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Remarks at the Governors Highway Safety Association Annual Meeting, San Diego, CA
Deborah A. P. Hersman
Remarks at the Governors Highway Safety Association Annual Meeting, San Diego, CA

Thank you for the kind introduction - it's great to be here in beautiful California - the busiest state when it comes to highway travel. I have worked with GHSA for many years, but the last time I addressed your annual conference was in 2009 in Savannah.

Being here feels like a reunion of sorts - many friends, colleagues and professionals - but all with a shared commitment to safety.

To the GHSA family - Kendall [Poole], thank you for your inspired leadership as Chairman. You have done a terrific job – and work with such a great team. Jonathan Atkins and Kara Macek give us promise for the future, while we recognize others that have been a part of the GHSA history. I will miss my friend, Barbara Harsha, who during her 25 years of service to GHSA, was committed to improving highway safety.

The last few months for us at the National Transportation Safety Board have been extremely busy – responding to accidents in rail, highway, marine and aviation. Each crash reminds us of the need to be ever vigilant. When a major interstate bridge span collapses, when a major artery of the New York City transit system is shut down – we are painfully reminded about the importance of transportation to our communities.

We gather at a time when millions of our fellow citizens will take to the roads for that last holiday weekend of the summer. Unfortunately for our law enforcement professionals, holiday weekends are anything but a vacation. As Lt. Kelly Cardoza and the CHP know all too well, these are deadly times and officers risk their lives to keep us safe.

Please raise your hand if you work within the law enforcement community.

For every Memorial Day, 4th of July, Labor Day and all the other holiday weekends that you work out on the road - we appreciate all you do to save lives and prevent injuries by enforcing laws and educating the public on traffic safety.

Unfortunately, this holiday weekend some will not make it home. In fact, AAA predicts an increase in fatalities this weekend, with the uptick in Labor Day travelers. Lives, tragically cut short. Dying in crashes on our nation's highways. This is why we are all here - our shared commitment to safety.

That commitment stems from your passion for highway safety and fulfilling the vision of GHSA – moving toward zero deaths on our roadways.

The NTSB shares in this vision – a goal of zero deaths. But make no mistake – to reach such a bold goal will require a shared commitment to safety - both in leadership and in action.

Yesterday, you heard presentations regarding the promise of technology:

Ron [Medford] spoke about Google's self-driving car. Sure, a few years ago, it seemed like a "Jetsons" concept. But for those of us that have ridden in that car - the future is already here.

Unfortunately, progress is likely to be slow because, as history has shown us, the rulemaking process can't keep pace with the development of new and innovative technology.

You also heard from Administrator Strickland who discussed NHTSA's "significant and seamless" initiative - focusing on belts, booze and boneheads behind the wheel.

While we hail from different organizations and have different roles to play, today I want to challenge you to expand your role in our shared commitment to safety.

For decades, the NTSB has been recommending and pushing for technologies. Today I am going to mention three of our "Ten Most Wanted List" issues where technology has a role in saving lives and reducing injuries on the road: collision avoidance, impaired driving and distractions.

Forward collision, lane departure and electronic stability control systems should be required on both commercial and passenger vehicles. The NTSB does not believe that important, lifesaving equipment such as collision avoidance technologies should be optional when purchasing a vehicle. Safety equipment needs to be for everyone – not just for those who can afford it.

We all agree technology shows great promise, but what of our shared commitment to safety?

Consider that drivers wait over 10 years or longer to buy a new car. With the equivalent of the student body of UC-San Diego being lost every year, can we really afford to wait 20 – 30 years before there is significant market penetration of critical safety technologies?

What can be done to accelerate safety into the fleet? Where is the shared commitment to safety on the part of regulators, manufacturers and insurers? All of them have a stake in this endeavor.

Twenty five years ago, the NTSB investigated the deadliest alcohol-impaired crash in U.S. history. A drunk driver drove his pickup the wrong way on Interstate 71 near Carrollton, Kentucky and hit a school bus, killing 27 and injuring 34.

In the 25 years since that crash, a shared commitment to safety was galvanized. The collective efforts of policy makers, law enforcement, and organizations like MADD and RID pushed for new laws and new limits. It required bold action then to create change. Reducing the drinking age and lowering BAC limits weren't for the faint of heart.

