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Remarks to the American Traffic Safety Services Association (ATSSA)’s Legislative Briefing and Fly-In, Washington, DC
T. Bella Dinh-Zarr, PhD, MPH
Washington, DC

​Good morning.  What a pleasure to be here at the ATSSA Fly-In. I have always had great respect for ATSSA’s core focus on safety – and for your tireless and innovative work to advance road safety over the years.  I have enjoyed working with Roger and Nate in my previous job with an international road safety foundation as part of the UN Decade of Action for Road Safety, and it is an honor to have been invited here to speak to you in my new role as Vice Chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board.  Thank you, Debra, for that kind introduction.

Today, I would like tell you a little about the NTSB – who we are, what we do, and how it relates to your work…in the hopes, of course, that we can find ways to work together to achieve our common goal of preventing deaths and injuries on our roads.

Like many of you, I always have loved transportation – every type of transportation – planes, trains, ships, boats, cars, bikes, and even my own two feet as a pedestrian.  In a way, I always have been obsessed with safety – from the time I was driving my red pickup truck in my home state of Texas (where I believe ATSSA’s first chapter was founded) to flying around the world as part of my previous international traffic safety work 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. 

And your work in transportation safety is integral to that.  By designing, manufacturing, and installing road safety and traffic control devices, you help make our nation’s roads safer.  I appreciate good signs, signals, and markings now more than ever as I ride my bike to work.  I can tell from meeting some of you – and from seeing your “going orange” photos for National Work Zone Awareness Week – that you are very passionate about your work.  You are privileged to work in an industry that contributes positively to the safety of our country and the world.

I, myself, feel privileged to be a part of the NTSB because we are an independent agency dedicated to safety.  We are independent of all other federal agencies and we are made up of 5 independent Board Members nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate.  Since our inception in 1926, our agency has one simple but noble purpose: to prevent transportation-related deaths and injuries.   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 4 Members on the Board (one spot is vacant) so Board Members like myself are “on call” every 4 weeks in case of a major transportation disaster. 

Unlike many government agencies, my agency does not have regulatory authority and we have no financial incentives to promote our safety recommendations.  So we fiercely protect our values of independence, credibility, and transparency because these are the values that define our agency and they also are what keep our agency functioning and relevant.  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.  We maintain our credibility because we conduct very thorough investigations that touch on every single aspect of an accident from engineering to human performance to weather.  We value scientific and investigative rigor because our credibility lies in our reports and recommendations.  In addition, in terms of transparency, our work, deliberations, and votes are all done in public, in televised meetings in compliance with what is known as the Government in the Sunshine Act.  As you can see if you ever watch our accident investigations and other board meetings, we sometimes don’t agree – but that is 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.

I have been at the NTSB for almost exactly one year now and in that year, I have launched to the scene of major accidents of trains, a cargo ship, and a business jet – in New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Florida, and Ohio.  My fellow Board Members have launched also to other accidents.  In addition, the hardworking men and women at the NTSB investigate additional accidents throughout the country almost every day.  I truly hope I never have to meet any of you at the scene of an accident, but if we do meet, rest assured that the NTSB will do everything we can to conduct a thorough investigation to determine the probable cause and prevent such a disaster from happening again.  I also am very proud of our less known work, which is coordinating assistance and information for the families of victims in the affected communities. 

Our human performance and survival factors experts say that, in their investigations, they work from the assumption that, because we are human, there will be errors and that, even in the worst accidents, people were usually trying to do their best and it is our job to figure out what went wrong rather than finding someone to blame.  The traffic safety devices and services that ATSSA members provide - including signs, markings and barriers - can help prevent or reduce the severity of crashes when we humans make mistakes, as we are prone to do.

The NTSB is most often seen publicly at the scene of an accident, with our dark blue jackets with the large yellow NTSB letters emblazoned on the backs, because that is when the news media is there, but actually it is AFTER an accident when most of our work takes place, careful work in matters of engineering of the environment and the vehicle, human factors, medical issues, legal issues, family assistance, data recorders, and other areas specific to each accident.  AFTER an accident also is when we determine the Safety Recommendations that will be made to help prevent future accidents.

Our role in the federal government is unique and that translates to how our work affects the FAST Act, MAP-21, and reauthorization, which you are likely discussing while here in DC.  The NTSB has perhaps an easier role than other federal agencies because we don’t give an opinion; we provide information based on our safety recommendations, which are based on our accident investigations and everything already is in the public record. Our safety recommendations are our primary interaction with federal legislation.

