Skip Ribbon Commands
Skip to main content
Bookmark and Share this page


Remarks before the International Symposium on Distracted Driving, Arlington, VA
Mark V. Rosenker
International Symposium on Distracted Driving, Arlington, VA


Good afternoon, I’d like to begin with a thank you to the National Safety Council and Nationwide Insurance for organizing this symposium.  It is amazing that you were able to put together the symposium so quickly, but the important thing is that the symposium is so timely.

The NTSB mission

It is my privilege to serve as the Acting 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 just over 400 people, covering all modes of travel and responding to events across the country and many overseas.  With me here, today, is Kevin Quinlan, Chief of the Board’s Safety Advocacy Division, who you heard from earlier today in a panel presentation on legislation and laws.

Our annual budget is $79 million – I used to offer the comparison that our budget would fund the US DOT for less than 11 hours, but my favorite comparison now is that our budget is less than the bonus that Sirius Radio gave Howard Stern  — not his salary, just his bonus!  The Safety Board is a bargain! 

Last year, the Safety Board celebrated its 40th anniversary.  In those 40 years, we have investigated more than 128,000 aviation accidents and thousands of surface accidents, and we have issued more than 12,600 recommendations to improve transportation safety in all modes.  Over the past four decades, we have issued more than 2,100 highway safety recommendations.  More than 1,800 of them have been acted on — most of those led to safety improvements, such as improved protection for gas tanks on school buses, redesigned air bags, and a whole host of state highway safety laws that were implemented.  This includes laws on:  minimum drinking age, primary safety belt, child safety seat and booster seat use, graduated driver licensing with nighttime driving, teen passenger, and wireless communications restrictions, and many measures to reduce and prevent impaired driving.  But we have much more to do, and a long way to go.

California Rail Crash

Now I know this symposium is focused on highway safety.  But when I said the symposium is timely, I was specifically referring to a rail crash that highlights the distraction problem and specifically texting while operating a vehicle. 

On September 12, 2008, a Southern California Regional Rail Authority (Metrolink) passenger train collided head-on with a Union Pacific Railroad freight train in Chatsworth, California (near Los Angeles) killing 25 and injuring more than 130 people. 

Records obtained from the Metrolink engineer's cell phone provider showed that he sent 24 text messages and received 21 messages over a two-hour period during his morning shift; during his afternoon shift, he received seven and sent five messages.  He also sent a text message from his cell phone 22 seconds before his commuter train crashed.  Safety Board investigators are continuing to correlate times from the engineer’s cell phone, the train recorders and data from the railroad signal system.

On October 1, 2008, the Federal Railroad Administration issued Emergency Order No. 26 (E.O. 26), published in the Federal Register October 7, 2008, becoming effective October 27, 2008.  Basically, this order prohibits electronic device use by engineers and holds both engineers and railroads liable.  The emergency order will stay in effect until the Railroad Safety Advisory Committee formulates a final amendment to 49 CFR Part 220.

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 dying each day on our nation’s highways. Every day, 19,000 crashes occur on America’s highways. These crashes incur an enormous cost: $230 billion dollars a year — that equates to a hidden tax of $800 dollars per person each year.

The decreases in fatalities and injury rates leveled off in the past few years and stayed level until 2007. So, while we have accomplished much in the past decade to improve the crashworthiness of automobiles, we may have reached some practical limits in combating the physical forces involved in crashes. The auto industry is moving beyond crash mitigation and into a new era where technology will help us prevent accidents.

Safety Board Recommendations

As you probably know, the Safety Board is one of the many safety organizations to recognize the hazards of distractions to driving and to make recommendations to prevent crashes involving distracted driving.  For example, the Board addressed operator fatigue in all transportation modes more than two decades ago and adopted a number of seminal reports on fatigue in commercial transportation.  Fatigue in commercial transportation is a significant problem, but one which is subject to education, regulation, and enforcement.  We are learning more about fatigue in the general driving population.  As we learn more, countermeasures will be developed that can be evaluated.

In addition to our work in operator fatigue, the Board also investigated crashes involving distracted driving including teen passengers riding with teen drivers and cell phone use.  We use the term “wireless communications devices” to cover a larger potential problem than cell phones alone. The list of potential distractions to safe driving is long indeed.  AAA listed 13 separate groups of distractions of which cell phone use was only one.  The Safety Board has investigated six crashes in which distraction played a major role in crash causation.  Three of those crashes involved school bus drivers, one involved a charter bus driver with student passengers, and two involved young and inexperienced drivers. 

To date, we have focused our recommendations on teen passengers in cars driven by novice teen drivers which we issued in 2002, on wireless communications use by young drivers which we issued in 2003, and by commercial operators with a passenger endorsement which we issued in 2006.  Our Board Members and Advocacy staff have been promoting adoption of State laws to promote safe driving by implementing these restrictions.  You heard this morning that there has been substantial activity on these measures.  I know there are many more distractions to safe driving.

