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Speeches

Remarks to American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO)
T. Bella Dinh-Zarr, PhD, MPH
Portland, ME
5/24/2017

Good afternoon!  Thank you for that very kind introduction, Rudy, and thank you, Bud, King, Jim, Joung, Kelly, and their colleagues at AASHTO (American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials).  I am honored to have been invited to speak today.  Long before I was at the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board), I have appreciated the good work of AASHTO, the AASHTO staff, and your members, some of whom I have the pleasure of knowing for many years.  It is truly an honor to be with you today at the AASHTO Spring Meeting.  I also am glad to be here, in the beautiful state of Maine. 
 
As Commissioner Dave Bernhardt knows, both the State of Maine’s Highway Office and AASHTO are over 100 years old. In 1913, the Maine State Legislature created the three-member Maine State Highway Commission, and charged it with the ambitious task of building a “system of connected main highways throughout the state” -- and you have to remember, this was with only 12 employees at the time!  Just a year later, in 1914, AASHTO was created, although of course it was called just AASHO, without the T, then.
 
Even though AASHTO’s first safety committee was not officially created until the 1970s, I know from documents that I have seen, thanks to AASHTO’s historian Bob Cullen, that safety has been part of AASHTO’s work (part of your values as Rudy said) since its start in 1914.  Perhaps that is the difficulty with safety.  It seems so logical and inherent in our goals that sometimes we forget to talk about it explicitly.  The 14 engineers who first discussed the creation of AASHTO said they were addressing the concerns of “getting America out of the mud” by addressing highway issues, but what was left unsaid, perhaps because it was so obvious, was that they wanted to do so safely.
 
The NTSB is not as old as AASHTO.  We were established first as part of the Air Commerce Act of 1926 as part of the Commerce Department. In 1967, NTSB was designated as an independent entity, so we are exactly 50 years old this year. 
 
Yet, like AASHTO, at the NTSB, although we work hard on safety for all modes of transportation, we know that more people die on the roads, by far, than any other mode of transportation.  So, I will focus primarily on highway safety today, but I am happy to answer questions or talk with you anytime about any of the other modes.
 
It is fitting that we are here today to talk about safety in the month of May, which is when the United Nations (UN) General Assembly annually recognizes the importance of highway safety through activities such as Global Road Safety Week.   In my previous life, I worked with the UN and reducing road traffic deaths is now a health target in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, thanks in part to the support of AASHTO and the leadership of AASHTO “alums” like Tony Kane, John Horsley, Jack Basso, as well as Michigan DOT (Department of Transportation) Director and former AASHTO Chairman Kirk Steudle.  AASHTO, working with FHWA (Federal Highway Administration), was a leader in the Toward Zero Deaths efforts in the United States and you did it long before it was a well-known or an accepted idea as it is now.
 
Not many years ago, road deaths were a completely unrecognized threat to health and welfare worldwide, but today, road safety is considered a public health goal even by the United Nations!
 
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 35,000 occur here, in the United States.  The latest available NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) stats show that we face the greatest annual percentage increase in highway deaths in nearly 50 years.  As a public health scientist, myself, I would call this a public health epidemic.  We might even call it the re-emergence of “an epidemic on wheels.”  Fortunately, the people in this room are just the right people to do something about it.
 
Why has there been an increase?  What is causing these 35,000 deaths?  Also, most importantly, what can we do about it?   As you know, some of the issues are complicated and many of them are difficult to measure -– distraction, changing technology, the effect of marijuana legalization, the opioid epidemic.  These are all important and they are all areas that the NTSB and your states are keeping a sharp eye on. 
 
There also are the straightforward issues in safety that can be measured – issues that have a huge impact; issues that need your help.  You do not have to focus on these exact issues – you know your state best and what is feasible and do-able and will be effective, but I will use 3 “straightforward” issues as examples.  I have a feeling you can guess what they are, but I am going to try to keep you in suspense, at least for a moment.
 
At the NTSB, we have one single mission: to investigate accidents to advance transportation safety.  That is our one and only charge and that is why we are on call 24 hours a day 365 days a year.  We also fiercely protect our values of independence, transparency and credibility.  In addition to our investigations, we also work on advocacy issues for safety and one of our most important tools is our Most Wanted List.  The NTSB's Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements highlights safety-critical actions that should be taken to prevent accidents and save lives in all modes of transportation.  The issues on our Most Wanted List this year that are most relevant to road safety are: 
 
·       Impaired Driving
·       Occupant Protection
·       Data Recorders in Vehicles
·       Crash Avoidance Systems
·       Distracted Driving
·       Medical Fitness for Duty, and
·       Fatigue 
 
Each of these areas has immense lifesaving potential.  I should mention that Infrastructure Improvements also have been on past Most Wanted Lists. 
 
