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Remarks at 22nd Enhanced Safety of Vehicles Conference, Washington, DC
Deborah A. P. Hersman
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 22nd Enhanced Safety of Vehicles Conference, Washington, DC

Thank you, Dan (Smith) for that gracious introduction.

At the NTSB, we have no regulatory authority.  Rather, our role is to investigate accidents and make recommendations to agencies, such as changes to prevent future accidents. 

Davis Ward spoke about great improvements over the last one hundred years.  I will talk about some of the commercial vehicle accidents that we have investigated, and I will show you the very real lifesaving difference that could have been made had the vehicles been equipped with enhanced vehicle safety technology.

Earlier this year, NHTSA released the U.S. traffic fatality numbers for 2010.  The number and rate of traffic fatalities is down dramatically.  While the recession has likely contributed to that decline, I believe many lives were saved due to technology enhancements, many of them mandatory. 

Passenger vehicles manufactured today are equipped with proven technology that helps prevent and mitigate the consequences of crashes.  Consumers have come to expect safety technology in their personal vehicles.

It was not that long ago that anti-lock braking systems and air bags were the new must-have safety items.  That list of safety features is growing. Today, for example, my six-year-old mini-van has side curtain air bags, a backing camera, adaptive cruise control, and parking sensors.

Yet, here’s the safety challenge. Our family’s van, which weighs around two tons, boasts more safety technologies than many 80,000-pound trucks and large buses. And, those vehicles — up to 20 times the weight of my mini-van — are the ones that are driven many more miles, on much longer trips, and by drivers who frequently work long shifts and drive through the night.

What is wrong with this picture?

Here’s what is wrong. The NTSB is investigating the bus crash that happened just two weeks ago about 60 miles south of here — killing four passengers and injuring several others.

We are also investigating the March bus rollover in the Bronx that killed 15 people and injured 18. That tragedy was followed days later by two more bus crashes — a crash in New Jersey that killed two people and another crash in New Hampshire that injured all 25 onboard.

Bus accidents are garnering a lot of attention this summer, but they aren’t new.  In fact, in the last 13 years, we’ve launched to 36 bus accident investigations.

It’s one thing when a mini-van rear-ends another vehicle. It’s quite another when the rear-end collision is caused by a commercial vehicle.  Yet, as everyone here knows, technology — including forward-collision warning systems, lane-departure warning, and electronic stability control — is available and can help prevent accidents due to fatigue or distraction from occurring in the first place.

For ten years, the NTSB has recommended that NHTSA require forward-collision warning on commercial vehicles. 

Perhaps the biggest point that I want to make today is this:  These enhanced safety technologies have immense benefits.  Yet, there are no regulatory requirements for our largest, heaviest commercial vehicles to be equipped. 

Even more to the point:  Despite the availability of the technology, we still do not have performance standards.

This is why our recommendations are still open.

It’s said that picture is worth a thousand words. Let me show you the clear safety benefits of these technologies.

First, let’s look at forward-collision warning.  In 1999, the Safety Board investigated a tractor-trailer accident in New Mexico.  The truck was travelling at about 75 miles per hour when it collided with two vehicles — whose flashers were activated — that were traveling about 30 miles per hour.

Investigators determined that there was adequate sight distance for the driver of the tractor-trailer to see the slow-moving vehicles.

However, investigators also determined that the 7:45 a.m. sun was most likely affecting the truck driver’s forward vision. 

The Safety Board produced two animations to show the “before and after” — how this accident happened and how it could have been avoided if the truck been equipped with a forward-collision warning system. 

In the next animation, the truck has a forward-collision warning system.

The hardware for the system is illustrated in the lower right-hand corner.  Notice, that as the vehicle approaches the slower traffic the warning system illuminates yellow, orange, and then red — as well as beeps — as the truck approaches the van.  The driver now has enough time to steer around the van.

A decade ago following a year with one-third of traffic deaths due to commercial vehicle rear-end collisions — the Safety Board conducted a Special Investigation Report on using technology for preventing rear-end collisions.  For this report, the Safety Board explored the technology — including implementation, consumer acceptance, public perception, and training associated with their use.

In the nine years since we published the special report, the NTSB has investigated nine rear-end collisions, in which 39 people died and 124 were injured. These accidents involved tractor-trailers, motorcoaches, school buses, and passenger vehicles.

During this time, the Safety Board has twice reiterated the importance of forward-collision warning systems.

We issued the reiterations following accidents in Hampshire, Illinois, in 2003, and in Miami, Oklahoma, in 2009.

Eighteen people died because the truck drivers did not recognize slowed traffic in front of them.

Let’s look at the Miami, Oklahoma, accident to see how a forward-collision warning system could have prevented this accident. 

You will see the truck approaching a queue of slow-moving vehicles.  The green in front of the truck represents the 350 feet that the forward-collision system detects.  When the truck is 350 feet behind the slowing vehicle, the forward-collision system detects the vehicle and the truck begins to slow down.  It is able to stop and avoids striking the slow-moving traffic.

Forward-collision systems can be effective. This technology is available now for both commercial vehicles and our personal vehicles.

Another technology that the Safety Board has been advocating is electronic stability control, or ESC, for trucks and buses.  All new passenger cars are required to have this technology by model year 2013.  Most new cars have the technology today.   However, there is no requirement for this technology on trucks and buses. 

Recently, the Board investigated a 2009 single-vehicle accident in Arizona that involved a medium-sized bus.  The bus driver had become distracted and his bus drifted to the left. 

As you will see in this next animation, the bus driver steers the vehicle hard to the right and then to the left before the vehicle rolls onto its side.  The video doesn’t show the rollover. 

The driver attempts to over-correct. As a result, he is unable to control the vehicle — and it spins out of control, crosses into the median, and rolls over.

The second animation shows how the accident may have been avoided had the bus been equipped with an ESC system. 

The ESC-equipped bus, shown in blue, is able to stay on the road.

Technology is not a panacea for all accidents.  Drivers remain the most important safety element in a vehicle.  And, the driver will always be more complicated than any machine. Drivers can be distracted, impaired, or fatigued — to name a few. This is why these technologies are even more important. They can improve human performance by giving drivers advanced warning of an impending crash.

This is the Decade of Action for Road Safety. Worldwide, more than three-thousand people die each day in traffic crashes.  Worldwide, there is commitment to do more to save lives on our roads.

This Conference is the perfect opportunity to share what works, and to start taking action early in the Decade of Action. 

These safety technologies exist.  We’re not waiting for these them to come out of the laboratory; they could be in today’s commercial vehicle fleet.

What we need are the performance standards and regulatory requirements that mandate these safety enhancing technologies in every truck and bus.

The economy will rebound. Traffic will increase. We must deploy these technologies now. We should not wait for another tragedy.