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Remarks to the 2017 Texas Traffic Safety Conference, Irving, Texas
T. Bella Dinh-Zarr, PhD, MPH
Irving, Texas

Good afternoon!  It is wonderful to be back in Texas.  Thank you, Greg (Winfree), for that kind introduction and thank you, Greg, Bill (Stockton), and Robert (Wunderlich) for inviting me to speak.  It is truly an honor and a pleasure to be here with all of you today.  As you can tell, I am a proud Texan.  I grew up in Galveston and I went to school from Kindergarten through my Ph.D. right here in Texas.  I have worked at several Texas institutions to pay my way through school, so this great state has been good to me.  From the time I was at UT (University of Texas) School of Public Health, TTI (Texas A&M Transportation Institute) , participating in CPS (Child Passenger Safety) seat checks, or volunteering at the Ben Taub Hospital ER (Emergency Room) – I had the privilege of meeting and working with some of you over the years, and I hope I will get the chance to know more of you later today.

I am proud to be here representing the National Transportation Safety Board, or the NTSB, a unique independent federal agency with the sole mission of making transportation safer.  With me, is Nathan Doble, from our Office of Research and Engineering.  Nathan is not from Texas, but I hope you will welcome him anyway.  Nathan is one of the authors of an upcoming NTSB Speeding Study, so I hope you will take some time to meet him during this conference.

Texas is steeped in history and I always like to look up the history of a place when I visit, but since this is my home state, I did not have to do too much research.  From the Texas History class that many of us had to take in the 6th grade, we know that in the 1800’s ranching and farming dominated the economy, rivers and waterways broadened transportation options, but railroad construction expanded development and in 1901, the discovery of oil near Beaumont permanently changed the economy of Texas and the Oil Boom began.  Transportation has been important to Texas long before we were a state, and now we are at a time when YOU will be shaping the future of Texas transportation by doing what is really the most important thing we CAN do, and that is making transportation in Texas as safe as possible.  That is truly historic.

You all have given yourselves an important but challenging task during this conference and for the coming months and years – shaping, developing, and implementing the Texas Strategic Highway Safety Plan.  It is so Texan of you to make this conference a working meeting – a meeting about action and not just words.  Although I cannot help you with the day-to-day worthwhile work you have ahead of you, I would like to tell you about the NTSB and how we might help you by providing information on safety issues, especially the ones you have selected as priorities. In fact, the seven issues you have chosen also are priorities for the NTSB – many of them are associated with safety recommendations we have issued or are part of what we call our Most Wanted List of transportation safety improvements.


Let me tell you a little about the NTSB first.  The NTSB is a unique federal agency in the U.S. because we are independent of all other government agencies and we are charged with investigating transportation accidents.  You may hear about us most often when we rush to the scene of disasters all over the country during a Go Team Launch.  I dressed up for you today, but at the scene of an accident, we all wear our trademark dark blue uniforms with our logo and large yellow letters spelling out NTSB on the back.   During my time at the NTSB, I have been to launches in Philadelphia, PA and Hoboken, NJ for train accidents; Akron, OH for a business jet that crashed into an apartment building; and Jacksonville, FL for a major marine casualty of a cargo ship lost in Hurricane Joaquin, among others.  Our teams have been all over Texas in the past year -- investigating the tragic balloon accident in Lockhart, the church bus crash in Concan, accidents in the Houston Ship Channel, a 3-train collision in Amarillo, the bus crash in Laredo, and many others.  We get there as fast as we can so we can collect data before it disappears.  As one doctor I know says, we are like infectious disease outbreak investigation teams, except what we are investigating is an outbreak of kinetic energy instead of a disease. (That is for all the nerdy engineers out there.)  We get as much information as we can to make recommendations to prevent the next “outbreak.”

Those on-scene investigations are an important part of our work – that is why we are on call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.  Once we have finished our on-scene work, our work continues back at our state-of-the-art labs.  The final result of an investigation is a very thorough report covering every aspect of an accident and including a probable cause and safety recommendations designed to prevent that type of accident from happening again.

Before I get more disapproving looks, yes, I did use the word “accident”.  Although the term “accident” is now not used for motor vehicle crashes, we still use the term “accident” because, under the federal statute 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.  Accident is a term of art in aviation and other modes.  It also underscores the fact that we investigate unintentional accidents – we leave the criminal investigations to the FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation).

People do not talk about values very much these days, especially not at federal agencies, but it is our values at the NTSB that set us apart and help us advance our safety mission.  Some of our most deeply held values are independence, credibility, and transparency.


