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


Remarks at the 2009 Press Event on Distracted Driving, Washington, DC
Deborah A. P. Hersman
National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), 2009 Press Event on Distracted Driving, Washington, DC

Good morning, everyone. Chairman Brady, thank you for your kind introduction and for inviting me to participate today. Curbing distracted driving is a commitment I share with you, and I applaud your leadership on this important issue. I also extend my appreciation to the other participants for their efforts as well.

I am here representing my fellow Board Members, Vice Chairman Chris Hart and Member Robert Sumwalt, and the men and women of the NTSB, nearly 400 strong.

As many of you know, the NTSB is a small, independent federal agency. Our mission is to investigate accidents, determine their probable causes, and to issue recommendations to prevent future accidents. Making our highways, skies, railways and waterways safer is our mandate. That is why I am honored to join Chairman Brady to highlight the dangers of distracted driving and to share with you the NTSB’s efforts to reduce this growing problem.

The President, in signing an Executive Order banning federal employees from text messaging while on official government business and using government cars and equipment, sent a clear signal to the American public that distracted driving is dangerous and unacceptable.

We at the Safety Board share the President’s concern and have initiated our own policy to reduce the hazards of distractions while driving. In September, the NTSB issued a policy banning board employees from texting or using cell phone while on official business or when using government provided equipment.

If you are driving a government car, you may not use a cell phone. If you are driving on official business, you may not use a cell phone. If you are driving your own car on personal time, you may not use a government cell phone. Period. It’s that simple. And this goes for the chairman too.

Let me tell you, this has not been easy. Like so many in this room, I was hooked on my blackberry and cell phone. We are connected to them 24/7. To remain relevant in our fast-moving environment, we want to stay connected, and phoning or texting while driving seems like a great way to conduct an extra hour of business and stay in touch. It’s very convenient. But it’s not safe.

Many may think they won’t be able to function without their blackberry, but this reliance on our electronic devices is a relatively new phenomenon. I recall back in the early 1990’s, cell phones were not all that common. At that time, I was working for a member of Congress, and I was charged with getting him his first cell phone, which was so large we had to carry it in a bag! And we had to install a permanent antenna in the Congressman’s car to get coverage, which wasn’t really reliable – talk about frustrating!

We have come a long way since then. Cell phones today are ubiquitous. Over 90% of US residents have one. Yet, this greater use of cell phones is not without consequences.

Let me share with you a few unsettling statistics:

  • Approximately 40,000 people die each year on our nation’s highways. Distracted driving is a cause of many of these accidents.
  • Crashes caused by cell phone use alone is estimated to cost $43 billion per year.
  • Drivers who use a hand held device are at a 1.3 times greater risk of a crash or near crash than drivers who are simply driving – and if the driver is dialing, that number increases to a 2.8 times greater risk.
  • The dangers of distractions while driving are wide-spread and not dissipating. Of drivers in the United States, 81% admit to cell phone use while at the wheel, and 45% acknowledge that they have been hit or nearly hit by a driver using a cell phone.
  • As suggested by one study, driver distraction is identified in around 11-12% of crashes; yet we know that even that number may be too low since the true level of distraction is not known in up to 40% of accidents.

Improving transportation safety must be a priority. It’s not easy. But the risk of catastrophic consequences is just too great. Sometimes we have to choose to do the right thing, instead of the more convenient things. It’s an issue of leadership. It’s an issue of integrity. And it’s an issue of safety.

Despite the statistics, deaths and injuries caused by distracted driving are preventable. We just need to start by being agents of change in our own lives. It’s not enough to just talk the talk. We must walk the walk.

As the 12th Chairman of the NTSB and a Board Member for the past five years, I have learned to appreciate how leadership can be a strong layer of defense in preventing incidents and accidents. If we are going to make a difference and save lives, we may have to take a more aggressive stance and embrace our leadership roles. We may need to be the role models.

Let me share a quote with you about leadership. Rosslyn Carter said, “A leader takes people where they want to go, but a great leader takes people where they don’t necessarily want to go, but ought to be.”

I applaud Chairman Brady, the other participants and many others for taking the courageous path and leading us not just where we want to go, but where we, as a society and as individuals, ought to be.

Changing human behavior is hard, I know. But with our collective leadership, it can be done.

Thank you to each of you for being agents of change, and for this opportunity to join you here today.