So, what are the 3 “straightforward” areas that I mentioned earlier?  I think I might have given it away but yes, they are Infrastructure, Alcohol-Impaired Driving, and Seat Belts.
 
 
 
INFRASTRUCTURE
 
At the NTSB, we have always recognized the importance of good infrastructure to safety. Safer roads, safer cars, and safer people – each is vital to reaching zero deaths, but we cannot forget that infrastructure forms the basic foundation for road safety.
 
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 also must 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.
Over the past two years, 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 multiple major train accidents.  Every time, the devastation is always terrible.
 
But I will never forget an investigation we completed about a year and a half ago of a t truck-tractor semitrailer that crossed over a median and crashed into a bus filled with members of a college women’s softball team in Davis, Oklahoma.  Our 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.  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 might have prevented those 4 deaths and 13 injuries.  It was sad that the median barriers could not save those college students, but they are saving lives now, every day, as we speak, by preventing crossover crashes. This investigation reminds me of the importance of what AASHTO members do every day - implementing infrastructure solutions as fast as possible, in order to save lives.
 
As it is somewhat related to infrastructure or at least maintaining infrastructure, I wanted to mention that coming up next month is the first Secure Your Load Day which was started by one determined mother whose daughter was seriously injured (including being blinded) by another car’s unsecured load while driving.  Although we investigated another horrific accident involving road debris when I first joined the NTSB, I had no idea at the time there are 51,000 crashes, 440 people are killed, and 10,000 are injured every year due to debris.  Secure Your Load Day is June 6 and 42 states have already signed on to participate on that day.  I will not announce out loud here which 8 states are NOT participating, but please come ask me if you want to know if your state is (or is not) participating. 
 
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.  Like you, we are committed to supporting safe infrastructure so we can prevent terrible crashes like the one in Davis, OK, from ever happening again.  Thank you for your work on this important issue.
 
 
ALCOHOL-IMPAIRED DRIVING
 
Ten thousand people.  That is how many people die every year due to alcohol-impaired driving – almost 1/3 of the total number of motor vehicle fatalities in our country.  We have made many different recommendations related to alcohol-impaired driving based on the philosophy 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 (driving while impaired) 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 thank the Commonwealth of Virginia for its commitment and investment in the Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety or DADSS.  I was just in Richmond, VA, last week, and got to try out the latest DADSS sensors in a test vehicle (I passed).  By getting vehicles deployed and exposing more people to this technology, Virginia will help to advance DADSS in a meaningful way, which will help both Virginia and the nation. 
 
NTSB is sometimes criticized for our safety recommendations.  Nowhere has that been more evident than with our recommendation for states to reduce their illegal per se to .05 BAC or lower.
 
We made this recommendation almost 4 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.  Roger Millar may remember a Governors Highway Safety meeting in Seattle last year where I said it is NOT a question of IF, it is a question of WHEN a state would pass a lower BAC law.  Perhaps I was being optimistic then, but sure enough, 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, some people in Utah 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 BAC 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 their drinking from their 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 national publications. (It is likely they soon will be publishing these false ads in your state, too).  Yes, despite opponents calling everyone (include me) names such as neo-prohibitionist.
 
We know .05 BAC is not easy and that every state is different with very different political realities, but this instance of 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 to you – at your request – so you 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 engage these misguided people in a public fight (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.
 
 
OCCUPANT PROTECTION
 
20 or even 10 years ago, many issues we talk about today did not exist or at least were not very well-known – autonomous vehicles, distracted driving, marijuana legalization and its effect on driving, the opioid epidemic, and 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 –very important concerns – are still being studied.  This will be a challenge that all of us will face – and the NTSB is keeping an eye on all of these emerging issues – but to go back to basics, no matter what the risky behavior, the one thing we can all do to continue to improve is occupant protection.  Wearing a seat belt is the single action that can protect us no matter what caused the crash.
 
