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Keynote Remarks at the 2016 Governors Highway Safety Association’s Conference - 2016 Highway Safety Awards Presentation, Seattle, Washington
T. Bella Dinh-Zarr, PhD, MPH
Seattle, Washington

Thank you, Harris, for the kind introduction.  Good afternoon, everyone!  It is a true pleasure and honor to be here with all of you today.

I would like to recognize my colleague and fellow NTSB Board Member, Dr. Earl Weener, and Washington State Secretary of Transportation, Roger Millar, for being here today.

Thank you, Jana Simpler and Jonathan Adkins, for the invitation to speak. I am grateful to you but perhaps I should also be a little upset at you, too, because Harris Blackwood is a hard act to follow.  Did you know he is a master gardener in addition to being a basketball star?  In fact, just before I arrived here in Seattle, I read his column in the Georgia paper about how he is going to share his gardening tips with Troy Costales in Oregon.  I think the piece was entitled something along the lines of “fussin’ and cussin’ with kudzu.”

GHSA has always been a place where the people who do the real work get together and this awards ceremony is special because it is the rare opportunity we get to pause in our busy work lives and recognize people who are not always recognized. People who have helped advance highway safety; people who have helped others in their work; people who have helped save lives.

As I look around today, I see so many people here, who have helped me and have been part of my own journey in highway safety, some of them decades before I became Vice Chairman of the NTSB.

There’s Georgia Chakiris who, many years ago, agreed to meet with me in person when I was a student, who cold-called her to ask about traffic safety.    There are the good people of the Texas Transportation Institute who gave me a chance to work with them even though they had never worked with anyone from public health before.  In addition, of course, Robert Wunderlich is at TTI now.  Robert has always supported the efforts to advance international road safety.

There’s Captain Didone, whom I just had the privilege of meeting earlier this month at a back to school event in Maryland.  There’s Jim Hanni, Pam Fischer, Richard Retting, Jose Delgado, and many others.

I also see the many dedicated women of NAWHSL who have always warmly welcomed me and been the first to embrace new traffic safety ideas.

Coincidentally, one of the award winners today is one of my oldest and most admired mentors, Dr. David Sleet.  As you will hear, David Sleet helped bring together the public health and transportation community.  He has been the unsung hero who supported or conducted the research that provided the evidence behind so many of the efforts that we have all worked on.  Despite working in the US and around the world, he never turned away students and young traffic safety professionals like me who needed help.  I am proud to be here today to witness David Sleet, Betty Mercer, and all of the award winners receive well-deserved awards from such a distinguished organization as the GHSA.  Congratulations to all of you.

I should mention, in addition to having my colleague Member Weener here, I am proud to have some of the capable men and women from the NTSB with us.  I am going to ask them to raise their hands so that you can get to know them better and so that you can call on them – and on me – if there is an opportunity for us to help you with your safety efforts.  Sharon Bryson is the Director of the Office of Safety Recommendations and Communications, Stephanie Shaw and Amy Terrone focus on advocacy in Sharon’s office, Ensar Bencic is in our Office of Highway Safety, Kristen Shea in Member Weener’s Office, and John Brown in my office.

The GHSA Annual Meeting theme this is year is “Crossroads” and it is a fitting one for this time in traffic safety.  Not only are we at the crossroads in terms of technology and driver behavior, as you have heard about in the excellent presentations, but we are at a crossroads as a highway safety community.

As you know more than anyone, in our line of work, we cannot ignore the news or what is happening in our country and around the world, even if the news is not specific to highway safety.  Transportation affects everything and transportation is affected by everything.   You might think I am being dramatic when I say that there are forces pulling our country in different ways, but we don’t need to get into politics or religion to see that there also are forces pulling us apart as a highway safety community.  But we can’t let them do that.

We are at a crossroads but this is also the most important time to stand together.  Why?  Because of the latest FARS figures showing that traffic fatalities have risen to over 35,000 deaths per year?  Yes.  Because pedestrian and bicycle deaths are at the highest in 20 years?  Yes.  Because people are still dying on motorcycles and because they are not wearing their seatbelts?  Because impaired driving continues to be nearly one-third of overall deaths, deaths which have now increased?  Yes.

So this is the most important time to stand together and these awards are an important reminder of our need to stand together.

We know we can do this because we have stood together for many years. We stood together for child passenger safety laws, for GDL, for impaired driving laws, and we stood together for primary seat belt laws.

And we can do this again.  You may not agree with me – in fact, there are many of you who won’t…initially anyway.  But that doesn’t mean that I will stop having a dialog with you, listening to your views and sharing mine.  Because we are all in it together and, while we all have our own beliefs, we also have the same identical core belief – and that is saving lives and preventing injuries.  We cannot let outside forces stop us, forces who are trying to stop us from making our streets and highways safer through established and proven interventions.  We cannot listen to these forces who may appear reasonable at first, but then make unfounded claims about how our work will harm business or the community or even our own freedom.

