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Remarks to the U.S. Road Assessment Program Policy Briefing, Washington, DC
T. Bella Dinh-Zarr, PhD, MPH
Washington, DC

Good morning!  My name is Bella Dinh-Zarr and it is a pleasure and an honor to be here with so many road safety champions, from the United States and around the world.

Thank you to Greg, Peter, Rob, Julio, John, and other leaders for bringing the concepts of iRAP to the U.S.  I am looking forward to hearing about how usRAP can be implemented here in our country.

Thank you to Deputy Administrator David Kim and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) for its long-term commitment to a zero fatality agenda.  FHWA, working with partners such as the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), was a leader among government agencies in the Toward Zero Deaths efforts in the United States, long before it was a well-known or accepted idea.

It is fitting that we are here today to talk about road safety during the week of the United Nations General Assembly because, for the first time ever, reducing road traffic deaths is a health target in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.  Not many years ago, road deaths were a completely unrecognized threat to health and welfare, but today road safety is considered a public health goal in the Sustainable Development Goals at the United Nations (UN).  We know that more than 1.2 million people are dying on our roads around the world.  Of those 1.2 million deaths, more than 30,000 occur here in the United States.  This year, we face the greatest annual percentage increase in highway deaths in nearly 50 years.  As a public health scientist myself, I can see that this is clearly a public health epidemic.  We could even call it “an epidemic on wheels.”  Fortunately, we can do something about it.

Safer roads, safer cars, and safer people – each is vital to reaching zero deaths on our roads, but we cannot forget that infrastructure forms the basic foundation for road safety.

I currently serve as the Vice Chairman of the NTSB, a unique federal agency independent of all other government agencies.  I am pleased to be here with our Chief of Advocacy, Mr. Nicholas Worrell.  At the NTSB, we have one single mission: to advance transportation safety.  We are charged by Congress to carefully investigate every civil aviation accident as well as significant highway crashes and marine, rail, pipeline, and hazardous materials accidents.  You will most often see us at the scene of an aviation accident, in our dark blue jackets emblazoned with large yellow letters on the back spelling out NTSB.  But, of all the modes of transportation, this year and every year, the greatest number of deaths occur on our roads.

At the NTSB, we recognize that it is important to learn from each other no matter where we are in the world.  I just returned this week from seeing a dozen of our aviation experts at an aviation investigators meeting.  They travel to aircraft accidents all over the world so that we can learn everything we can to help prevent similar accidents from happening again.

Our rigorous investigations help shape NTSB’s Most Wanted List of transportation priorities every year, and every year, invariably, many of the priority issues are related to high risk groups such as impaired, distracted, and fatigued drivers.  As we work on the behavioral side of prevention to make safety recommendations to prevent high risk drivers from getting behind the wheel, we never forget that we must also have safe roads;  roads that are forgiving of the mistakes that we, as humans, will make.  Forgiving roads help reduce death and injury should a crash occur.

At the NTSB, we observe and we study transportation disasters.  Over the past year, I have been to the scene of a fatal business jet accident that destroyed an apartment building, to a major marine disaster where a cargo ship sank during a hurricane with thirty souls onboard, and to more than one major train accident.  Every time, the devastation always is terrible.

But I will never forget an investigation we completed late last year of a truck tractor trailer that crossed over a median and crashed into a bus filled with members of a college women’s softball team in Davis, OK.  Our detailed investigation revealed that the truck driver was impaired on synthetic drugs, the occupants were not wearing their seatbelts, and there were no crashworthiness standards for a bus of that size.  But we also found that the Oklahoma Department of Transportation had done the right thing – they had conducted a risk assessment of that highway and were planning to install median barriers at that location, perhaps even within the year.  Median cable barriers that might have prevented those 4 deaths and 13 injuries.  Those median barriers came too late for those college students, but they are saving lives now, as we speak, by preventing crossover crashes. This investigation reminds me of the urgency of not only using a data-driven approach to risk assessment, but implementing infrastructure solutions as fast as possible, in order to save lives.

Before I end, I have to mention automated vehicles.  I know there has been a great deal of news lately about self-driving vehicles, and we are all keeping a sharp eye on automation and ensuring that we know what technology is emerging in vehicle design and how it will affect safety.  But I also remember that, no matter how many automated vehicles we have, we still will need safe roads on which to drive them.

usRAP is part of a global body of road assessment programs that hold tremendous public health and injury prevention potential.  By emphasizing ‘upstream’ improvements to the built environment, it is a program that focuses on prevention and offers practical data-driven solutions that can protect all of us as road users, whether we are traveling by foot, bike, motorcycle, car, or bus.

The NTSB has a long history of supporting evidence-based approaches to risk assessment.  Work zone safety, pedestrian safety, and the important use of barriers are some of our highway priorities.  We are committed to supporting safe infrastructure so we can prevent terrible crashes like the one in Davis, OK, from ever happening again.  I hope you will contact us if you want to know about the safety recommendations we have made on a particular subject or to your particular state.

At the NTSB, we are here to do everything we can to make every form of transportation as safe as possible.  I look forward to seeing how usRAP will contribute to road safety in the United States. Thank you.