Skip Ribbon Commands
Skip to main content
Bookmark and Share this page

Speeches

Remarks at Virginia Highway Safety Summit
T. Bella Dinh-Zarr, PhD, MPH
Richmond, VA
5/17/2017

Good morning!  Thank you, Commissioner Holcomb, for that kind introduction, and many thanks to you, Deputy Commissioner Bishop, Mr. Saunders, Dr. Rice, and everyone at the Virginia Highway Safety Office for inviting me here today.
 
I am very honored to be here with all of you at the Virginia Highway Safety Summit.  I also am so glad to see some familiar faces, as well as meet new colleagues.  I know that each of you is dedicated to saving lives and preventing injuries by making our roads safer, in many different ways, and I look forward to getting to know you and staying in touch. 
 
I am proud to be here representing the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which celebrates 50 years of service this year, and I am joined by my colleagues, Shannon Bennett and John Brown. 
 
As we drove into Richmond yesterday, I thought of the rich history of this city and the rich history of your great state. At the falls of the James River, Richmond has been a transportation hub long before motor vehicles were common, and I know that Richmond continued to be a hub as Virginia has grown (as you can see in this drawing from the 1900’s).  But when I think of Virginia, I do not only think of the past, I also think of the future.
 
Over the years, I have had the pleasure of meeting some impressive youth from your state, such as the members of YOVASO (Youth of Virginia Speak Out About Traffic Safety) and very recently, several FCCLA (Family, Career and Community Leaders of America) students from Virginia high schools visited me in my office.  Talking with these youth always makes me hopeful for highway safety and for our country.
 
I am especially honored to be at this summit this week, which is National Police Week, where more than 25,000 police officers visit the National Law Enforcement Memorial, which is near where I live.  At the NTSB, on our staff, especially in our Office of Highway Safety, we have quite a few former police officers from all over the country.  We also have many spouses of police officers on staff.  One of our colleagues at the NTSB, a former highway patrol officer, recently reminded me that his former colleagues, who have fallen in the line of duty, are listed at the Law Enforcement Memorial, and that more than a few of these deaths were a result of impaired drivers.  But he also reminded me of the quote under the statue of lions at this Memorial, which is: “It is not how these officers died that made them heroes, it is how they lived.” Thank you to all the police officers, who are here today, for all you do to keep our roads safe.
 
Today I would first like to give you a brief overview of the NTSB so that you know us a little better and know our values.  Then I would like to discuss our Most Wanted List, and some of our recommendations that will help make our roads safer, one life at a time.  I used to work on road safety internationally and I have watched the maturing of Sweden’s Vision Zero philosophy for many years.  So it seems fitting that I now work for a federal agency that can perhaps assist you with your Toward Zero Death efforts, towards making our roads safer one life at a time.
 
The NTSB is a unique federal agency in the U.S. because we are independent of all other government agencies.  Essentially, the NTSB has just one simple, but noble, purpose: to conduct investigations and make recommendations to prevent transportation-related deaths and injuries.  The public often sees us at the scene of transportation disasters in our dark blue jackets with the large yellow NTSB emblazoned on the backs.
 
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.  We fiercely protect our values of independence, credibility, and transparency because these are the values that define our agency.  We are truly independent because we do not “report to” anyone – not the USDOT (United States Department of Transportation) or any other federal entity – so we can make recommendations to anyone.  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” is not used much anymore for motor vehicles, we still use the term “accident” for overall transportation disasters because, in our federal statute (which is the law that created the NTSB), we are charged by 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 (Federal Bureau of Investigations).  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 people get around safely, no matter what type of transportation you use. You will see us at the scene of aviation accidents, maritime casualties, rail accidents, and pipeline and hazardous materials disasters.  But I never forget that every year, year in and year out, more people die on the roads than in all other modes combined.
 
As in all our investigations, to maintain our credibility, our highway investigations are very in-depth and careful, covering everything from human performance to crashworthiness to the weather.
 
In addition, after we leave the scene of the crash, our work still continues.
 
Ultimately, our work results in products that contain recommendations to advance safety including reports, safety studies, and special investigative reports. We deliberate, make these decisions, and by-law vote on all items in public during sunshine meetings.  Also, we are so transparent that you will never see more than 2 Board Members together at a time discussing an investigation!  These recommendations 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, or setting standards for 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. We have issued over 14,000 safety recommendations to over 2,300 recipients over the years – and in all modes of transportation.  In addition, 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.  We are sometimes criticized, even vilified, for our efforts.  However, that does not stop us.
Sometimes I have interviews with television, radio, or 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– covering all modes of transportation - that represent safety challenges; challenges which have a strong chance of being advanced if given some good hard pushes.  This year, 7 of the 10 issue areas we selected are related to motor vehicle safety. These areas include:  Impaired Driving, Occupant Protection, Data Recorders in Vehicles, Crash Avoidance Systems, Distracted Driving, Medical Fitness for Duty, and Fatigue.  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 Data Recorders, Impairment, and Occupant Protection.
 
Our time is relatively short today and you have many interesting panels so, although all of the issues are important and many of you have been working on some of the issues such as Distraction, I thought I would focus on 2 of my Most Wanted issues – not only because they are issues that we continue to face, across our country and in every state, every day, but also because they are two basic issues with proven, measurable solutions that, if implemented, could start saving lives today. 
 
