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Speeches

Remarks at the 2017 Georgia Governor’s Highway Safety Conference
T. Bella Dinh-Zarr, PhD, MPH
Savannah, GA
8/23/2017

Good morning!  Thank you, Harris [Blackwood], for that kind introduction.  I always enjoy hearing Harris talk – not only because I know it will be something smart and funny, but also because his concern for people – on the roads and everywhere - always shines through.
 
I am very honored to be here with all of you today at the Georgia Highway Safety Conference.  I am from Galveston, Texas, originally, but Georgia has a special place in my heart. It is because of friends like Jennie Glasgow, who has known me for many years, and has been such a role model, but it also is because I often came to your beautiful state when I was in school -- to study at the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] about ways to prevent injuries. 
  
I am happy to be here in Savannah – such a beautiful and historical city.  Like Jennie, I love history and I am very patriotic.  I love history because I know we can learn so much from it.  Since my son started 4th grade yesterday, my husband and I took him this weekend to see Fort McHenry as a final summer outing with some cousins.  In 1814, during the War of 1812, Francis Scott Key was inspired to write The Star Spangled Banner when he saw the American flag (with fewer stars then) waving above Fort McHenry after 25 hours of fighting between American troops and the powerful British navy.  I was very pleased to see this map during the educational film at Fort McHenry, showing the 13 original colonies with Georgia, and specifically Savannah, prominently displayed.  Georgia is a place steeped in history and it is a pleasure to be here today representing the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).
 
The NTSB’s history is not nearly as long as the history of your great state, but we do celebrate 50 years of service this year.  I am joined by one of our experts from the NTSB Office of Research & Engineering, Dr. Ivan Cheung, who has authored several safety studies, including our recent study on speeding.
 
Today, I first would like to give you a brief overview of the NTSB so you know us a little better,  learn about our values, and, I hope, you will call on us if we can ever be of help.  Then I would like to discuss our Most Wanted List, and some of our other work in hopes that we can find ways to work together to save lives. I hope you will talk with me or with Ivan – who is always on the lookout for a good safety study topic.
 
The NTSB is a unique federal agency in the United States [U.S.] because we are independent of all other government agencies and we are charged with investigating transportation accidents.  You may hear about us most often when we rush to the scene of disasters all over the country during a Go Team Launch.  I dressed up for you today, but at the scene of an accident, we wear our trademark dark blue uniforms with our logo and large yellow letters spelling out NTSB on the back.   During my time at the NTSB, I have been to launches in Philadelphia and Hoboken for train accidents; to Akron for a business jet that crashed into an apartment building; to Jacksonville for a cargo ship lost in Hurricane Joaquin, among others.  As you know, our teams have been to airplane, hazardous materials, and rail investigations right here in Georgia.  Wherever there has been an accident, we get there as fast as we can so we can collect data before it disappears.  As one doctor I know says, we are like infectious disease outbreak investigation teams, except what we are investigating is an outbreak of kinetic energy instead of a disease.  We get as much information as we can to make recommendations to prevent the next “outbreak.”  For those of you who are part of law enforcement and other first responders – thank you.  We could not do it without you because you help us secure the accident scene and assist victims and their families.
 
Those on-scene investigations are an important part of our work – that is why we are on call 24-hours a day, 365 days a year.  Once we have finished our on-scene work, our work continues back at our state-of-the-art labs.  The final result of an investigation is a very thorough report covering every aspect of an accident and including a probable cause and safety recommendations designed to prevent that type of accident from happening again.
Before I get any disapproving looks, yes, I used the word “accident”.  Although the term “accident” is now not used in highway safety, we still use the term for our other investigations because, under the federal statute that created the NTSB, we are charged by Congress with investigating every civil aviation accident – as well as significant accidents in other modes.  Accident is a term of art in aviation.  It also underscores the fact that we investigate unintentional occurrences – we leave the criminal investigations to the FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigations).
 
People do not talk about values very much these days, but it is our values at the NTSB that set us apart and help us advance our safety mission.  Some of our most deeply held values are independence, credibility, and transparency.
 
Independence
 
We are an independent agency and we have five independent board members, like myself, who are nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate for a certain term of office, so our terms are not tied to Administrations or elections.  We do not report to anyone – not the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) or any other federal agency – so we can make recommendations to anyone.  We always perform our analyses alone - completely independent of any other agencies and organizations.
 
