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Keynote Remarks at the 49th Annual Conference of National Association of Women Highway Safety Leaders, Inc. (NAWHSL), Seattle, Washington
T. Bella Dinh-Zarr, PhD, MPH
Seattle, Washington

Good morning and thank you for that kind introduction, Cecilia and Kay.  It is wonderful to be here in Seattle in the great State of Washington on NAWHSL’s 49th Anniversary.  I remember my first time at NAWHSL more than a dozen years ago, when I was invited to speak by Merry Banks and Rolayne Fairclough.  And although she isn’t here this year, I am grateful to Jennie Glasgow for always keeping me informed of the good work that all of you do at NAWHSL.  Over the years, I have been privileged to get to know many of you and I always enjoy meeting more of the dedicated women – and men – who are a part of NAWHSL.  I am proud to be here today in my new role as a Board Member and the Vice Chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, the NTSB.

Today, I would like to tell you more about my new job and then I will ask for your help.  I know I can ask because in the past, in my other roles, I have asked you for help and you have never failed to answer “yes” (along with wise advice and usually with a good dose of humor).  That spirit of “yes” has led to support for improvements in road safety, both in the United States and around the world.  NAWHSL is such a unique organization because of all of you.  You have been bold with your support of new ideas and new traffic safety efforts and because, while tireless and persistent, you have always injected that welcome sense of warmth and fun into the work you do.  The work we do is serious, and you take it seriously, but somehow, you also always seem to add that extra dose of humanity into what we do.  And you have helped pave the way for acceptance of new safety concepts.

First, I would like to recognize my colleagues at the NTSB, who are here today.  Sharon Bryson leads our Safety Recommendations and Communications Office.  Also in this office is Stephanie Shaw who focuses on safety advocacy.  John Brown serves as the Confidential Assistant in my office.  Last but not least, is someone who sends you his best although he could not attend.  You may know him as Agnes Beaton’s son, but Dr. Bob Beaton also is the Chief of the Human Performance in the Rail, Pipeline, and Hazardous Materials Division at the NTSB.  He also serves on your advisory board.

We are some of the more than 400 people who work at the NTSB, an independent federal agency dedicated to transportation safety.  We are charged by Congress with investigating every civil aviation accident in the United States – historically, the public is most familiar with our investigations of airplane crashes - but we also investigate major transportation accidents in rail, marine, and highways, as well as pipeline and hazardous materials disasters.  And as we all know only too well, of all the modes of transportation, it is the crashes on our roads that exact the highest number of deaths and injuries.  And that is why the work that you do is so important.

NTSB is independent of all other federal agencies and we have 5 independent Board Members, who are nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate.  Since our creation 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, ready to launch as part of a Go Team, in case of a major transportation disaster.

Unlike many government agencies, the NTSB does not have regulatory authority and we have no financial incentives to promote our safety recommendations.  We fiercely protect our values of independence, credibility, and transparency because these are the values that define our agency.  We are independent so we do not report to anyone and therefore, we can make recommendations to anyone, such as the US Department of Transportation, state governments, associations, and private companies.  We maintain our credibility by conducting 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, as for transparency, our work and deliberations and votes are all done in public, in webcast meetings in compliance with what is known as the Government in the Sunshine Act.  As you can see if you ever watch our accident investigation and other board meetings, we sometimes don’t 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.  We still disagree with each other – and we often do, vehemently, but that is one of the great privileges and responsibilities of being independent Board Members of an independent agency.   I feel very lucky to be able to say, after working closely with the other 3 current members that, for these Board Members and certainly for myself, our disagreements are for the sake of keeping the transportation system safe, not for any political gain or gamesmanship.

When I was nominated to the NTSB, it was a surprise.  As some of you may remember, I was happily working in international road safety for a philanthropy.  I was about to step into a meeting at the United Nations Headquarters in New York when I got the first call from the White House.  That first call was just the start of a very long vetting process for White House nomination and then Senate confirmation, a process that included interviews and a very thorough FBI investigation which included everything from visits to my employer in London to my older neighbors next door – who insisted the FBI agents come inside for coffee!  After a Senate confirmation hearing, I eventually was confirmed by the Senate and then soon after, appointed Vice Chairman by the President.

I have been at the NTSB for over a year now and in that year, I have launched to the scene of major accidents of different modes, trains, a cargo ship, and a business jet – around the country, in New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Florida, and Ohio.  And my fellow Board Members have launched to other accidents.  In addition, the hardworking men and women at the NTSB investigate additional accidents throughout the country almost every day.  I also am proud of our less known but very important work, which is coordinating assistance and information for the families of victims through our Transportation Disaster Assistance office.

