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Remarks to the Global Road Safety Leadership Course, Washington, DC
T. Bella Dinh-Zarr, PhD, MPH
Washington, DC

Good morning.  Thank you very much for inviting me to speak today.  It is a pleasure to see some familiar faces from my previous work with the Decade of Action for Road Safety and meet new colleagues working in this important field.  I feel privileged to speak to all of you today in my current role as Vice Chairman of the U.S.’s National Transportation Safety Board, the NTSB.  You are the current and future leaders of your cities and countries and I know that you are dedicated to saving lives and preventing injuries by making our roads safer.  The goal of saving lives and preventing injuries is why I did the work I did for many years in global road safety and I know that is why you are here today.

Since you have been immersed in the American political process in recent weeks and especially yesterday on Election Day, I thought I would start off by telling you about the NTSB and how it works within our system of government and in our country – in hopes that it perhaps might be useful in your work.

The NTSB is a unique federal agency in the U.S. because we are independent of all other government agencies.  Since our creation in 1926, and our establishment as a completely independent agency in 1967, NTSB has one simple but noble purpose: to prevent transportation-related deaths and injuries.  The American public, and sometimes people abroad as well when we lend technical assistance in international aviation disasters, often sees us at the scene of transportation disasters in our dark blue jackets with the large yellow NTSB emblazoned on the backs.

Those on-scene accident investigations are an important part of our work – that is why we are on call 24-hours a day, 365 days a year.  Nevertheless, once we have finished on scene work, our investigations continue and the final reports are essentially very thorough case studies covering every aspect of an accident and resulting in a probable cause and often safety recommendations to prevent the accident from happening again.

At the NTSB, we are on call 24-hours a day, 365 days a year because we 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 a major transportation accident occurs.

Yes, I did use the word accident.  Although the term “accident” has fallen out of favor, especially for motor vehicles, we still use the term “accident” for overall transportation disasters because, in our federal statute (the law that created the NTSB), we are charged by the U.S. Congress with investigating every civil aviation accident – as well as significant accidents in highway, marine, rail, pipeline, and hazardous materials.  It also underscores the fact that we investigate unintentional accidents.  We leave the criminal investigations to the FBI.  We also have the important, but often little known, job of assisting the victims and families of victims in the accidents we investigate – both at the scene and in the following months and years.

We are an independent agency but we also have five independent board members, who are nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate, so our board member terms are not tied to Presidential Administrations or elections.

Our goal at the NTSB is to help you get around safely, no matter what type of transportation you use.

Historically, the public is most familiar with our investigations of airplane crashes - but as I mentioned, we also investigate major transportation accidents in rail, marine, and highways, as well as pipeline and hazardous materials disasters.  Nevertheless, 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.

I should mention that I am the first public health trained person to be appointed to the NTSB.  That fact was stated by the legendary Sue Baker, professor and founder of the injury prevention center at Johns Hopkins and injury prevention pioneer, so I do not question it!

It may seem unexpected to have a person trained in public health at the NTSB, but NTSB investigation work mirrors public health work in many ways.  There is a focus on prevention and we are known for our core values of transparency, credibility through scientific rigor, and independence - that is why we are effective in advancing safety in the U.S.

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 (U.S. DOT), 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, with webcast meetings that are 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 do not 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 global road safety for the FIA Foundation.  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 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 this country, in New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Florida, and Ohio.   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.

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.  Perhaps that is why we have been successful in advancing safety – in many different modes of transportation.  We are seen as an unbiased, evidence-based, independent authority with one goal – making transportation safer.

