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Remarks at the National Bike Summit, Washington, DC
T. Bella Dinh-Zarr, PhD, MPH
Washington, DC

​Good morning!  It is an honor to be here today at the 19th Annual National Bike Summit with all of you who have been working so effectively over the past two decades, and even longer, to raise awareness of the importance, the many possibilities, and the positive effect of bicycles on our transportation system and on our lives.  Today, at this time in our country‘s history, your work is more important than ever.  I am here today with my colleague, Dr. Ivan Cheung, to tell you more about the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) in hopes that you will call on us, so we can work together on our common goal of ensuring that everyone who rides a bicycle will return home safely.

This is my bike and I love it.  It is not fancy, a single speed, and I am not particularly fast (unlike Ivan), but it gets me to most places where I want to go - to work, to the metro, to museums and concerts with my family, and to the grocery store.  My husband has biked all his life and my son has been riding a two-wheeler with us since he was three years old.  Although I really began riding my bicycle frequently about a decade ago, do you know how I first heard about the effective advocacy of cyclists like yourselves?  It was many years ago when I was a public health student in Houston, Texas.  I was driving my large red pickup truck near Rice University when I saw a group of bicyclists from the Houston Area Bicycle Association, now called BikeHouston, including local businesswoman Regina Garcia whom some of you may know.  They were holding signs noting the anniversary of the first person killed by a motor vehicle, who happened to be a pedestrian.  They were a small group, but they certainly made an impression on me because of their unique and, yes, fun event at Mecom Fountain where everyone driving by could see them.  I have been a believer in the power of advocacy from the bicycle community ever since!

At the NTSB, we are charged with investigating every civil aviation accident and significant accidents in other modes - highway, rail, pipeline, and marine.  We also assist victims and their families.  Our investigations are conducted so that we can make safety recommendations to prevent future tragedies.

Even though road safety is an important part of our mandate, you probably are most familiar with us at the scene of an aviation crash, or a maritime disaster, or most recently, train derailments.  Sometimes you will hear about pipeline spills or a bus crash.  We are on call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and currently, there are three board members, with two slots open, so we are on duty every three weeks.  Nevertheless, even when we are not on accident launches, we are at work holding public board meetings or working behind the scenes to analyze evidence, test materials, and seek ways to advance our safety recommendations as fast as we can.

You see, the NTSB is a non-regulatory agency so our safety recommendations are just that, recommendations that we urge diverse groups to complete.  We are a truly independent federal agency, so we do not report to anyone.  Fortunately, we are viewed by most as wearing the “white hats” and about 80% of our recommendations are completed acceptably.

Every couple of years, we issue our “Most Wanted List” of transportation safety priorities, which are some, but not all, of the issues that we hope to move forward.  Although bicycle safety does not appear as its own category, as an agency - and certainly for Ivan and myself - we are always on the lookout for ways to incorporate the safety of cyclists into our work.

We do this even with NTSB products that, at first glance, may not seem relevant.  For example, the single unit truck study may not bring cyclists to mind at first, but we ended up with two recommendations that could have a very positive effect on the safety of people who ride bikes.  These two recommendations require these trucks to install approved equipment to enhance visibility in blind spots where bicycles often are struck.  We found there had been 193 deaths in a five-year period where a truck hit a cyclist, usually in a blind spot.  We also found that addressing these blind spots was both possible and necessary.  This could be done through simple equipment such as enhanced mirrors or more advanced equipment such as cameras and automatic braking.  Currently, both of these safety recommendations are classified as “Open” but “Unacceptable”.

Later this morning, you will be hearing from Ivan about our recent study on speeding and since he is one of the main authors, I will leave that to him.  Instead, I would like to discuss the crash that occurred in Michigan on June 7, 2016, where five people died and four were seriously injured while riding their bikes.  I think you already know the terrible circumstances, but our investigation has documented these nine cyclists were traveling legally, in a single file, on the paved outside shoulder and they were equipped with safety features such as reflective material, reflectors, flashers, helmets, and high visibility clothing.  In other words, they were doing everything right.  Nevertheless, they were all struck, and killed or injured, by a driver who was impaired on a variety of substances.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) cites over 800 deaths and 45,000 injuries for bicyclists annually, while the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) cites over 1000 deaths and over 400,000 injuries.  Although numbers may differ from these two reputable sources, either set of numbers is far too many and, I should mention, these deaths are as many as occur in some other entire modes of transportation.

That is why all of you are here today and why you do the work that you do.  I know you advocate very effectively for bicycle-specific issues, but I also am here to urge you to consider championing other transportation issues that also affect bicyclists.

I mentioned that my background is in injury prevention and public health.  Well, in public health, we often say that what is good for the most vulnerable populations is good for everyone.  For example, a vaccination program that will reduce the risk of death among children and older people also will help reduce illness among the general population.

In transportation, the reverse can also be true.  What is good for everyone can be good for vulnerable road users, if we are thoughtful about it.  What is good for everyone can be, in many cases, very good for bicyclists.  So these areas present opportunities where you can make a difference, to benefit both our fellow cyclists and everyone else on the road.

Here is just one example: 10,000. That is the number people who die in alcohol-related crashes every year.  We know that approximately 1/3 of bicycle deaths involve either a driver or a cyclist or both who is impaired by alcohol.  As bicyclists, we have a unique camaraderie that I love.  How many of you have had a flat tire or simply a loose chain and experienced other cyclists stopping to help or just to ask if you are OK?  Because of that camaraderie, cyclists have a unique and powerful voice.

We can and must use that voice to advance safety, both for specific bicycle issues but, I hope, also for other general road safety issues.  The NTSB is here, ready to assist.  We have products such as investigative reports and our Reaching Zero report with recommendations.  We provide solid scientific evidence, we testify, and we write op eds.

We also could use your help.  Although we do wear the “white hats”, we are also attacked, in this case by uninformed opponents of drunk driving laws, who have plenty of money to place full page false newspaper ads.  Yet, despite spending lots of money, these opponents of safety are no match for advocates like you.  In fact, in Utah, when opponents said that a .05 BAC (Blood Alcohol Concentration) law would hurt tourism and the restaurant business, some bicyclists wrote to the Governor to urge him not to veto the .05 bill.  They said that they take bike tours through Utah, they eat at restaurants, they stay in hotels, and they did not want to be killed by a drunk driver.  They successfully re-iterated the concept of separating drinking and driving.  Bicyclists are an unexpected constituency for preventing drunk driving and, sometimes, as I remember from that long ago day seeing BikeHouston near Rice University, it takes unexpected advocates to say something interesting in order for legislators, the media, and the public to take notice.  Unexpected advocates add interest, life, and depth to an issue – you reframe an issue – and, as a bonus, you will make connections that will help you in your bicycle efforts.  The example I gave is about drunk driving, but you would be unexpected, and effective, advocates for many issues -- such as better road infrastructure and distraction and speeding.  By the way, last year, Utah did become the first state in our nation to pass the .05 BAC law.

Most times, as many of you well know, it is a long and seemingly endless effort to advocate for an important safety issue.  Nevertheless, cyclists tend to be persistent and tough!  You are not bashful.  At the NTSB, we greatly appreciate your dedication and your work.  So remember, at the NTSB we stand ready – and many of us stand ready with the bikes we take to work every day - to assist, if you ask.  You have immense power to help make our roads safer for everyone.

Thank you and we look forward to working with you.