We have made many different recommendations related to alcohol-impaired driving with the aim of separating drinking from driving. We have recommended reducing the illegal per se BAC (blood alcohol concentration) limit for all drivers; conducting high-visibility enforcement of impaired driving laws, and incorporating passive alcohol-sensing technology into enforcement efforts; expanding the use of in-vehicle devices to prevent operation by an impaired driver; and DWI courts and other programs to reduce recidivism by repeat DWI offenders. Implementing any of these recommendations would reduce impaired-driving fatalities.
 
So first, I would like to congratulate you and thank you for your commitment and investment in DADSS (Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety Program).  By getting vehicles deployed and exposing more people to this technology, you will help to advance DADSS in a meaningful way!  Thank you, Commissioner Holcomb, Deputy Commissioner Bishop, Mr. Saunders, Dr. Rice, and everyone at the Highway Safety Office.  Thank you, Virginia, for your leadership which will truly help save lives in Virginia and around the nation.  I look forward to hearing more about your plans for DADSS in the later sessions.
 
I mentioned earlier that we are sometimes criticized for our safety recommendations.  Nowhere has that been more evident that with our recommendation for states to reduce their illegal per se to .05 BAC.
 
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 per se BAC law from .08 to .05 BAC or lower for driving.  We made this recommendation almost 4 years ago based on sound science as part of our Reaching Zero study and we know about 100 countries around the world already have a .05 BAC or lower law.  There have been many peer-reviewed studies demonstrating that such a law would prevent impaired driving crashes.  Earlier this year, against high odds, during a short legislative session of 45 days, Utah passed the first .05 BAC law in the United States.
 
How did it happen?  In part because a state requested safety information and the NTSB was able to provide 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 BAC law helps people to simply separate drinking from driving. 
 
Utah made the right decision.  They passed the law despite opponents using scare tactics and spreading misinformation through expensive full-page ads in Utah newspapers and USA Today, and yes, despite opponents personally calling everyone (include me) names such as neo-prohibitionist.
 
We know .05 BAC is not easy and every state is different with very different political realities, but Utah requesting information from the NTSB 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.  It demonstrates the NTSB’s ability to be agile and respond quickly and accurately to these types of requests for the benefit of safety.  I think it also demonstrates our dedication to a good cause even when opponents launch attacks against us.  We are not here to fight these misguided people (as much as I love a good fight for a good cause).  The NTSB is here to provide solid, accurate, independent safety information for people to make decisions.
 
A decade or two ago, many issues we face today did not exist, or at least were not as widespread – autonomous vehicles, distracted driving, marijuana legalization and its effect on driving, the opioid epidemic, the unpredictable effects of synthetic drugs.  Many of these issues are intuitively risky and dangerous, and many of you come face to face with them every day in your work, but the difficulty is to objectively identify and measure these new or emerging issues.  Unlike alcohol, where the measurements are established and the effects are well known, distraction and drugs – while very important concerns – are still being studied.  This will be a challenge that all of us will face – and the NTSB is keeping a sharp eye on all of these emerging issues.  Nevertheless, to go back to basics, no matter what the risky behavior, the one thing we can all do for continued improvement is occupant protection.  Wearing a seat belt is the one action that will likely protect no matter what caused the crash.
 
NTSB has made recommendations on vehicle improvements and other aspects of occupant protection, but I know there has been much discussion about primary seat belt laws here in Virginia.  But I am not going to nag you about primary laws…well, not too much…because I know you know.  I WILL say that Virginia deserve kudos for your very strong primary laws that protect children and anyone under the age of 18.  I know that all of you, as highway safety experts, support  primary seat belt laws (which is our recommendation, of course) and have been working on that effort for many years in Virginia.  No one can predict political changes but perhaps something can be done until the time comes for Virginia to pass a primary law.
 
The NTSB cannot comment on implementation or enforcement of laws.  We only  can make recommendations about effective laws – and that is why we recommend that every state pass a primary seat belt law for every seating position.  But I should say that you DO have a seat belt law in Virginia – a secondary law is still a law nonetheless.  In addition, you have a strong and rich history of innovation and accomplishment in Virginia.  You have an amazing state known for its excellent universities and colleges, for its inventors and innovators, for being the home of Presidents, even a large part of the internet depends on Virginia for its data flow.
 
With all of these assets, I am confident that you will come up with an effective answer to the question:  What are innovative ways to increase seat belt use in every seating position until (yes, I did say UNTIL) a primary seat belt law is passed in Virginia?  I have great confidence that you will do it.
 
In addition, rest assured that when you call upon the NTSB to provide information to advance transportation safety, we will be here.
 
At the NTSB, we make safety recommendations that are feasible and practical, and doable.  Yet that does not mean they cannot ALSO be inspiring and ambitious.  Taken as a whole, our safety recommendations 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 gets behind the wheel when impaired by alcohol or drugs.  They allow us to imagine a world with zero deaths on our streets and highways, 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 like you, my 400 colleagues at the NTSB and I never forget that the true purpose of our work is to serve people.  That awareness echoes the thought of a famous Virginian, Thomas Jefferson: "The care of human life and happiness…is the first and only legitimate object of good government."  For 50 years, we have taken that mission to heart at the NTSB and we stand ready now to assist.  Thank you for all you do to make Virginia roads safe and thank you for the opportunity to be with you today.