Credibility
 
Unlike many government agencies, the NTSB does not have regulatory authority so it is our reputation that allows us to advance safety recommendations. We maintain our credibility by conducting very thorough investigations that touch on every single aspect of an accident from engineering to human performance to the weather. 
 
Transparency
 
As for transparency, all of our meetings and deliberations are done in the public eye under the Government in the Sunshine Act, so they are open to the public as well as webcast online.  As you can see if you watch our televised meetings, as Board Members, we sometimes do not agree – but that is part of the beauty and strength of the NTSB.  We debate publicly, not for any political gain, but in order to come to the best resolution for the sake of safety.
 
Board Members like myself are not political in the traditional sense, but by law, NTSB is bipartisan since no more than 3 of the 5 board members can be nominated by the same party – but we never let politics get in the way of safety.  This philosophy of collegiality for the sake of a good cause is strong among the current NTSB Board Members and we all fiercely protect our values of independence, credibility, and transparency.
 
Highway Safety
 
Our goal at the NTSB is to help people get around safely, no matter what type of transportation you use.  You will see us at the scene of transportation disasters of all types - aviation, maritime, rail, and pipeline and hazardous materials disasters.  But I never forget that every year, year in and year out, more people die on the roads than in all other modes combined. We know that 35,000 people die on our roads here in the United States.  As someone trained in public health, I think we might call this a public health epidemic.  We might even call it “an epidemic on wheels.”  
 
As in all our investigations, our highway investigations are very in-depth and careful, covering everything from human performance to crashworthiness to emergency response to the weather.
  
Ultimately, our work results in products that contain recommendations to advance safety including reports, safety studies, and special investigative reports. We deliberate, we make decisions, and by-law we vote on all items in public, during our sunshine meetings.  Also, we are so transparent that you will never see more than 2 Board Members together at a time discussing an investigation unless we are doing so publicly and it is televised!  Federal agencies, states, and territories have used our recommendations to make progress on issues such as: airbags, impaired driving laws, seat belt laws, school bus design, motorcycle helmet laws, safety barriers in road design, or setting standards for signage, to name a few.
 
Although we have no regulatory authority, our good reputation has enabled us to successfully set and track targets for the benefit of safety. We have issued over 14,000 safety recommendations to over 2,300 recipients over the years – and in all modes of transportation.  Also, about 80% of our recommendations have been adopted.  Although we have a good track record of having our recommendations adopted, we do not give up on targets that are not achieved.  Some recommendations take years or even decades, especially if they must pass individually in all 50 states.  We are sometimes criticized, even vilified, for our efforts.  But that does not stop us.
 
Most Wanted List
 
One of our tools is the NTSB’s Most Wanted List.   For over 25 years, the NTSB has chosen ten issues - covering all modes of transportation - that represent safety challenges; challenges which have a strong chance of being advanced if given some good hard pushes.  This year, 7 of the 10 issue areas we selected are related to motor vehicle safety. These areas include:  Impaired Driving, Occupant Protection, Data Recorders in Vehicles, Crash Avoidance Systems, Distracted Driving, Medical Fitness for Duty, and Fatigue. 
 
Today I would like to talk about some areas where Georgia and NTSB priorities overlap and, not surprisingly, our goals match up in many ways.  We cannot talk about all the topics today but four of them jumped out at me on the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety Website: Alcohol-Impaired Driving, Occupant Protection, Pedestrians, and Speeding.  I appreciated the presentation and comments I heard yesterday, such as the Administrative License Suspension session, which reminded me again of the important, but very difficult work law enforcement has to do, even off the streets in settings such as courtrooms.  First, I will talk about an Alcohol & Driving example because it illustrates how a state requested NTSB assistance.  Then I will touch briefly on the other 3 topics and share with you some of the new resources we have on them.
 
Impairment
 
At the NTSB, we also are sometimes criticized for our safety recommendations.  We are not criticized by the American public – who seem to understand our mission, at least based on the letters I have received - but rather, by groups that are misinformed and worry unnecessarily that they might lose profits if a safety recommendation is implemented.  Nowhere has that been more evident than with our recommendations related to impaired driving.
 