The two crashes we investigated that are most germane both occurred in the national capital region. 

Largo, Maryland Novice Driver Crash

In 2002, on I-95/495, near Largo, Maryland, a young and inexperienced driver, driving an unfamiliar high center of gravity/short wheelbase vehicle, talking on a hand-held cellular telephone and traveling above the speed limit veered off the left side of the roadway, climbed a guardrail, flipped over and landed on top of a minivan.  A Jeep Grand Cherokee then ran into the minivan.  Five adults died, one adult in the Jeep sustained minor injuries and her two children were uninjured.  The Board concluded at that time that current State laws are inadequate to protect young, novice drivers from wireless electronic distractions that can lead to crashes.  The Board recommended that States enact legislation to prohibit holders of learner’s permits and intermediate licenses from using interactive wireless communication devices while driving.  This recommendation is on the Board’s list of Most Wanted safety improvements.

Alexandria, Virginia Bus Crash

On November 14, 2004, a 44-year-old bus driver was operating a bus southbound in the right lane of the George Washington Memorial Parkway in Alexandria, Virginia, at a recorded speed of approximately 46 mph. As the bus approached the Alexandria Avenue bridge, the bus driver passed warning signs indicating that the bridge had a 10-foot, 2-inch clearance in the right lane. Nonetheless, the driver remained in the right lane and drove the 12-foot-high bus under the bridge, colliding with the underside and side of the overpass. At the time of the crash, the 13-foot, 4-inch-high left lane was available to the bus. Witnesses and the bus driver himself reported that the bus driver was talking on a hands-free cellular telephone at the time of the crash.  Of the 27 student passengers, 10 received minor injuries and 1 sustained serious injuries. The bus driver and chaperone were uninjured.

The Safety Board determined that the probable cause of this accident was the bus driver’s failure to notice and respond to posted low-clearance warning signs and to the bridge, itself, due to cognitive distraction resulting from conversing on a hands-free cellular telephone while driving.

So, from these two major investigations conducted by the Safety Board, it is clear that novice drivers who are learning how to drive and gaining experience in traffic should not be using any wireless device while driving.  Further, commercial operators that carry passengers, including school-bus drivers, should be prohibited from using wireless communications devices while driving.

I’d like to note that we do not differentiate between hand-held and hands-free devices.  The evidence is that they produce similar performance degradation.  We are similarly concerned about text messaging while operating a vehicle.  That’s why we use the term wireless communications device and recommend that States use that more expansive definition when adopting laws restricting use by novice drivers and CDL drivers that carry passengers.

At this time, that’s where the recommendations stop.  We believe that laws and regulations with appropriate education, oversight, and enforcement will have the desired effect.  But more needs to be known about both distractions to safe driving and measures that will work to promote safe, undistracted driving, and prevent crashes.

This symposium will add to the state of knowledge on driver distractions and I look forward to the proceedings document. 


The next frontier is preventing crashes and reducing injuries with enhanced vehicle safety technology. An intelligent vehicle traveling in an intelligent transportation system holds great promise in preventing crashes rather than mitigating crashes once they occur. 

We are seeing this technology in cars today. In fact, I believe the 21st century is all about technology. I can't think of any other set of technologies that holds as much potential for improving motor vehicle safety as collision warning and adaptive cruise control systems.

For many elements of distracted driving, there may be safety technology that will solve the problem.  So for the rest of my time, I want to focus our attention on the safety technology for crash avoidance.

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.

Manufacturers and researchers are also investigating and developing devices to ensure that an impaired driver can’t start or continue driving a car if impaired by alcohol.  Similarly, devices to detect fatigue are being explored so that a fatigued driver can be given a sensory warning.


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.

While I am enthusiastic about high tech safety advances, our Most Wanted List also calls for other important highway safety improvements.  We need to keep our focus on behavioral issues.

In this country, highway safety laws are the responsibility of individual states.  So, our Most Wanted List also targets state legislatures. We want every state to improve their impaired driving laws and to have laws requiring booster seats for young children up to age 8, and primary seat belt laws to increase the number of people who wear seat belts.  We urge all states to enact graduated driver licensing legislation that teach teens to drive gradually, restrict the number of teen passengers traveling with young novice drivers, and prohibit use of wireless communications devices by young novice drivers.

Our Challenge

I fully expect that the Safety Board will be an active participant in understanding the implications of advanced highway technology.  But in the end, we recognize that the driver must take responsibility.  OUR job is to give drivers the tools they need to make the most of that responsibility.

As I mentioned earlier, we have a long way to go, but the goals are attainable if we work hard.  I applaud what you are doing here at this symposium. Thank you again for the opportunity to speak to you today.

News & Events