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Remarks to the American Traffic Safety Services Association (ATSSA)’s Annual Meeting – Executive Session, San Antonio, Texas
T. Bella Dinh-Zarr, PhD, MPH
San Antonio, TX

​Good morning.  What a pleasure to be here at the ATSSA (American Traffic Safety Services Association) Annual Meeting in my home state of Texas.  I always have had great respect for ATSSA’s core focus on safety – and for your tireless and innovative work to advance road safety over the years.  Whenever I talk with Roger (Wentz) or Nate (Smith) or other ATSSA colleagues, or see your “Go Orange Day” photos, I can feel your enthusiasm for safety.  I enjoyed working with ATSSA in my previous job with an international road safety foundation as part of the UN Decade of Action for Road Safety.  Thank you for inviting me to speak here today as a Board Member of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).

Like many of you, I have been obsessed with safety – from the time I was driving my old red pickup truck here in Texas to flying around the world as part of my previous international job to now, when I often walk, bike, or take the train to work.  Like you, I know that we cannot have true mobility without having safe mobility.

Also, your work is integral to that.  By designing, manufacturing, and installing good signs, signals, and markings, and other traffic control devices, you help make our nation’s roads safer.  I know you feel good about working in an industry that contributes positively to our country and the world.

I, myself, feel privileged to be a part of the NTSB because we are an independent agency dedicated solely to safety.  Today, first, I would like tell you a little more about the NTSB – and then give you an update regarding three investigations that are relevant to your work.

We are independent of all other federal agencies and we are made up of 400 dedicated staff and five independent Board Members nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate for a certain term.  At the NTSB, we are on call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year to investigate accidents, assist the families of victims, and develop factual records and safety recommendations to make our transportation system safer.  Currently there are three Members on the Board (two spots are vacant), so Board Members like myself are “on call” every three weeks in case of a major transportation disaster.

Unlike many government agencies, my agency does not have regulatory authority.  We do not report to anyone, so we can make recommendations to anyone, such as the US Department of Transportation, state governments, associations, or private companies.

I have been at the NTSB for almost three years now and in that time, I have launched to the scene of transportation disasters around the country - New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Florida, Ohio, New Jersey, and most recently, the train derailment in Washington State - and the hardworking NTSB staff investigate accidents throughout the country almost every day.  I also am very proud of our lesser known work, which is coordinating assistance and information for survivors and the families of victims in the affected communities.

We also work on safety advocacy issues and one of our tools is NTSB's Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements which highlights safety-critical actions.  As you well know, road traffic deaths are the leading cause of death in all modes.  Our current Most Wanted List includes 7 areas related to road safety:

  • Fatigue
  • Collision Avoidance Technology
  • Occupant Protection
  • Distractions
  • Alcohol and Other Drug Impairment
  • Data Recorders, and
  • Medical Fitness for Duty

I should mention that Infrastructure Improvements also have been on past Most Wanted Lists.  Although these lists change over the years, at the NTSB, we always recognize the importance of good infrastructure to safety.


Before I get into the three investigations, I wanted to be sure you know of two projects we have recently completed or are about to complete.  We held a Pedestrian Safety Forum over a year ago and are now nearing the end of our first-ever investigation into a set of pedestrian fatalities.

We also just published a study this year on speeding.  You can download that entire study online and of course, please get in touch if you are seeking answers to any questions.


Safer roads, safer cars, and safer people – each is vital to reaching zero deaths, but we can never forget that good infrastructure forms the basic foundation for road safety.  At the NTSB, we never forget that we must have safe roads; roads that are forgiving of the mistakes that we, as humans, will make.  So now, I want to briefly describe three investigations that highlight the fact that forgiving roads can both prevent crashes AND help reduce death and injury should a crash occur.


I may have spoken with some of you before about one of our investigations that resulted in recommendations involving median cable barriers, a topic I know has been one that ATSSA has championed strongly and it bears covering again.

A few years ago, in Davis, OK, a truck-tractor semitrailer on I-35 crossed over an earthen median and crashed into a bus filled with members of a college women’s softball team.  Our investigation revealed that the truck driver was impaired on synthetic drugs, the occupants were not wearing their seatbelts, and there were no crashworthiness standards for that type of medium-size bus.  We also found that the Oklahoma Department of Transportation had done the right thing – they had conducted a risk assessment of that highway and were planning to install median barriers at that location, perhaps even within the year.  Median cable barriers might have prevented those four deaths and 13 injuries.  It was tragic that the median barriers could not save those college students, but they are there saving lives now, every day, as we speak, by preventing crossover crashes.  The NTSB reiterated four recommendations to FHWA (Federal Highway Administration) and AASHTO (American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials) regarding median cable barriers that we made in 2010 as the result of another crossover crash in Munfordville, Kentucky.  We asked them to work together to identify areas calling for special consideration when selecting barriers and to define criteria for those barriers.