Ten thousand people.  That is how many people die every year due to alcohol-impaired driving in our nation.  The NTSB has made many different recommendations in this area.  We have recommended reducing the illegal per se BAC [blood alcohol concentration] limit for all drivers; conducting high-visibility enforcement of impaired driving laws; incorporating passive alcohol-sensing technology into enforcement efforts; expanding the use of in-vehicle devices to prevent operation by an impaired driver; and DUI [driving under the influence] courts and other programs to reduce recidivism by repeat DUI offenders.
 
We made all of these recommendations 4 years ago based on sound science as part of our Reaching Zero study, but we get the most criticism for our recommendation for states to reduce their illegal per se to .05 BAC or lower.  This is despite the fact that 100 countries around the world already have a .05 or lower BAC law and that there have been dozens of studies demonstrating that such a law would reduce the number of impaired driving crashes.  Harris may remember the last Governors Highway Safety Association meeting in Seattle where I said it is not a question of IF, it is a question of WHEN the first state would pass a lower BAC law.  I always try to be optimistic, but even I was a little surprised earlier this year when, against high odds and during a short legislative session of 45 days, the State of Utah passed the first .05 BAC law in the United States.  You may remember that Utah and Oregon passed the first .08 BAC law also.
 
How did it happen?  In part, because people in Utah requested safety information and the NTSB was able to provide it.  When Utah legislators reached out to me early on, we provided unbiased information and I testified in their state legislature.  For example, we told them that in countries with a .05 BAC law, people consume more alcohol per capita and yet were less likely to die from impaired driving.  We told them that a .05 BAC law is a broad deterrent that decreases the number of impaired drivers on the road at all BAC levels – high and low – so amazingly, it also reduces the number of high BAC drivers, who are involved in the most crashes, from getting behind the wheel.  We showed them studies demonstrating that even at a .05 BAC, people have problems with coordination, vision, and steering.  When people called me a prohibitionist, we told them that a .05 BAC law was not about drinking at all – it simply helps people to separate their drinking from their driving.
 
Utah made the right decision.  They passed the law despite opponents using scare tactics and spreading misinformation through expensive full-page ads in many newspapers. These ads contradict information from NHTSA [National Highway Traffic Safety Administration] and the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], and many other sources. Recently the ads have become more rude as well, insulting the Utah Governor and Utah legislators publishing their photos and saying that if Utah wants to take people, who are drinking, off the road, they should also take drivers over the age of 65 off the road.  Utah is being barraged with these types of false, fearmongering, and now just plain rude ads because opponents want the law repealed before it has even been enacted.  So far, Utah is holding strong.
 
I know that laws are not easy to pass, much less a .05 BAC law.  I also know that every state is different with very different political realities, that YOU understand best, but I wanted to highlight this instance of Utah requesting information from the NTSB as a recent example of when our work can be most effective, when we are providing information about a safety recommendation to a state – at your request – so you can take action to save lives.  It demonstrates the NTSB’s ability to be agile and respond quickly and accurately to these types of requests for the benefit of safety.  I think it also demonstrates our dedication to a good cause even when opponents launch attacks against us.  We are not here to engage these misguided opponents of safety in a public fight (as much as I love a good fight for a good cause).  The NTSB is here – as an objective source -  to provide solid, accurate, independent safety information for people, people like you, to make informed decisions for your state.
 
Moving on…A decade or two ago, many issues we face today did not exist, or at least were not as widespread – autonomous vehicles, distracted driving, marijuana legalization and its effect on driving, the opioid epidemic, the unpredictable effects of synthetic drugs.  Many of these issues are intuitively risky and dangerous, and many of you come face to face with them every day in your work, but the hard part is to objectively identify and measure these new or emerging issues.  Unlike alcohol, where the measurements are established and the effects are well known, distraction and drugs – very important concerns – are still being studied.  This will be a challenge that all of us will face – but the NTSB does have some recommendations on these issues that might help you and we are keeping a sharp eye on these emerging issues. 
 