In highway safety, with the recent release of the (Fatality Analysis Report System - FARS) national data on road deaths by NHTSA (National Highway Transportation Safety Administration), we know that more than 30,000 people die in motor vehicle crashes in the U.S. alone – and all of you know better than anyone that it is 1.2 million deaths worldwide.   30,000 is far too high a number but, with the implementation of our NTSB safety recommendations by NHTSA, FMCSA (Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration), and other U.S. DOT agencies, we have helped states and territories in the U.S. make progress in many areas of highway safety over the years, 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.  All of our recommendations are based on our detailed investigations so, rather than compiling information from all crashes, we focus on what can be learned from individual crashes.  We are also addressing pedestrian safety by working with law enforcement to quickly get to the scene of pedestrian fatalities, which often leave little evidence for an investigation.  I am proud to say that this year, we held NTSB’s first ever Pedestrian Workshop.

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 over the years – and in all modes of transportation - 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 recommendations take years or even decades to become adopted, especially if they must pass individually in all 50 states in the United States.  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 TV, radio, and newspapers, from around the U.S. 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 each year – 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, we recognize the importance of protecting our vulnerable road users such as pedestrians and bicyclists.

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 approximately 100 countries around the world, likely most of the countries you represent, 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, 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.  So, as you can see, learning is not a one-way street – and we can always continue learning from each other, which is why meetings such as this one to share knowledge with each other is so important.

Sharing knowledge also helps make us bolder in our efforts.  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.

As I spoke about in Brasilia, our work at the NTSB can provide a useful model, especially for those countries that are still in the early stages of building your data collection programs.  Good population data is clearly important but it takes time to build the infrastructure to collect even basic death and injury data accurately.  At the NTSB, we conduct very thorough transportation accident investigations and we are agile enough to make – and change – targets as new safety issues emerge, often based on a single representative accident.  We value scientific and investigative rigor. 

We investigate transportation accidents immediately after they occur – in all modes, land, air, sea – and determine the probable cause of accidents.

We use the results of those investigations to make safety recommendations with criteria for completion.  These recommendations, or targets, have helped states & territories in the United States make progress 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 signage, to name a few.

In order to have the information we need to make safety recommendations and set targets from a single investigation, our investigations are extremely thorough in all modes.  For major highway crashes, we have experts who investigate many areas including:

  • human performance
  • survival factors
  • crashworthiness
  • highway factors
  • motor carrier
  • medical issues
  • vehicle factors
  • data recorders
  • weather
  • and fire

Although we have no regulatory authority, our good reputation has enabled us to successfully set and track targets for the benefit of safety. As I mentioned earlier, we have issued over 14,000 safety recommendations and about 80% have been adopted.

As you know, gathering high quality data on the circumstances of crashes and the associated risk factors is critical for effective programs and policies to prevent crashes before they happen.  I would add that high quality data can take different forms from crash investigations to population-based data.  In addition to collecting high-quality data on deaths, injuries, and risk factors, the data should be widely accessible to governments, NGOs, and the general public. This can help stakeholders remain committed to the issue and hold us accountable for our work.

I would like to borrow a phrase from our colleagues at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) who say road safety is a “winnable battle”.  It is a battle because the number of deaths on our roads is large and it will not be easy to eliminate them.  I also sometimes feel it is a battle when I am on-scene and see the violent aftermath of a crash or when I vote on an investigation in which people were killed and injured.

But despite these tragic and terrible examples, we cannot forget that this is a winnable battle – we cannot forget that if we apply effective interventions widely, we can save millions of lives.

At the NTSB, we make recommendations that are feasible and practical, and doable.  They are feasible because they must be measurable, and they must be based on sound science, but that does not mean they also cannot be inspiring and ambitious.  Taken as a whole, our safety recommendations ultimately must allow us to imagine what the world would be like if our work is as effective as it can be.  They allow 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.

Because of NTSB’s detailed investigations, it may seem that our work is largely technical and mechanical, but my 400 colleagues at the NTSB and I never forget that the true purpose of our work is to serve people. A former NTSB 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.

Thank you again for giving me the opportunity to speak with you today.  Since I unfortunately need to leave before 1:00 pm, I thought I would end early to give you a chance to ask questions – if that is allowed – before you hear from Rochelle Sobel.

Thank you.