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Remarks, “NTSB Crash Investigations, Safety Recommendations, and How Employers Help Make Our Transportation System Safer”, NETS (Network of Employers for Traffic Safety) Annual Conference 2016, Orlando, FL
T. Bella Dinh-Zarr, PhD, MPH
Orlando, FL

Good afternoon!  Thank you for the kind introduction and it is a pleasure and honor to be back at NETS!  I have had the privilege of speaking at NETS a few times over the years when I held other positions and it is nice to see familiar faces again and meet new colleagues, too.  Jack – thank you for your leadership and I will miss you.  Joe – I have always enjoyed working with you and I look forward to seeing you lead NETS in its next phase.  Not long ago, I was at the Chief Pilots Roundtable.  The Chief Pilots are the aviation executive leadership from Fortune-500 companies – many of the same companies that are represented here today.  They are in a position to shape safety policy and direction for their companies to help prevent aviation accidents from occurring.

So it is very appropriate that today, I am here speaking with you – leaders who are in a position to shape traffic safety policy for your companies to prevent crashes from happening.  As I said to the Chief Pilots, I hope this information I give you today will be informational and never rise to the level of an investigation.  Safety should not be a competitive advantage.

Today I would like to give you a glimpse into the work that I and my colleagues do every day at the National Transportation Safety Board and why your work, as employers and as NETS members, is so important to ours.  The title of my talk is “NTSB Crash Investigations, Safety Recommendations, and How Employers Help Make Our Transportation System Safer.”  I will also, as those of you who know me may have predicted, be asking something of you, for your help, before I am done.

What is the NTSB?  We are a unique federal agency because we are completely 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, develop factual records, and make 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.

We are charged by Congress with investigating every civil aviation accident in the United States and significant transportation accidents in rail, marine, and highways, as well as pipeline and hazardous materials disasters.  Our investigations are not to cast blame but to find out what happened, so it does not happen again.  Although historically our focus has been on aviation, I never forget that the greatest loss of life, year in and year out, is on our roads.

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 U.S. 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 the 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.

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 do not 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.  As you can see if you ever watch our accident investigation board meetings, as independent Board Members, we can disagree with each other – and we sometimes do, 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 finding the best way to keep our transportation system safe, not for any political gain.

When I was nominated to the NTSB, it was a surprise.  As a few of you may remember, I was very happily working for an international philanthropy just a couple of years ago.  One day, 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, hundreds of pages of background checks, and a very thorough FBI investigation with visits by FBI agents to my employer in London as well as to the home of the two retired sisters who live next door to me.  After a Senate confirmation hearing, I eventually was confirmed by the Senate and then soon after, appointed Vice Chairman by the President.

NTSB is most often seen publicly during a train or aviation accident, at the scene, so you may be familiar with our dark blue jackets with the large yellow NTSB letters emblazoned on our backs. Our Response Operations Center (the ROC) is constantly monitoring the news around the clock so we are alerted to accidents of all sizes.  When there has been a major accident and we decide to launch a full investigative team, called a Go Team, with a Board Member, the entire agency springs into action.  We often launch within hours of learning about an accident so it is fast paced.  We gather our Go Bags, which contain safety gear like hard hats, safety goggles, reflective vests, gloves, steel toe boots, and everyone gathers at Hangar 6 at DCA National Airport where we take one of the FAA airplanes directly to the accident scene.  Accidents are tragic, dramatic and memorable, and it is during the long, hectic and exhausting days at the scene of an accident that test how well we have prepared ourselves, both technically and ethically, to do our jobs. Responding to and investigating transportation accidents is how our agency often is defined by others and perhaps how we define ourselves.

It is after an accident when most of our work takes place, careful work in matters of engineering, human factors, medical issues, legal issues, family assistance, weather conditions, data recorders, and other areas specific to each accident.  After an accident is when the Board Members of the NTSB meet in a public or sunshine meeting and when we vote on the Safety Recommendations that will be made to help prevent future accidents.

I have been at the NTSB for a year and a half now and in that time, 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 most recently to the train accident in Hoboken, New Jersey.  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 for victims.  Our Transportation Disaster Assistance office provides assistance and information for the families of victims after an accident.

I am sure you have noticed that I am using the word “accident.” I have been thinking about that recently and Shane O’Connor from FedEx (one of your newest members, I believe) asked me about it just yesterday.  It is a fair question.  Public health experts have emphasized the preventable nature of motor vehicle crashes for decades by NOT using the “A” word (You may remember the slogan “Crashes are No Accident”) and recently, there has been renewed efforts to use the word “crash.”  The reason I now use the word “accident” in reference to my work is because, under NTSB’s statute, we were created to investigate “transportation accidents” and because the word “accident”, in aviation and rail, is a term of art.  I do use “crash” (or at least try to) whenever referring solely to motor vehicle crashes.  Also, perhaps when we use “accident” at the NTSB, we do not mean to imply that it is not preventable, but rather, to underscore that it is not intentional.  NTSB investigations (unlike FBI investigations) focus on unintentional, and not criminal, activities.

