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Remarks at the Department of Transportation (DOT) Safety Summit, Washington, DC
T. Bella Dinh-Zarr, PhD, MPH
Washington, DC

Good morning!  Thank you for inviting the NTSB to be a part of the Safety Summit today.  It is a pleasure and an honor to be here with you.   I am delighted that my colleagues at the NTSB (would you raise your hands please?) are here to participate in the Round Table Discussions.  We are an independent agency with 5 independent Board Members, like myself, and our mission is to investigate transportation disasters and make recommendations to prevent them from happening again.  Many of you are very familiar with the NTSB and our safety recommendations, which come to your offices.  A few of you may primarily know us from our dark blue jackets with big yellow letters at the scene of a transportation disaster.   But I remember first meeting some of you many years ago when I arrived in DC from Texas for a job at the DOT, back when we were still in the Nassif Building.  I loved the work I did then at DOT and I love the work I do now at the NTSB – because we have such noble goals.  We work to keep America, and indeed the world, safe and mobile.  That is such a privilege.

Today I know we will be discussing a Systemic Safety Approach and then have multi-modal Roundtables on 5 safety themes.  My previous international work was heavily influenced by the Safe Systems approach and I know you will be hearing from an excellent panel today on this topic.  The Safe Systems approach is, in some ways, an inherent part of the NTSB because of our multi-modal nature and our interdisciplinary expertise.  In a single investigation, whether it involves a plane, train, pipeline, motor vehicle, or ship, we may examine everything from infrastructure to vehicle mechanics to organizational culture to the health of the operator to the weather.   It helps us to have this varied expertise in-house because we are an independent agency and we conduct all of our analyses independently.  In the highway safety world, we have watched the maturing of Sweden’s Vision Zero philosophy for many years, which led to the Toward Zero Deaths initiative and I know that Federal Highways and NHTSA are now spearheading the Road to Zero initiative for the United States.  We have been incorporating this type of broad safety approach already, so I am not sure if Safe Systems can exactly be called “brand new,” but it certainly is helpful that now, the safe systems approach is becoming rather “mainstream” as more people are learning about it and finding it useful.

I would be remiss if I came here today and did not mention our Most Wanted List (MWL) to you.  For over 25 years, we have chosen ten issues – covering all modes of transportation - that represent important safety challenges; challenges which have a strong chance of being advanced if given some good hard pushes by the right people. MWL issues are somewhat of a balance between what can be achieved fairly quickly (the low hanging fruit) and what has the greatest impact in terms of preventing accidents and saving lives.

Last year, as an agency, we changed how we implement the Most Wanted List – switching from a one-year to a two-year cycle.  Our 2017-2018 Most Wanted List covers the following 10 issue areas, many of which are multi-modal.  They are:

  • reduce fatigue-related accidents
  • increase implementation of collision avoidance technologies
  • strengthen occupant protection
  • expand recorder use to enhance safety
  • prevent loss of control in flight in general aviation
  • require medical fitness
  • improve rail transit safety oversight
  • eliminate distractions
  • end alcohol and other drug impairment, and
  • ensure the safe shipment of hazardous materials.

As independent Board Members, we each can and do work on any of the 10 issues, but we also have divided them up so that each of us takes the lead on 2 or 3 issues.  My issues are Occupant Protection, Data Recorders, and Impairment.

I would like to give one timely example about our MWL since it is an example of how we promote our safety recommendations and it touches on some of the Roundtable Topics – and like Safe Systems, it is an area where we have learned from our international colleagues.  I spoke about an aviation example – recorders – in the Safety Council meeting earlier this morning, but now, I would like to speak about highway safety and specifically, a topic that can impact all of us personally, no matter what mode we work in.  Impaired driving.  Over the past year, when journalists called me, they often wanted to know more about NTSB’s recommendation to all 50 U.S. States and Territories to change the illegal Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) law from .08 to .05 BAC or lower for driving.  We made this recommendation 3 years ago based on sound science as part of our Reaching Zero study and we know that about 100 countries around the world already have a .05 or lower BAC law.  There have been many peer-reviewed studies demonstrating that such a law would prevent impaired driving crashes.  Earlier this year, against high odds, with a fairly new legislator as the sponsor, and despite a very short legislative session of 45 days, Utah passed the first .05 BAC law in the United States.

How did it happen?  In part because the NTSB was able to provide important safety information to a state that requested it.  When Utah legislators reached out to me, we were able to give them information to show that in countries with a .05 BAC law, people consume more alcohol per capita and yet were still less likely to die from impaired driving. We showed them that there is ample evidence 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 prevents high BAC drivers, who are involved in the most crashes, from getting behind the wheel.  We also told them that a .05 law encourages people to find other forms of transportation when they have been drinking – especially in these days of advanced technology and connectivity.  We told them that a .05 law helps people to simply separate drinking from driving.

Because of this evidence provided by an independent credible source such as the NTSB, and despite full page ads taken out by opponents to scare the people of Utah into not supporting this lifesaving bill, the .05 bill passed both the Utah House and Senate and was signed into law by Governor Herbert.  This is an example of when our Most Wanted List is most effective, when we are providing information about a safety recommendation that we have made so that an entity – in this case a state – can take action to save lives.  Even though this is a highway safety example, I think it demonstrates the NTSB’s ability to be agile and respond quickly to these types of requests in any mode for the benefit of safety.  But we could not have done it alone.  It was because we had information from you, our federal colleagues here at the DOT as well as at the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) that we were able to provide such useful information.

Let’s face it.  Safety is not glamorous and sometimes it is not fun to be the ones always thinking of the worst-case scenario.  But this is what we all do best.  We think of the worst-case scenarios in transportation and then we think of how we can prevent it from happening.  Millions of people across the country and indeed, around the world, are safer because of that.

I know sometimes NTSB makes BIG ASKS of the US DOT in our recommendations.  Sometimes these recommendations take months, even years to accomplish.  In addition, sometimes we disagree on the best means of implementation.  But that is why events like today’s Safety Summit are so important, they bring us together - US DOT experts and NTSB experts - to continue our on-going dialogue of how we can work together better to make transportation safer for everyone.

Being an independent agency does not mean we should not have open communication and stay in touch with all of you. I am confident that meetings like this one will encourage us all to stay in touch.  We should do more of this!  Face-to-face meetings remind us that there are people on both sides of those recommendations – and that makes our work not only more enjoyable but more likely to result in a better solution.

I was trained originally in public health and I am so proud of the work we do at the NTSB and the work we ALL do, in all of our government agencies, to make our country and the world a safer, healthier place to live.

From having worked at DOT years ago, I know that all of you, like my colleagues now at the NTSB, bring humanity and compassion to what you do.   Because of our line of work, it may seem that all what we do is largely technical or mechanical, but like you, I try to never forget that the greater purpose of our work is to serve people – those injured and killed in accidents and crashes – and that we all have the same goal: to advance transportation safety.  Keeping this goal in mind – and doing what it takes to accomplish it – I think inherently promotes and encourages a safe systems approach, across modes and across disciplines.

A former Chairman from the 90’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.

In closing, I would like to thank you for the contributions you each make to transportation safety.  Many of you have dedicated your lives to this cause, which has a positive impact on people’s lives every day, at home and around the globe.  Here’s to continuing to learn from each other, to keeping lines of communication open, AND to using the safe systems approach to achieve our common goal: to make transportation ever safer.  It is an honor to be with you today and I look forward to the discussions.  Thank you.