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Keynote Remarks at the 2016 Road Gang Annual Meeting, Washington, DC
T. Bella Dinh-Zarr, PhD, MPH
Washington, DC

​Good afternoon, Road Gang!  Thank you for that kind introduction and thank you to the entire Road Gang Advisory Committee for inviting me to speak today.  What an honor.  When I moved to DC from Texas nearly 15 years ago, and then joined Road Gang not too long after that, I was struck by the sense of welcome and “come-join-us” attitude that I found around those tables at the old Channel Inn, even towards a green-as-grass newcomer like me who clearly knew little about Washington.  I was impressed that people in such different areas with such different backgrounds – government, business, engineering, consultants, press, communications, trade associations, and more – would come together to talk about transportation in such a friendly way.

And who could forget the holiday charity auctions and the incredible transportation-themed carols?  Those songs were always timely and they always made us laugh, even if it was sometimes at ourselves.  Thank you, Penelope!  That spirit of camaraderie stayed with me as I changed jobs over the years and even as the Road Gang moved to a different venue.  It is a true pleasure and honor to be speaking to you today.

I was asked to speak about the greatest transportation safety challenges facing us today.  Although the NTSB’s mandate is to investigate every civil aviation accident in the United States and significant accidents in highways, marine, rail, and pipeline, it is traffic deaths that contribute the most to our national tolls of deaths and injuries – more 30,000 deaths every year and many more injuries.

While there is so much to cover in highway safety, I will talk today about 4 areas that present challenges –

  • Substance Impairment
  • Occupant Protection
  • Technology
  • And the final one is one that is less tangible but is the greatest challenge – and you’ll have to stay to end to find out exactly what that is!

Yesterday, the National Transportation Safety Board released our “Most Wanted List” of transportation priorities for 2016 at TRB.  For over 25 years, the NTSB has chosen ten issues – covering all modes - that represent safety challenges; challenges which have a strong chance of being advanced if given some good hard pushes by the NTSB.

Substance impairment has been on the Most Wanted List before and you may ask why this is a “new” challenge. NTSB has been a longtime supporter of the fight against alcohol-impaired driving with our safety recommendations.  Alcohol-impaired driving remains one of the deadliest killers on America’s highways and we cannot forget that.  But in recent years, because of our crash investigations, the NTSB has expanded this issue to include other types of impairing substances.   Increasingly in our investigations, across all modes of transportation, we are finding impairment from both prescription and illicit drugs on the rise.  As doctors are prescribing more and more opiate-based pain-killers, we have found those substances contributing to crashes.  In fact, in testing the blood of both airplane pilots and drivers who have died in crashes, studies have found the percentage of people with an impairing drug in their system has been steadily and rapidly rising every year.  And perhaps, most alarmingly, we are faced with the new challenge of synthetic drugs – specifically, synthetic cannabinoids, many of which because of their constantly changing chemical composition, are not even listed on the drug schedule.  Because they are not “known” substances on the drug schedules and the manufacturers of these synthetic drugs design them with incredibly short half-lives, they are very difficult to detect in drug testing and they have unpredictable effects and side effects.

In November 2015, the Board met and approved a report on a terrible crash involving a truck-tractor semitrailer that crossed over the median and collided with a medium-size bus carrying 15 members of a women’s community college softball team near Davis, Oklahoma.  Four passengers were fatally injured and each of the 13 remaining people involved in the crash received serious or minor injuries.  In that report, the Board concluded the probable cause of the crash was the truck-tractor driver’s incapacitation from synthetic cannabinoids that he purchased legally.

Occupant Protection is another old subject that has become new again.  Occupant Protection involves both restraint use and crash worthiness.

The Davis crash also brought to light several very concerning issues in the area of strengthening occupant protection.  This bus was what is considered a medium-sized bus – defined as a vehicle between 10,001 and 26,000 pounds.  The bus in Davis weighed 26,000 pounds – right at the maximum.  There currently are no crashworthiness standards to provide protection for the passengers in this size bus.  To make matters worse, this type of vehicle is gaining popularity in use throughout the country – you will commonly see these buses in use transporting children, retirement home residents, government workers, and company employees.

Another occupant protection issue that is near and dear to the NTSB is seat-belt use.  The crash in Davis also provided the Board with another interesting scenario to examine.  This medium-sized bus was equipped with seatbelts, but none of the students were wearing them.  Three of the four passengers who died were fully ejected from the bus.  These types of needless deaths and injuries still happen every day simply as a result of not wearing a seatbelt.  Occupant protection is a new challenge because it is thought of as an old issue that we have taken care of – but it is an issue that is still killing people every day.

Perhaps the most obvious challenge is technology.  Technology is getting more complex every day and devices that help us also can be a dangerous distraction when we drive. Distraction remains on NTSB’s Most Wanted List, but technology also is increasingly able to protect us through crash avoidance systems and, as we have seen in the news this week, vehicles that are more and more automated culminating, one day, in a self-driving car.  So technology is part of the challenge and part of the solution – as with everything, it is whether we have the wisdom to use the technology to advance safety rather than abusing it.

Substance impairment, occupant protection, technology – all challenges but with potential solutions.  The fourth issue is the real challenge that threatens our safety, and the safety of our country, the most.  This challenge is whether politics and partisanship will get in the way of finding logical solutions to preventing deaths and injuries on our roads.

