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Remarks Before the 68th Annual Conference, National Foundation for Women Legislators, Avon, CO
Robert L. Sumwalt
Avon, CO

Six years ago I was attending a conference about to make a speech to a large audience at a Florida resort. As I often do before speaking, I was in my hotel room reviewing my speech when the phone rang. It was my wife and she was trying to tell me something, but because she was very upset and crying I was having difficulty understanding her. As the conversation unfolded, I learned that the only child of very good friends had been killed in an automobile accident.

Unfortunately, I suspect that everyone in this room has a similar story about someone we know and love dying in a traffic crash. Unfortunately, it is not an uncommon event.

  • Last year, 43,443 people died on our nation’s roadways. 16,885 of those were alcohol-related.
  • Last year, nearly 6000 teens lost their lives on our roadways.

As a parent, I am concerned. As a citizen I am concerned. As Vice Chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, I am concerned.

Improving safety on our nation’s roadways must become a political and social priority.

You probably know the National Transportation Safety Board as agency that investigates aircraft accidents. But many people do not realize that we are involved with all modes of transportation, including highway, railroad, pipeline and marine accidents.

In addition to conducting accident investigations and safety studies, we also have safety advocacy initiatives where we work with legislators and agencies across the country to advance legislation aimed at improving transportation safety. Since you are in a position to enact such legislation, I’d like to share with you some of our initiatives regarding improving highway safety.

Each of these are on the NTSB’s “Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements.” These methods are proven to save lives and reduce injuries.

There are four areas that I will briefly discuss.

Graduated Driver Licensing

Brett Karlin was 18 years old when he died of massive head injuries sustained in a 2004 Illinois a car crash. Like this tragedy and thousands more, traffic crashes are the leading cause of death among teenagers - more than suicides or drugs. They account for 40 percent of all deaths among 15-20 year olds. Further, young drivers crash at significantly higher rates than other ages.

We need to provide the safest possible environment for young, inexperienced drivers to learn to drive.

T o do this, the Safety Board has recommended that the States implement a comprehensive Graduated Driver Licensing system.

  • The model program requires young novice drivers to proceed through three stages:
  • a learner’s permit
  • an intermediate or provisional license
  • a full license.

The idea is very simple - we place protective restrictions on these young, inexperienced drivers as they gain needed experience.

Recommended restrictions include:

  • a nighttime driving restriction
  • a restriction to the number of passengers they can have
  • a wireless communications device restriction for beginner drivers.

Virtually every State has strengthened its driver licensing system in the past 10 years.

Today, there are only 3 States that do not have 3-stage systems.

But, of the remaining 47 that states that do have GDL, in spite of good intentions, the laws of many state systems have significant gaps.

Graduated licensing makes a difference. A conservative estimate is that by implementing strong GDL programs, you will reduce teen driver fatalities by at least 20 percent. How can anyone argue with that?


Since the early 1980s, when MADD and other groups aroused public attention, the rate of impaired driving fatalities dropped significantly. It is no longer socially acceptable to drink and drive.

Virtually every State and Congress courageously approved a variety of measures to address the problem. But, progress has stalled in past 10 years

About 40 percent of highway deaths nationwide continue to be alcohol-related.

I come from an aviation background so for comparison purposes, let me share an interesting statistic. In the entire 46-year history of US commercial jet aviation, there have been approximately 5700 fatalities involving US-operated airline jets (excluding terrorists activities.) Well, as unfortunate as these deaths are, DWI claims that amount of victims every four months!

The Safety Board is particularly concerned with hard core drinking drivers. These drivers are involved in more than half of all alcohol-related fatalities. A hard core drinking driver is one who:

  • drives with a blood alcohol concentration of 0.15 percent or greater, or
  • is arrested or convicted of driving while intoxicated within 10 years of a prior DWI conviction.

Many impaired drivers persist in their behavior because they believe that they will not be caught and/or convicted. Unfortunately, that perception is based on reality. On average, an individual makes about 1,000 drinking driving trips before being arrested.

How can you help? Create a system to intervene effectively with DWI offenders the very first time they are arrested.

The problem of hard core drinking drivers is complex. There is no “silver bullet.”

Our model program contains several elements and in the interest of time, I won’t go into them. But, we will be glad to discuss these ideas with you individually after lunch and they are listed on our web site on our MOST WANTED LIST.

Primary seat belt enforcement

The single greatest defense against highway fatalities is for each person to wear a seat belt. When used properly, seat belts reduce the risk of fatal injury to front seat vehicle occupants by 45 percent.

Unfortunately, seat belt use in the United States remains considerably lower than seat belt use in other industrialized nations.

Although 49 States require motor vehicle occupants to use seat belts, 25 States allow only secondary enforcement of their seat belt laws. As you know, secondary enforcement means that police officers cannot issue a citation for a seat belt violation unless the vehicle has been stopped for another reason.

Primary enforcement costs nothing, but will save much. Last year, more than 5,300 lives and billions of dollars might have been saved if everyone had used a seat belt.

States that have recently enacted primary enforcement laws have experienced substantial increases in seat belt usage.

Primary enforcement probably has the potential to save more lives than any other piece of legislation you will consider next year.

Child Passenger Safety

We mentioned that traffic crashes are the leading cause of death for teenagers. Well, it is also the leading cause of death for our young children. This is because young children are often either unrestrained or restrained in inappropriate restraint devices such as adult seat belts.

In the past decade, more than 3,000 unrestrained or improperly restrained children 4 to 8 years old have died in motor vehicle crashes.

Because seat belts are designed to protect adults, they do not provide sufficient protection for children.

When children use booster seats, the odds of injury are 59 percent lower than when children use only seat belts. Yet, a recent survey conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration revealed that nearly 80 percent of 4 to 8 year olds had never traveled in a booster seat.

Requiring booster seat use will save lives and reduce serious injuries for our young children – our future leaders.


We have shown four initiatives that you can take home with you to reduce injuries and fatalities on our roadways.

We are a resource for you as you work to enact these initiatives. We can provide you with briefing papers and background material. We can come to your state for testimony. We can help you prepare for a hearing. We are here to support you.

The NTSB is an investigative agency, not a regulatory agency. Our mission is to prevent accidents and reduce injuries through our investigations and recommendations.

But, the real heroes are those who implement these recommendations. The real heroes in this effort are you, the legislators who work with us.

  • You are the ones who make transportation safety a reality.
  • You read our investigations, studies and recommendations.
  • You introduce the legislation.
  • You hold the hearing on the legislation and make your fellow legislators aware of the issues.
  • You work with your colleagues, the public and the executive branches to ensure passage of the legislation.
  • You are the ones who make transportation safer.
  • Quite simply, your actions save lives and reduce injuries.

And, by anyone’s definition, that would constitute being a hero.

Our Chairman Mark Rosenker wishes he could be here to personally thank you for your efforts.

I am honored to be here today. I appreciate your invitation to the Safety Board so that we can thank you and to recognize you as our heroes.

Thank you.