Probably like many of you, I have been called many names – which are funny especially since they are so ridiculous but also sad because it means there are so many people who don’t know that the work that we all do is about saving lives.  But I thought it might be fun to go over some of the names I have been called – at least the names I can say in public.

I have been called a neo-prohibitionist because, as part of the NTSB’s Most Wanted List, we support enhanced enforcement, alcohol interlocks, and .05 BAC laws as interventions to prevent impaired driving.  I know many of you may be skeptical about some these proven methods, especially .05 BAC which has not been seriously considered in a single state (yet).  And this isn’t the time to discuss it in detail (although I would love to) but with these tools, especially .05 BAC, we are not limiting drinking (if you want to do that, there are programs for that),  We are talking about a broad deterrent; we are talking about separating drinking from driving.  When critics who call me a neo-prohibitionist, tell me “So you want to stop people from drinking!”, I say “No, I want to stop people from dying.”

Roger Millar will be interested to know that I have been called a bicyclist and pedestrian hater.  This is ironic since I often bike my kid to school and then bike on to work.  This is also ironic since I chaired the NTSB’s first Pedestrian Safety Forum this year, a forum which occurred not long after the release of GHSA’s excellent Pedestrian Safety spotlight.

And here’s the last one – I have been called unpatriotic.  I have to work a little harder not to get angry about this particular example since I’ve been a pretty patriotic person from birth.  My father was doctor who saved countless lives during the Vietnam War, and then my family and I were saved by our American friends at the Fall of Saigon.  But I have been called unpatriotic for two reasons: (1) Because I sometimes conduct interviews or write blogs in Spanish in order to get our traffic safety message out to a bigger audience; and (2) Because some people believe that I must be unpatriotic if I support a law that supposedly inhibits freedom because it requires people to wear a seatbelt.

Impaired Driving, Occupant Protection, Pedestrian and Bicycle Safety – all issues where people have criticized me and called me names, and probably you as well, but also these are issues that have emerged as important concerns for us to work on, especially given the latest FARS data.   Many of these issues have appeared on the NTSB’s Most Wanted Lists.

For over 25 years, the NTSB has issued a “Most Wanted List” of transportation priorities.  These are 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, with help from colleagues like you.

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 (which is a special interest of Member Weener), Distracted Driving, and Medical Fitness for Duty.

Although I don’t know everyone here today, because of the work you do, because of your work on many of the issues in our Most Wanted List - if there is one thing I know all of you have - it is Courage.  Of course, there are police officers and firefighters and people who have served in the military here today – and that is a courage that is easy to recognize and we deeply appreciate it.  But there also is the courage shown by community leaders, child passenger safety technicians, advocates, researchers, volunteers, communicators, and yes, politicians – you are courageous, too.  You are courageous because you are persistent.  You never give up and you also keep trying to spread your ideas.  [I know, it sounds sort of like Harris Blackwood’s kudzu!]

I know that with your courage – the courage of your convictions – we, as a traffic safety community, will stand together and work together and find common ground.  I know that with courage we can form strong and unique partnerships to save lives.

My husband and I were reading the book To Kill a Mockingbird the other night with our 7-year-old son at bedtime.  As you may remember, this is the story about an Alabama attorney named Atticus Finch (later played in the movie by Gregory Peck) who stood up to racism. The story is told from the eyes of his young daughter.  I also ran into the folks from Alabama the other day on the elevator, so I took it as a sign that this was the quote we should end with – a quote about courage, from Alabama, by Atticus Finch:

 “I wanted you to see what real courage is... It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway, and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.” – Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee (Chapter 11)

I am a little more optimistic than Atticus Finch.  That’s because we have won before – and saved many lives.  Remember, although rising FARS numbers is not ever something we want to see, many of us also remember the days of 45,000 deaths (or more) a year.  Back then, in part because we never forgot that each number represents the loss of a person despite the horrifically large numbers, we were able to work together to bring down the number of deaths - and we can do it again. 

I want you to know that you can count on me.  I pledge to personally help you in your states as you work on primary seat belt laws in every seating position, as you start the dialog about .05 BAC laws, as you address pedestrian and bicycle safety, and as you promote highway safety in a myriad of ways that are both evidence-based and that work in your state.

We may not be popular – at first – but we will win.  It is simply a matter of time.  The award winners today are examples of how we are winning.  Just like desegregation and women’s suffrage – it is not a question of IF, it is a question of WHEN.  Of course, we would like these safety efforts to become reality as soon as possible, but there is some comfort in knowing that, eventually, our successful safety efforts will be an accepted part of history - on the right side of history.  IF we don’t give up, IF we stand together, and IF we show real courage.

Thank you and congratulations again to the GHSA award winners!