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Remarks, “Transportation as a Civil Right” Panel Discussion and Presentation to the CBCF (Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, Inc.) / COMTO (Conference of Minority Transportation Officials) Brain Trust, Washington, DC
T. Bella Dinh-Zarr, PhD, MPH
Washington, DC

Good afternoon.  Thank you to Congressman Elijah Cummings for sponsoring this event and to Brad Mims from COMTO for inviting me to participate.  My name is Bella Dinh-Zarr.  I am here today as the Vice Chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board (the NTSB), as a public health scientist, as a person of color, and as someone who walks, bikes, and takes public transportation every day. 

I am honored to be here with you at the CBC and COMTO Brain Trust to discuss the important concept of "Transportation as a Civil Right" and more specifically, Transportation SAFETY as a Civil Right. 

It may seem unexpected to have a person trained in public health at the NTSB, just as it may seem unexpected – to some – to think about transportation safety as civil right, but it makes perfect sense when we remember that motor vehicle crashes have been, and continue to be, one of the leading causes of death and injury for people of all ages and it is the leading cause of death for young people.  Like many risks to our health, people of color are at high risk.  We cannot believe that transportation is a civil right without also believing that transportation safety is a civil right. 

In public health, we often focus on what can help the most vulnerable populations – the people who are at greatest risk in our society – in order to have the greatest impact on a community.  In transportation safety, pedestrians are at higher risk, bicyclists continue to be at risk, people of color are at higher risk. 

As many of you know, the NTSB is a unique federal agency because we are independent of all other government agencies.  We have one single mission: to advance transportation safety.  We are charged by Congress to investigate every civil aviation accident but we also investigate significant highway, marine, rail, pipeline, and hazardous materials accidents.  We take our jobs seriously and we take every loss of life seriously.  We have made great gains in aviation safety, but we never forget, of all the modes of transportation, year in and year out, the greatest number of deaths occur on our roads.  In addition, surface transportation also is how Americans primarily get to school, work, health care, and recreation - all important factors to our quality of life.

As Americans, we value freedom and this includes freedom of transportation – the freedom to get around in many different ways.  Our job at the NTSB is to help you get around safely, no matter what type of transportation you choose. Walking, riding a bicycle, driving a car, taking public transportation are all important forms of transportation and we are here to help make them as safe as possible.

In public health, we often speak about a term you may be familiar with – the social determinants of health – housing, education, water safety, and food security.  Transportation is the cornerstone of all the determinants of health.  As all of you understand more than anyone, it is not just about transportation to access what one needs to maintain health and well-being, such as a hospital, but it is having safe and reliable transportation.   Lack of safe and reliable transportation is a social injustice because it affects all of our priority issues that are important to civil rights.  We must incorporate a culture of transportation safety into all of our other issue priorities.  For example:

What good is a community health clinic if you can’t get there safely and reliably?

What good is a school if there are no safe sidewalks and crosswalks for the students?

What good is a park where families can play if we cannot get there safely?

We are at a crossroads and this is an important time to stand together.  With the recent release of the FARS (Fatality Analysis Reporting System) national data on road deaths just this month, let’s look at the statistics.  We now face the highest annual percentage increase in highway deaths in nearly 50 years.  Unfortunately, this past year we saw a 7% increase in deaths from the previous year.  That is more than 30,000 deaths every year.  There are many reasons for this increase but many of these reasons are issues we have grappled with for many years.  That is why we need to be include transportation safety in everything we do to better our communities – we cannot have a healthy, educated, happy community without having a safe one.

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.  Invariably, many issue areas are related to high risk groups such as distracted, drowsy, and impaired drivers. 

That is why it is important to remember that tools such as public transportation are not only an accessibility tool but also safety tool because it can help keep high risk drivers out of the driver’s seat.  For example, when we think of the 3,400 distraction-related deaths last year, we should remember that distracted driving can be prevented if we choose to travel by bus or train when we need to multi-task.  When we think of the 10,000 people who died in alcohol-related crashes, we remember that we can separate drinking from driving and that transit can help make interventions, such as .05 BAC (blood alcohol content) laws and alcohol ignition interlocks, even more practical by providing transportation options.  With public transportation and ride sharing options, there is no excuse to drive after drinking.  In addition to impaired and distracted drivers, older drivers and novice drivers also are at a greater risk of being killed or injured in a crash.  Public transportation, where available, can be a safe alternative for any age group.

So we must stand together and all of you here can play an important role in advocating for transportation safety as a civil right.  We know we can do this because our country has stood together for many years and we have saved lives. We stood together advocating for child passenger safety laws, for graduated driver’s licensing, for impaired driving laws, and for primary seat belt laws.

We can do this again. 

Before I was at the NTSB, I worked for an international philanthropy at the United Nations and I had the privilege of working with the family of the late President of South Africa, Nelson Mandela.  President Mandela believed in road safety as a human right because it provided access to education and because so many African children died while simply walking to school – they literally died for an education.  I am proud to have worked with his grandchildren Zoleka Mandela and Kweku Mandela for several years to prevent more loss of life.  Transportation safety is a civil right; transportation is a human right, and we must do everything we can to ensure that everyone has access to this right.

Thank you.  I look forward to our panel discussion today.