I am not going to nag the states without a primary law about the importance of primary laws…well, not too much…because I know that you know.  You are transportation leaders and safety experts, so you know.  I WILL say that because we keep seeing crash after crash and death and after death because of the lack of restraint use, the NTSB has recently reiterated our safety recommendation that every state have a primary seat belt law for every seating position in every vehicle.   Many of you in a state without a primary law have been speaking about primary laws for many years and you may be frustrated.  But as we have seen, no one can predict political changes and perhaps something can be done soon in your state.  For those of you in states with primary laws, every bit of support for strengthening your laws that you can give or simply raising awareness about seat belt use every time in every seat has the very real potential of preventing a death or injury.
 
I was listening to the radio this weekend and the host was interviewing a historian and philosopher from England.  Frankly, some of it was a little over my head, making references to books I had not read.  But one thing stuck with me.  This professor said -- and by the way, she was referring to terrible events in human history like the Holocaust but she indicated it really applied to everything – something like “Facts don’t always stick but witness or stories bring meaning to facts.” 
 
It reminded me of the time I spoke to a flying club about the importance of flight checklists, but it was not until I mentioned one regional investigation where I saw the fuel-soaked wreckage left when a very experienced pilot – who also was an airplane mechanic - crashed into a cornfield because he did not go over his checklist – that what gave meaning to the importance of following a checklist each and every time.
 
Likewise, you have stories – your own and those of people in your states – that you can tell, without revealing any private information, to help people understand what 35,000 deaths every year on our highways means.  It is sometimes difficult to bring meaning to an epidemic that happens every day, in every state, one or two at a time.  You are the face of transportation in your states so you are the most effective spokesperson to speak about safety.
 
You, as the CEOs of your state departments of transportation, as leaders of AASHTO, as industry partners, as leaders of your states and indeed leaders of our nation, are vital to shaping the future of transportation safety.  I think everyone accepts the fact that you are important to transportation in our nation, but I hope you know just how important you are to transportation safety in our nation.  You determine how the people of your states and how Americans think of safety.  You are lucky.  You represent a completely good and noble endeavor, which is helping people get to where they need to go, safely.  You represent a common good that everyone can support, something people are sometimes desperate to have.  What you do and say can save lives and prevent countless injuries in your states.   In addition, it is your stories that will drive the facts home.  You are already doing so much in your daily work, but by also being a witness, by telling your story about safety, by explaining why infrastructure is important to saving lives, why securing your load or not drinking and driving is important, why the simple act of wearing a seat belt is vital…you can bring life to the cold hard facts, you can make the prevention of 35,000 deaths something that people think about, care about, and act on.
 
We at the NTSB are here to help you.  I would love nothing more than to visit your state to prevent a tragedy rather than to investigate one.  All you have to do is ask.  I have brought cards with my information - and Bud, King, Joung, Kelly, and Jim, can also put you in touch with me – they all see me probably more than they want to in DC– so do not hesitate to ask.
 
All of our information on investigations and recommendations and everything we do is available on our website.  I should mention that we are in the midst of our first set of investigations into pedestrian fatalities, which have been on the rise and are so important. They do pose a challenge for us, however, because of the lack of large pieces of evidence that we are accustomed to gathering.
 
The Board also has approved a Speed Study, which is being conducted by our Office of Research & Engineering, and is expected to be out late this year.
 
I often like to quote Thomas Jefferson because he said: "The care of human life and happiness…is the first and only legitimate object of good government."
 
But I want to add a supporting quote from one of AASHTO’s own presidents. Carl Brown of Missouri, the 36th President of AASHTO said:
 
“It is the duty of the highway official…to design, construct, and maintain our highways so that they will be safe.  It is the further duty of every State Highway Department to inform the public of various safety measures, in other words, ‘sell safety.’  With human lives at stake, the realization of our stupendous task is cause for daily sober reflection and action.” – Carl Brown
 
It is certainly a stupendous task, but if anyone can do it, the good men and women of AASHTO and your State Departments of Transportation can.
 
When I worked internationally, I had the privilege of collaborating with the Mandela family, who lost a child in a motor vehicle crash when the Olympics were held in South Africa.  So, I will end with the words of one last President who certainly knew about struggle and persistence. President Nelson Mandela, who was imprisoned for 27 years for opposing apartheid and then became President, said:
 
“It always seems impossible until it’s done”.  – Nelson Mandela
 
Thank you for all you do to keep our roads safe.  Thank you for your leadership in transportation.  Also, once again, thank you for inviting me to speak.