These recommendations are currently classified as “Open – Acceptable Response” which means there is a planned action that would comply with our recommendations when completed.  In addition, as you may know, the Transportation Research Board (TRB) has started a project to develop guidelines for the selection and placement of TL-2, 3, 4, and 5 median barriers (NHCRP Project 22-31) which will address the four NTSB recommendations.  This work will not be easy, and it certainly is not glamourous, but it is the right and safe thing to do – and we appreciate FHWA, AASHTO, TRB, the States, and you for supporting our safety recommendations.  TRB expects to complete this project later this year.


In San Jose, CA, we examined the importance of proper highway signage last March in our investigation into a Greyhound bus crash.  Early one morning in January 2016, in darkness and with moderate-to-heavy rain, a bus entered a 990-foot-long unmarked gore area at the US-101 and State Route 85 (SR-85) interchange.  A crash attenuator with a missing retroreflective object marker was positioned at the end of the gore in advance of a concrete barrier. The bus collided with the crash attenuator and the concrete barrier, traveled another 65 feet, rolled 90 degrees, and came to rest on its right side atop the concrete barrier, straddling two lanes of traffic. Two passengers were ejected and died, and the driver and 13 passengers were injured. The probable cause of the crash was because the state did not properly delineate the crash attenuator and the gore area. Contributing to the crash were the bus driver’s error in entering the gore and the out-of-compliance signage. Because neither the gore nor the barrier was marked and overhead signage was not in compliance, the driver mistook the gore area for a lane and could not see the barrier.  This crash did not have to happen because the barrier that the bus hit should have been visible, even in the bad weather, but it was not.  Contributing to the severity of the injuries was the lack of passenger seat belt use.  NTSB made recommendations to both the FHWA and the State of California to revise their MUTCDs (Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices) to better delineate gore areas.  We also made a recommendation to the State of California to ensure their overhead signage complied with FHWA standards.


Most recently, in November 2017, the NTSB held a public board meeting about a 2016 crash in St. Mark’s, Florida, between a bus carrying agricultural workers and a truck-trailer at the US-98 intersection.  As a result of the collision and post-crash fire, the truck driver and three bus passengers died, including a child.  The bus driver and 29 passengers sustained injuries of varying severity.

This St. Mark’s report cites a 2010 study, conducted in Minnesota and Iowa (by Srinivasan, Baek, and Council), that found a 39% reduction in fatal and incapacitating injuries at intersections with transverse rumble strips.  Although there was a stop sign and overhead flashing traffic control beacons, an additional road design change, such as the installation of rumble strips, might have prevented or mitigated this terrible crash by alerting the bus driver.  Federal government agencies and highway organizations can, and should, foster these types of best practices in which jurisdictions take a systemic, data-driven approach to identifying locations that could benefit from roadway engineering countermeasures, in order to reduce intersection crashes.  Also, roadway intersection design is another area in which states, cities, and other jurisdictions can work to prevent deaths and injuries at a local level.

Our recommendation to ATSSA, and to other highway safety organizations, was to: inform your members of the prevalence of crashes at unsignalized intersections; encourage them to use a safe system approach that incorporates the systemic application of roadway engineering countermeasures; and increase their awareness of available resources, such as the Unsignalized Intersection Improvement Guide, to prevent intersection crashes like this one.

In public health, and increasingly in highway safety, it is widely acknowledged that interventions designed to protect the most vulnerable, at-risk populations often protect all people.  This St. Mark’s report focuses on an often-overlooked and at-risk population, agricultural workers, but our recommendations ultimately will help all travelers reach their destinations safely.

Each of the investigations I have described reminds me of the importance of what all of you do every day – implement safe infrastructure solutions as fast as possible, in order to save lives.  Like you, at the NTSB, we are committed to safe infrastructure, so we can prevent terrible crashes like the ones in Davis, OK, San Jose, CA, and St. Mark’s, FL, from ever happening again.

There is no doubt that NTSB’s safety recommendations must be feasible, they must be measurable, and they must be based on sound science, but that does not mean they also cannot be inspiring and ambitious.  Our safety recommendations ultimately must allow us to imagine what a safe world can and should be…much like ATSSA’s strategy of Toward Zero Deaths.

Industry leaders like you have powerful voices – you have and will continue to make a difference in safety.  I thank you for helping us to ensure that our safety recommendations are carefully considered and acted upon – safety recommendations related to your work in infrastructure, but also related to other issues that you and your colleagues and employees and their families may be interested in, such as preventing drinking and driving.

I love good quotes and, since we are here in Texas, I will end with a quote from 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

Thank you again for inviting me to speak.  I look forward to working together with you to solve problems and to make our roads safer.  Thank you for your commitment to safety and I hope you have a great conference.