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.  That is a philosophy that pervades the NTSB. Rather than laying blame, we make safety recommendations to prevent accidents from happening again.

These safety recommendations have helped States & Territories make progress in highway safety, such as requiring airbags in vehicles, passing impaired driving laws, passing seat belt laws, improving school bus design, passing motorcycle helmet laws, improving safety barriers in road design, and setting standards for road 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 and 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 take years or even decades to become adopted, especially if they must pass in all 50 states in the United States.  We are sometimes criticized, even vilified, at first, for our efforts.  But that doesn’t stop us.

For example, earlier this year, I had frequent media interviews with TV, radio, and newspapers, from around the country about our Most Wanted List.   What is the NTSB’s Most Wanted List?  Well, every year, we release our “Most Wanted List” of transportation priorities for the year.  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 by the NTSB.  Each Board Member is assigned 2 to 3 issue areas.  This year, 6 of the 10 issue areas we selected are related to motor vehicle safety. They include:  Impaired Driving, Occupant Protection, Data Recorders in Vehicles, Crash Avoidance Systems, Distracted Driving, and Medical Fitness for Duty.  Also, although they are not on our Most Wanted List specifically, I also wanted to mention the importance of vulnerable road users.  We held a Pedestrian Safety Forum in May, during which Scott Kubly from Seattle spoke.

This year, when journalists called me, they often wanted to talk about impaired driving and specifically about NTSB’s recommendation to all 50 U.S. States and Territories to change the BAC or Blood Alcohol Content law from .08 to .05 or lower.  We made this recommendation 3 years ago and about 100 countries around the world already have a .05 BAC law.  There have been many peer-reviewed studies demonstrating that such a law would indeed prevent impaired driving crashes.  Despite decades of evidence and despite AAA Foundation surveys showing that 63% of Americans would support .05 BAC laws, not a single U.S. state has passed this lifesaving measure.  Why?  Because people don’t always know the facts.  But that’s where we can make a difference.  We can tell people that in countries with a .05 BAC law, people consume more alcohol per capita and yet are still less likely to die from impaired driving. We can tell people that although opponents think they will lose business and lobby against lifesaving .05 efforts, there is little evidence that having a .05 law affects business.  Other advocates are not opposed to .05 but believe that we should focus only on solutions targeting high BAC drivers.  We can tell 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 it also would help prevent high BAC drivers, along with alcohol interlocks and enhanced enforcement, which also is what NTSB has recommended.  We also can tell them that a .05 law encourages people to find other forms of transportation when they have been drinking – in these days of advanced technology and connectivity, if you have a phone, you have a ride.  Most of all, we can tell them that a .05 law helps us to separate drinking from driving.  This information and more is in our “Reaching Zero” report which can be found on our website

I mentioned earlier that I would be asking something of you.  I am asking you now to do what you have always done without hesitation– and that is support an effort that will save lives on the roads – even if that effort isn’t popular.  There are many other issues we will work on together also, but .05 BAC is a challenge that I know every state will face.  And I know you are up to the challenge because you have done it before.

I didn’t know that Darrin and Kristin were going to talk about Target Zero today but it is fitting because the international Decade of Action for Road Safety has key concepts inspired by Vision Zero.  NAWHSL was one of the very first organizations in the United States to support the UN Decade of Action for Road Safety.  When people were still asking why we should care about highway safety in other countries, you saw early on that everyone in the world is connected and you helped start the conversation that we must work together to save lives. As a result, the U.S. has now co-sponsored road safety resolutions several times at the UN, road traffic injury prevention is on the international agenda as part of the Sustainable Development Goals, and everyone was seen with the yellow Decade Tag (even Grover).  Most recently, Michael Bloomberg was appointed a WHO Global Ambassador focused on preventing non-communicable diseases such as motor vehicle injuries!   NAWHSL also supported primary seat belt laws, child passenger safety laws, and GDL long before they were widely accepted.  These laws are not passed in every state yet, but they are at least discussed seriously.  I know I can count on you, once again, to use your unique NAWHSL skills and talents to begin a discussion of .05 BAC laws in your state.  It won’t be easy, but we have done it before - together.  And you can count on me to help you when you need it.  I pledge to personally help you in your states as you start the dialog about .05 laws, as you restart the conversation about primary seat belt laws in states that don’t have one, as we highlight the importance of pedestrian safety, and as we redouble our efforts on many traffic safety issues, using that hallmark NAWHSL energy. Let’s be bold together again.

Being bold allows us to imagine what the world would be like if we speak out and our work is as effective as it can be.  Being bold allows 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 thinks about getting behind the wheel when impaired by alcohol or drugs, a world where we can send our loved ones to school or work and know that they will come home safely. 

Thank you.