More often than not, it isn’t about finding the next technological or scientific answer – we all know we are smart enough to do that, we are constantly learning more and more and making advances almost every day – the hard part is whether we are willing to work together and find the political will to get it done.

Safety can and should transcend politics.

I know, it isn’t as easy as it sounds.  In fact, it isn’t easy at all.  But I was given a gift, the gift of optimism, when I first came to DC.  I was lucky because I first learned about politics from members of the Road Gang. It was a gift and a privilege for me many years ago – as a young person new to Washington – to learn about Washington politics from Democrats, Republicans, and a few Independents, who graciously shared their knowledge and were respectful of each other and more often than not kidded each other over the lunch table.  The Road Gang does not let politics get in the way of fellowship and friendship.  And that has made all the difference in my world view.

When I was nominated to the NTSB, it was a surprise.  I was happily working in international road safety for a philanthropy and I was literally about to go into a meeting at the United Nations when I got the first call from the White House – a call which turned out to be a possibility for a dream job in transportation safety.  Of course, as many of you know better than I, that first call was just the start of a very long process for Senate confirmation, a process that, at first, was not made public during the vetting period so I didn’t talk with anyone.  But once it was made public last year, some of the first people I told were members of the Road Gang and some of the first people to congratulate me were members of the Road Gang – who, of course, knew almost at the moment the White House announced it.  We joke that some people - like Pete and Nate and Joung and Greg – know things on the Hill almost before they happen!  And often tweet them out!  But what struck me was that although I was nominated by a Democratic White House, there was never a thought about political parties as Road Gang members of every political persuasion congratulated me and offered support.  That is the beauty of Road Gang.  Road Gang members are the type of people who may question my reasons about a position, but they would never question my motives – we know that we each are working, in our own way, to help our nation’s transportation system be the best it can be.

Unfortunately, for safety as for other areas, politics and egos and partisanship have been getting in the way of substance and getting things done.  Perhaps this is an age old Washington story, and I just haven’t been around long enough to see these changes, but I always remember stories that the Honorable Norman Y. Mineta used to tell me about the Hill.  Secretary Mineta was the honorary chairman of a road safety effort I helped lead before I joined the NTSB, so we had many hours sitting in airports and hotel lobbies together.  He loved to tell me that his best friend in Congress was a Republican Senator and that he worked with both sides of the aisle when he was a Member of Congress in a collegial and productive way.  Those stories may seem like ancient history to some.  But it doesn’t have to be that way.

I know it isn’t just up to us. There are strong forces out there against us.  But “Washington’s Transportation Fraternity” was founded on the spirit of collegiality – and by coming together every two weeks while Congress is in session, perhaps we are pushing back against the forces of mistrust, disrespect and inhumanity.

Now that I have been at the NTSB for 9 months, I can see that this same philosophy of collegiality for the sake of a good cause is strong among the current NTSB Board Members.  We never can really forget our party affiliation – by law, NTSB is bipartisan since no more than 3 of the 5 board members can be from the same party – but we never let it get in the way of safety.  We still disagree with each other – and we often do, vehemently, which is one of the great privileges and responsibilities of being independent Board Members of an independent agency.  But I can confidently say, after many months working closely with Chris Hart, Robert Sumwalt, and Earl Weener, that for these Board Members and certainly for myself, our disagreements are for the sake of keeping our country safe, not for any political gain or gamesmanship.

Things have changed, as they always do – we now have constant streams of news in our devices from different news sources, not to mention Twitter and Facebook and Instagram.  But the Road Gang, in part because of its welcoming attitude to new members, has kept up with the times while still preserving and honoring the traditions of collegiality.

These lunches held while Congress is in session, whether we know it or not, foster exchanges that help advance transportation in many forms and I can attest that it has helped me personally advance safety. Some of the best advice I have received in DC has come from Road Gang members – members like Tony, Taylor, Susan, Janet, Helen, Greg, Bill, and so many others…

I may never be as wise in the ways of this town as those people, but I can welcome new members – like Dan and Natalie who are at my table today – to Road Gang, as they did.

Road Gang is a special place. It is about politics, but it is bigger than politics. It is a place where devoted Democrats and equally devoted Republicans can sit side-by-side and share a meal and talk about solutions for pressing transportation issues.  It is a place where we can see what we have in common as fellow human beings over a lunch table before we fight it out the next day across a meeting table.  It is a place that helps bring the humanity back to politics. And in doing so, it helps us make progress to advance safety.

Our greatest challenge and the greatest threat to advancing transportation safety is if we allow partisan politics to get in the way of substantive discussions about solutions.  As we address highway challenges related to users, to infrastructure, to vehicles, as well as vulnerable road users such as pedestrians or older people and our aging transportation system – two more important safety topics that are also challenges - we don’t have to agree on all the solutions.  In fact, we shouldn’t always agree – but we do have to foster an environment where all the solutions are on the table and an environment where we listen, truly listen, to one another.  That will help bring the humanity and productivity back to our work.

I do not know how it will be done, but I know if anyone can help make it happen, it is the members of this great, collegial body known as the Road Gang. Thank you for inviting me today, thank you to Nick for his service as chairman this year and to Brian for stepping in as host today.  Congratulations, Laura, on your chairmanship, and long live the Road Gang!