Occupant Protection
 
Nevertheless, to go back to basics, no matter what the risky behavior, the one thing we can all do to reduce deaths and injuries is to increase occupant protection.  Wearing a seat belt is the one action that will protect us no matter what caused the crash. But this state seems already to have great champions who use creative ideas like Bee a Buckler and blessing car seats to raise awareness. I was surprised and impressed to see your Governor and First Lady in a commercial about occupant protection, and even more impressed to know that every State Trooper can put in a car seat!  In addition to our longstanding recommendations about occupant protection, last year, the NTSB hosted a Rear Seat Safety Workshop and you might find the information on our website useful.
 
Pedestrian Safety
 
We also hosted a Pedestrian Safety Forum with top experts speaking on diverse solutions – from infrastructure to vehicle design – to help keep these vulnerable road users safe.  We are now in the midst of our first-ever set of investigations into pedestrian fatalities.  It does pose a challenge for us, however, because pedestrian deaths usually do not generate large pieces of evidence that we are used to gathering such as you would find at the scene of plane crashes and train wrecks.
 
 
Speeding
 
Most recently, just this month, we published a study on speeding which focused primarily on passenger vehicles.  I know Georgia takes speeding seriously, having seen your Operation Southern Shield.  You can download our entire study online and, if you have any questions about the speeding study, please be sure to ask Ivan! 
 
 
At the NTSB, we make safety recommendations that are feasible and practical, and doable.  Yet, like your state priority issues, that does not mean they cannot also be inspiring and ambitious.  Our safety recommendations allow us to imagine what the world would be like if our work is as effective as it can be.  They allow us to imagine a world where no one dies because they were not properly restrained, a world where we know that our cars and our roads will protect us if we make a mistake, a world where no one gets behind the wheel when impaired by alcohol or drugs or distraction.  They allow us to imagine a world where we can send our loved ones to school or work and know that they will come home safely.
 
You are the traffic safety leaders in Georgia and you are shaping the future of transportation safety here.  You are doing something good and noble; helping people get to where they need to go, safely.  You are already doing so much in your daily work, as a law enforcement officer, first responder, researcher, advocate, engineer, volunteer, educator, or other traffic safety leader.  If you are here, you ARE a leader.  So please do not forget to tell YOUR STORY of safety, by explaining why safety belts save lives; why we need to separate drinking from driving; why we need to protect pedestrians… you can bring life to the cold hard facts, like Jenny Harty did with Madison’s Law.  It is sometimes difficult to fight an epidemic that happens every day, on roads across Georgia, one or two at a time.  But I know Georgians can do it - for impaired driving, occupant protection, speeding, pedestrian safety, and all the issues that are important to you.
 
I hope you will use NTSB’s safety information – created by capable experts like Ivan – as you work on saving lives and preventing injuries in Georgia.  All of the information on our investigations and recommendations - really everything we do -  is available on our website and I may even show up in person if you invite me.  Please come talk to Ivan and me, and get in touch with us anytime.  We look forward to hearing from you.
 
I love good quotes and, since I was at Fort McHenry this weekend with my family, I thought quotes from U.S. Presidents would be a fitting way to end.  Of course, since I am from Texas, I have to start with a Texan.  President Lyndon Baines Johnson said:
 
“There are no problems we cannot solve together, and very few that we can solve by ourselves.” - Lyndon B. Johnson
 
That is what you are doing here today – working together on a complex set of issues that will ultimately save lives.  It will take time and it will not be easy, but as another President and a great Georgian said:
 
“You can do what you have to do, and sometimes you can do it even better than you think you can.”  - Jimmy Carter

Also, President Carter understood the importance of highway safety, as you can see from this statement he sent out in 2011.
 
Because of NTSB’s detailed investigations, it may seem that our work is largely technical and mechanical, but like you, my 400 colleagues at the NTSB and I never forget that the true purpose of our work is to serve people.  So I would like to close with one of our Founding Fathers, President Thomas Jefferson, who said:
 
"The care of human life and happiness…is the first and only legitimate object of good government."  
 
I know that Harris and the Georgia Governor’s Highway Safety Office understands this, and for 50 years, at the NTSB, we have taken that mission to heart.  We stand ready now to solve the problem of traffic crashes together and, perhaps – as President Carter said - even do it better than we expected.  Thank you for all YOU do to make Georgia roads safe and it was certainly a privilege to be with all of you at this conference.