We are an independent agency and we have five independent board members, like myself, who are nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate for a certain term of office, so our terms are not tied to Administrations or elections.  We do not report to anyone – not the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) or any other federal agency – so we can make recommendations to anyone.


Unlike many government agencies, the NTSB does not have regulatory authority so it is our reputation that allows us to advance safety recommendations. 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. 


As for transparency, all our meetings and deliberations are done in the public eye under the Government in the Sunshine Act, so they are open to the public as well as webcast online.  As you can see if you watch our televised meetings, as Board Members, 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.

Because we do not have any regulatory authority, it is our good reputation – thanks in large part to our extremely transparent process - that helps get our recommendations adopted.  Since our establishment, 80% of our more than 14,000 recommendations, issued to 2,300 recipients, have been adopted successfully.

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 and we all fiercely protect our values of independence, credibility, and transparency.

Highway Safety

Our goal at the NTSB is to help people get around safely, no matter what type of transportation you use.  But I never forget that every year, year in and year out, more people die on the roads than in all other modes combined.  We know that 35,000 people die on our roads here in the United States and, as Robert Wunderlich said, 3,775 of those are right here in Texas.  As someone trained in public health, I think we might call this a public health epidemic.  We might even call it “an epidemic on wheels.”  

Why has there been an increase?  What is causing these 35,000 deaths?  Also, most importantly, what will we do about it?   As I heard from your discussions today – and a few groups that I crashed, you are taking real, substantive steps (though the Texas Strategic Highway Safety Plan) to reduce the number of deaths and injuries on Texas roads.

I know this morning you talked about the seven emphasis areas and are already starting to vote on safety countermeasures.

  •  Impairment
  • Distraction
  • Speeding
  • Intersections
  • Pedestrians
  • Roadway and Lane Departures
  • Older Users

I thought I would provide an example from the area of impairment and briefly discuss the other 6 areas from the perspective of the NTSB which, I hope, will encourage you to reach out to us if we can be of help to you.


When you decide on how you will implement your safety plan, you will have a lot of critics.  But I know that criticism will not stop Texans like you, who know they are doing the right thing.   At the NTSB, we also are sometimes criticized for our safety recommendations.  We are not criticized by the American public – who seem to understand our mission, at least based on the letters I have received - but rather, by groups that are misinformed or worry they might lose profits if a safety recommendation is implemented.  Nowhere has that been more evident than with our recommendations related to impaired driving.

Ten thousand people.  That is how many people die every year due to alcohol-impaired driving in our nation.  The NTSB has made many different recommendations in this area.  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, to name a few.

We made these recommendations almost 4 years ago based on sound science as part of our Reaching Zero study, but we get the most criticism for our recommendation for states to reduce their illegal per se to .05 BAC or lower.  This is despite the fact that 100 countries around the world already have a .05 or lower BAC law and that there have been many peer-reviewed studies demonstrating that such a law would reduce the number of impaired driving crashes.  Robert Wunderlich and Terry Pence may remember a Governors Highway Safety meeting in Seattle just 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.  I was perhaps being very optimistic then, but sure enough, earlier this year, against high odds, during a short legislative session of 45 days, the State of Utah passed the first .05 BAC law in the United States.

How did it happen?  In part, because 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 even at a .05 BAC, people have problems with coordination, vision, and steering.  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 their state, in nearby states, and national publications. These ads contradict information from NHTSA (National Highway Transportation Safety Administration) and the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).  Yet, Utah is being barraged with them because opponents want the law repealed even before it has been enacted.  So far, Utah is holding strong.

I know that laws are not easy to pass, much less a .05 BAC law.  I also know 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 work is most effective, when we are providing information about a safety recommendation to a state – 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 opponents of safety 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, people like you, to make good decisions.


What can we say, except congratulations, Texas!  Distraction has been on the NTSB’s Most Wanted List and we have had a safety recommendation to ban the non-emergency use of electronic devices for several years.  Our Acting Chairman, Robert Sumwalt, has been to Texas twice this year to speak in support of the texting ban and now you have one.


We have a report on speeding in draft form as we speak and the Board will be voting on it, soon. So stay tuned.


We held a Pedestrian Forum last year, which I chaired, and we are now in the midst of our first ever set of investigations into pedestrian fatalities.  Pedestrian deaths do pose a challenge for us, however, because of the lack of large pieces of evidence that we are accustomed to gathering such as you would find at the scene of plane crashes and train wrecks.

Intersections, Roadway and Lane Departures

At the NTSB, we always have recognized the importance of good infrastructure to safety. Safer roads, safer cars, and safer people – are all part of the safety equations, but infrastructure forms the basic foundation for road safety.  Forgiving roads – especially intersections and ways to prevent roadway and lane departures - help reduce death and injury should a crash occur.