We also work on advocacy issues for safety and one of our most important tools is our Most Wanted List.  The NTSB's Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements highlights safety-critical actions every year that should be taken to prevent accidents and save lives in all modes of transportation.  But since road traffic deaths are the leading cause of death in all modes, I wanted to list the issues on our Most Wanted List this year that are most relevant to road safety: 

  • Fatigue
  • Collision Avoidance Technology
  • Occupant Protection
  • Distractions
  • Substance Impairment
  • Data Recorders

Each of these areas has immense lifesaving potential.  I should mention that Infrastructure Improvements – such as those you work on – also have been on past Most Wanted Lists.  Although these lists change each year, we at the NTSB have always recognized the importance of good infrastructure to safety.

I would like to give one example of our past infrastructure findings and recommendations that may be of interest to you involving median cable barriers.  Interestingly, in this case, our discussions with the state DOT and TRB and others also will help advance safety, rather than only our official safety recommendations.

Just last November, the Board met in a sunshine meeting to discuss a crash that occurred in Davis, OK.  In 2013, a truck-tractor in combination was traveling north in the left lane of I-35.  The truck-tractor departed the left lane and entered the 100-foot-wide depressed earthen median. It continued through the median, traveling over 1,100 feet without evidence of braking or steering. This combination vehicle then entered the southbound lanes of I-35 and collided with a bus carrying a college softball team. Following the impact, the bus rolled onto its right side, and the truck-tractor continued off the roadway into a wooded area. As a result of the crash, four passengers on the bus were fully or partially ejected and died, and both drivers and the remaining passengers were injured. 

We determined that the probable cause of this crash was the truck-tractor driver’s incapacitation due to his use of synthetic drugs and contributing to the injuries was the lack of restraint use by passengers and the lack of crashworthiness of these medium-size buses.  But, we did not overlook the fact that, although we cannot determine whether a median cable barrier, such as a test level 4 barrier that Oklahoma DOT later considered installing, would be effective against truck-tractors in certain circumstances, we did conclude that advanced median cable barrier guidelines, which allow for installing barriers at locations where they were not previously considered, can help reduce the frequency of median crossover crashes.  So just a few months ago, we reiterated 4 recommendations to the Federal Highway Administration and AASHTO 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 define criteria for those barriers. 

These recommendations are currently classified as an “Open – Acceptable Response” which means there is a planned action by the recipient that would comply with our recommendations when completed.  In addition, as you may know, the Transportation Research Board 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 all 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 these types of safety recommendations.

At the NTSB, we are sometimes criticized for being overly demanding, but our safety recommendations are a result of careful analysis of real-life accidents and data – recommendations that can lead to lifesaving results.  I always like to point out that some safety goals may seem ambitious now, but not so long ago, seatbelts and airbags also seemed impractical.  Also, as I am sure all of you know better than I, it was less than 100 years ago in 1923 that Garrett Morgan invented the first 3 position traffic signal – an ambitious way to control traffic that is still used today!

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

Finally, I know that in 2012, ATSSA identified approaches to pedestrian safety that would allow members to make a contribution to their state and local governments’ efforts to reduce pedestrian fatalities.  So I would like to invite all of you to attend or watch online an upcoming public forum which NTSB will be hosting on May 10th  on Pedestrian Safety. 

The forum will be organized around four panels, each addressing different aspects of pedestrian safety. The first panel will look at recent trends and underlying effects of the safety risks for walking across or along public roads, including efforts to quantify exposure of pedestrians to the risk of being struck by a moving vehicle and the data needed to develop effective pedestrian safety plans. The second panel will look at federal, state, and local urban planning and policy as it relates to pedestrian safety. The policy discussion will consider safety initiatives and the progress that has been made implementing Complete Streets. The third panel will consider highway design countermeasures to improve pedestrian safety, including infrastructure cost and funding. The fourth panel will consider vehicle-based solutions to improve pedestrian safety, including collision avoidance and vehicle-detection technology being deployed in current and future model vehicles.  I hope you will be able to attend.

In closing, I enjoy quotes so I will end with an old favorite.  To paraphrase Thomas Jefferson: "The care of human life and happiness…is the first and only legitimate object of good government."   I am relatively new to the government and I am trying my very best to be an example of this type of good government.  With ATSSA’s long history of championing safety as strong industry partners, I look forward to working with you and with our colleagues in state and local government.  Together, we can find more ways to (in the words of President Jefferson) support the care of human life and happiness…by making our roadways safer.  Thank you.