiar with vehicle-based information systems like On Star (GM), Assist (BMW), and Link (Lexus) but research is well on its way to making road-based systems, vehicle-to-vehicle systems, and vehicle-to-infrastructure systems a viable means of promoting even greater roadway safety.

Vehicle-centered services, such as remote diagnostics, remote vehicle access, and automatic collision notification, are currently available on many cars. Survivability increases with quicker emergency response, which is directly related to this technology. For example, Broward County, Florida, has a severe incident response program that automatically notifies first responders. It is credited with saving 360 hours of on-scene emergency response time last year. In addition to coordinating first responders and traffic management equipment, such automatic crash notification systems can reduce the likelihood of pedestrian fatalities after an accident by keeping motorists from leaving their vehicles. It can also decrease the likelihood of secondary crashes by expediting the removal of disabled vehicles.

In addition to vehicle-based systems, road-based systems are being incorporated into our highway infrastructure. Vehicle Infrastructure Integration, a DOT initiative, will provide drivers with a sophisticated means for obtaining information about their vehicles and the road. What more do drivers need to know? How about location-specific weather conditions, route-specific road closures, and work zone status, to name a few? Specific weather and roadway information can be acquired directly from sensors that run beside or are embedded in the roadway, offering real-time information about fog, standing water, or freezing rain. Adverse weather is associated with 800,000 injuries and more than 7,000 fatalities annually. These systems may well be one way to reduce those numbers and improve highway safety.

One out of every four crashes occurs at roadway intersections. We have the capability to manage the traffic at those intersections by measuring an approaching vehicle’s estimated time of arrival, speed, and range in order to extend the green light to prevent collisions. For example, traffic monitoring systems like Traficon, which operate within the highway infrastructure, are available to detect stopped vehicles, wrong-way drivers, lost cargo, accidents, smoke and fire, and pedestrians.

Meanwhile, vehicle-and road-based data services will continue to mature. Already, commercial fleet operators use data communications to track truck locations, plan routes, and schedule maintenance. In the future, such transmissions will include vehicle software upgrades, malfunction and diagnostic reports, and the capability to order parts, and receive recall and service notifications. The price of these technologies is pushing telematics into the market place. Applications that emit and receive infrared pulses to detect range, sense rain, dim headlights, warn of impending lane departures, or monitor blind spots are at a price point for fleet-wide applications.

Vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure demonstrations are being conducted by Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) America. Satellite-connected operating systems offer ever-more-powerful services through audio and video streaming of traffic, weather, and parking information. These technologies hold great promise for providing drivers with a powerful set of tools for closely monitoring their vehicles, the weather, the roadway, and, in time, other vehicles as well.

I predict that we will eventually see basic connectivity for the life of the vehicle, working through a shared message handling utility on behalf of all manufacturers. Highway information that you and your car can access directly will eventually be as affordable and common as FM radio: the broadcast spectrum for this technology has been identified, and geostationary satellites and ground-based towers are planned for 2012 with limited rollout by 2009.

Aviation Comparison

Electronic devices and automated systems used in commercial aviation offer clear examples of how technology can improve our ability to operate in complex environments. With the introduction of electronic safety devices, we can trace the accident decline in commercial aviation. Beginning in the 1950s, radio navigation aids, radar, and ATC control technology dropped the number of accidents per year from 4 to 1. Further refinements came with long-range radar and precision approaches. The aviation industry has since implemented computerized flight management systems, windshear alert systems, ground proximity warning systems, and fly-by-wire electronic control of aircraft. We are now seeing real-time weather and traffic displays in the cockpit, precision landing systems for zero visibility conditions, hybrid vision, and remotely operated drones. Technological advances have made commercial aviation the safest mode of transportation and I believe similar technologies may enable us to repeat those successes in highway travel.

And while I do think that aviation offers an example of technology benefits to safety, distinct differences between drivers and pilots must be factored into the development of these technologies. Unlike private pilots, drivers receive minimal qualification training, no recurrent training, no medical evaluation, and their education and language skills vary widely. Drivers may be totally inexperienced in their vehicle type, may have conducted no trip planning, and may view driving as secondary to other personal activities in the car. Further, many drivers don’t take the time to understand their cars and how their own driving habits may affect their safety. Let’s face it: Americans by and large don’t even read their owners manuals. But manufacturers are taking steps to fill this need, using video pod casts, instructional DVDs, emails, and one-on-one training at the dealers. As the technology offered in cars evolves, manufacturers will be faced with evermore- difficult challenges in training drivers to take full advantage of system capabilities.


I am confident that highway automation will greatly improve safety, but I am not naïve about what it will take to see these benefits. We have to work to ensure that the safety promises of these systems become reality. System integration, for example, is an important consideration. Different manufacturers make antilock brakes, stability control systems, collision avoidance systems - and these systems must work in concert to avoid a variety of road hazards.

Developers of these technologies must consider how the systems will be used, where displays will be located, how much information is needed, what information has priority, when the systems should be active, how the systems interact, and how the systems should function in an emergency. Privacy is another issue that must be addressed for the public to embrace these technologies with enthusiasm. And in the end, it is the public, and their ability and willingness to make use of these systems, that will determine how effective they will be—and how soon.


Speeches & Testimony