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 transportation 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. Over the years, 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 recommendations that are not achieved right away.  Some take years or even decades to become adopted, especially if they must pass in all 50 states in the U.S.  We are sometimes criticized, even vilified, at first, for our efforts.  But that does not stop us.

For example, earlier this year, I had frequent media interviews with local 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 and likeminded organizations.   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.

This year, when journalists called me, they often wanted to talk about impaired driving and specifically they wanted to learn more 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 BAC 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 do not always know the facts.  But that is 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, I always say, if you have a phone, you have a ride.  Most of all, we can tell them that a .05 law helps us to simply separate drinking from driving.  More than 10,000 people die in alcohol-related crashes every year.  This information and more is in our “Reaching Zero” report which can be found on our website ( along with other information about our Most Wanted List and other priorities.

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 is not popular.  I hope there will be many other issues we will work on together, but .05 BAC is an emerging challenge that I know every state will eventually face.  A challenge for you and your companies to help change safety culture for the better.  I know you are up to this challenge because you have done it before. You certainly have not been afraid to be bold in order to support safety efforts.  I can think of a few examples easily.

NETS members have been some of the first and most vocal supporters of preventing distracted driving when distraction was hardly a popular topic.  You have not just talked about distracted driving, you have taken action in your companies – as I have seen first-hand – to educate and change polices to prevent distracted driving by employees.

NETS members have been some of the first and most vocal supporters of the UN Decade of Action for Road Safety. I wish Mike Watson were here.  He has been a true safety champion at NETS and in his own company.  Natalie Draisin has more than capably taken over my role at the FIA Foundation, and I know that after you hear from her today, you will continue to be supporters of the further efforts beyond The Decade.  I remember that when people were still asking me why we should care about highway safety in other countries, NETS saw early on that everyone in the world is connected and you helped start the conversation that we must all work together to save lives.

NETS member companies are not afraid to be bold – you have worked to prevent distracted driving, you have worked to support international road safety, you have worked on non-traditional traffic safety efforts like J&J and Abbott’s helmet campaigns and FedEx’s infrastructure programs that improve the road environment, especially around schools.

We cannot overstate the influence of employers on not only their own employees but on entire communities.  Community members listen to you.  Elected officials listen to you.  Your influence has made a difference in many areas of traffic safety.  Your influence can help us achieve Zero Deaths.  You can help with the 10,000 deaths caused by alcohol impaired driving.

So now, I would like to ask you, once again, to use your unique influence as employers and as NETS members to begin a discussion of .05 BAC laws and, while you are at it, re-ignite interest in primary seat belt laws for every state.  Many of your companies already require .05 BAC or below for your commercial drivers, but I know, since your companies are concerned about the entire workforce, that you also can be an important influence in the lives of your employees and the communities in which you operate by promoting evidence-based interventions like .05 BAC and primary seat belt laws.

You can count on me to help you when you need it.  Even better, you can count on our team of dedicated professionals at the NTSB, who are experts in everything from fatigue (here is Dr. Jana Price’s recent blog on fatigue for Drive Safely Work Week) to occupant protection to crash avoidance.  We have an Office of Highway Safety and an Office of Safety Advocacy who would be delighted to be in touch with you.   In addition, I personally pledge to help you as you start the dialog about .05 laws, as you restart the conversation about primary seat belt laws in states, as we highlight the importance of pedestrian safety, and as we redouble our efforts on many traffic safety issues.

NETS has been working for many years on safety, and I have been privileged to have come to this meeting as part of my past work in global road safety and to have worked with some of you on international efforts.  I come to you now in my new role with the government, at the NTSB, and I ask you to help me do my job better.  I ask you to keep me informed about what you hear about trends – good or bad - in safety. I ask you to let me know if there are ways that the NTSB can help advance safety in your work.  I also invite you to come visit our state-of-the-art accident investigation labs (and perhaps I can visit yours) so we learn from each other.  But most of all, I ask you to stay in touch with me and the NTSB and to continue speaking out about safety – as you have done so well in the past – especially in the many cases where your support would be vital in getting our safety recommendations adopted.

Our written and unwritten values make the NTSB what it is.  Our agency is ever-changing, but there are core ethics and core values that I, as a board member, do my best to preserve.  Yes, the values of transparency, credibility, and independence are important, but equally important are the values of compassion and supporting ambitious goals such as .05 BAC laws and primary seat belt laws.  Why is this so important to what we do at the NTSB?  Perhaps because like in most organizations, it is our ethics, our values, that bring humanity to what we do.   Because of our detailed investigations, it may seem that our work is largely technical and mechanical, but we never forget that the true purpose of our work is to serve people. A former Chairman from the 1990’s used to describe NTSB’s mission and goals by paraphrasing Thomas Jefferson’s quote: "The care of human life and happiness…is the first and only legitimate object of good government." I agree.  But I would add that we cannot do it without help, especially help from employers like you.

In closing, I would like thank you for your work to advance safety in your companies and as a member of NETS, which has a positive impact on people’s lives every day.  Here’s wishing you many more years of service to your employees, your customers, and your communities – and I look forward to working with you to save more lives and prevent more injuries.  Thank you.