I will never forget an investigation we completed about a year and a half ago of a truck-tractor semitrailer that crossed over a median in Davis, Oklahoma, and crashed into a bus filled with members of a college women’s softball team from Texas.  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, so there were a lot of different safety issues.  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. We have made many recommendations related to infrastructure and in fact next week, Don Karol, our senior highway investigator and a former law enforcement officer, will be speaking about run off the road crashes at the First International Roadside Safety Conference.  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, and we will be happy to share our information with you.

Older Users

You are very far-sighted to include Older Road Users as an emphasis area in your plan.  Although the NTSB has not focused specifically on older road users, it is an issue near and dear to me.  I even remember developing and piloting the very first CarFit check when I was at AAA (American Automobile Association)!  A little over 10 years ago, I was appointed by President George W. Bush (yes, I have been appointed by both President Bush and President Obama – safety really is bipartisan!) to the White House Conference on Aging and two of the top 50 priorities for every senior in the nation – up there with health and finances – were related to transportation.  The two issues that seniors from across our nation chose to highlight were: (1) increasing safe transportation options for seniors who could no longer drive and (2) finding ways to keep seniors safely driving longer.  People used to ask me, back when I was about 30, why I was so interested in working on safety for older road users when I was so young.  I sometimes said, well, it is for selfish reasons because I want to be an older road user myself one day!  In addition, we all know that what is good for seniors (improvements in signage, lighting, vehicle crashworthiness) is good for all of us.  When we protect the most vulnerable, we make roads safer for everyone.  I will be happy to talk with you more about tools and relevant recommendations, so please just get in touch with me.

Just as you are doing with the Texas Strategic Highway Safety Plan, at the NTSB, we do our best to make recommendations that are feasible, 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 cannot also be ambitious and inspiring.  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 thinks about getting behind the wheel when impaired by alcohol or other drugs; a world where people of all ages can get around safely and easily; a world where we can send our loved ones to school or work and know that they will come home safely.  Just as those who have worked so many years in infectious diseases were bold when they first imagined a world where smallpox and TB (Tuberculosis) were eliminated, we can imagine a world where there are zero deaths on the roads.  Then we can do something about it.

You are the traffic safety leaders in Texas and you will shape the future of transportation safety here.  You represent a completely good and noble endeavor, which is helping people get to where they need to go, safely.  You are already doing so much in your daily work, as a first responder, researcher, advocate, engineer, or other traffic safety expert.  However, do not forget to tell the story of safety, by explaining why infrastructure is important to saving lives; why we need to separate drinking from driving; why we need to look for transportation solutions for our aging population…with your voice, you can bring life to the cold hard fact; you can make the prevention of 3,775 deaths in Texas something that people think about, care about, and act on.  It is sometimes difficult to understand an epidemic that happens every day, on roads across Texas, one or two at a time.  Nevertheless, Texans gave faces and stories to the tragedies resulting from distracted driving and you passed the texting ban.  I am confident you can do it for impaired driving, infrastructure, older road users, pedestrian safety, and all the issues that are important to you.

We at the NTSB are here to help you.  I would love nothing more than to come back to Texas to prevent a tragedy rather than to investigate one.  All you have to do is ask.

All of our information on investigations and recommendations and everything we do is available publicly on our website.  Nathan and I have both brought a stack of business cards.  We look forward to hearing from you.

I love good quotes and I thought this one, by a US President and a Texan is especially appropriate for the work you have ahead of you. President Lyndon Baines Johnson said,

“There are no problems we cannot solve together, and very few that we can solve by ourselves.” - Lyndon B. Johnson

That is what you are doing here today – working together on a complex set of issues that will ultimately save lives.  It will take time and it will not be easy, but I know Texans are stubborn and never give up.

Since Robert Wunderlich says I have a few more minutes, let me add one more quote.  I had the privilege of working with the Nelson Mandela family in my previous job.  They were champions of road safety, in part because they lost a young family member in a motor vehicle crash when the Olympics were held in South Africa.  I think it is appropriate today to quote President Nelson Mandela, who was imprisoned for 27 years on Robben Island for opposing apartheid and then became President of his country.  He was certainly someone who knew about not giving up.

“It always seems impossible until it’s done”.  – Nelson Mandela

Thank you for your dedication to traffic safety.  Thank you for working on the Texas Strategic Highway Safety Plan which I know will help keep more Texans safe on our roads.  Also, once again, thank you for inviting me to speak.