While those changes made a difference, the job isn't done until we reach zero. In 2011, approximately 10,000 people died, and more than 173,000 people were injured in alcohol-involved crashes, including more than 27,000 who received incapacitating injuries.

For the next big reductions in fatalities and injuries, it will require individuals and organizations to, once again, step up with a shared commitment to safety. The status quo isn't acceptable.

That is why the NTSB re-focused on impaired driving fatalities in the last year. After holding a two-day forum in May 2012 - that many of you like, Chris Murphy of CA, Joanne Thomka of Virginia and Troy Costales of Oregon participated in – we took on issues like the patchwork-system for drug and alcohol testing at the state level and identifying place-of-last-drink.

Then, this past December, we completed a special investigation report on wrong-way driving. It will come as no surprise to you that alcohol-impaired driving is the leading cause of wrong-way crashes. We issued "technology" recommendations to the states to require the use of alcohol-ignition interlocks for all convicted DWI offenders and to NHTSA and the auto manufacturers to expedite the development of in-vehicle alcohol-detection devices.

Finally, this past May, we issued a complete set of 19 recommendations. But by far, the recommendation that has stimulated the most debate and received the most attention in the last year was our recommendation to establish a per se BAC limit of .05 or lower.

We didn't issue this recommendation to create controversy. We issued this recommendation because the science supported it. First, it is well-understood that alcohol impairment begins with the first drink, and at 0.05 drivers experience a decline in both cognitive and visual functions. Second, the data shows that crash risk is significantly elevated at 0.05. And third, lowering BAC limits have been shown to reduce crashes, injuries and deaths.

While the focus of our report was on alcohol-impaired driving, the NTSB is very concerned about the growing problem of drugged driving, as well. I am so grateful to see Director Gil Kerlikowske here today. In his role as the nation's Drug Czar, he has helped focus attention on the important issue.

While the debate will surely continue, the question that needs to be asked is where is our shared commitment to safety? The same behavior will net the same results. If we want to make a change to improve safety, we can't play it safe. New laws and new limits are needed - just as they were 25 years ago.

The final hot button issue on all of our plates is distracted driving. For over a decade, the NTSB has been concerned about electronic device usage.

Initially, our recommendations targeted the use of portable electronic devices by novice or teen drivers (everyone agreed on that), and then commercial operators (including pilots, locomotive engineers, mariners) and CDL holders (truck and bus drivers) (again, widespread support). Nobody feels comfortable thinking about pilots overflying their destination by 100 miles or texting locomotive engineers running red signals, and definitely not my kids' school bus driver chatting on the phone.

But it was our most recent recommendation on distraction that struck a chord in December of 2011. A driver in his pick-up truck sent and received 11 text messages in 11 minutes. Traveling at highway speed, he failed to see that traffic had slowed due to construction and collided with a tractor trailer; creating a chain reaction involving two following school buses. The accident resulted in the death of that driver and one student on the school bus.

So, we made a bold recommendation in December 2011 that called for a ban on all portable electronic devices while behind the wheel.

In the aftermath of our recommendation, we heard from many people – most now agree that texting is risky. Some can understand a ban on hand-held devices. But when it comes to a complete ban – including hands free – they dispute that there is a distraction problem.

And yet, our accident investigations continue to demonstrate that this technology poses a significant risk to the safety of our transportation system. Right now, we have two on-going investigations where we are examining what role, if any, cell phone usage may have played.

One is the I-5 bridge collapse in Washington State. The other, a grade-crossing collision between a freight train and a dump truck in Maryland that resulted in a derailment and a subsequent fire and explosion that injured bystanders and damaged numerous buildings. In both of these accidents, hands-free cell phones were being used.

Just this past June, the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety released a science-based report that shows that hands-free is not risk-free. Something that the aviation community has long understood with their sterile-cockpit concept. It is all about focusing on the task at-hand, no matter how routine it may seem - fatal accidents can result from only one mistake.

Decades ago, it seemed impossible to get to zero-deaths in aviation, but we have experienced years with zero-commercial aviation fatalities.

If we are going to change the culture of safety on our roadways, so that everyone recognizes their responsibilities, it will take more than making collision-avoidance technologies an option in high-end vehicles or a Werner Herzog documentary on distraction. It will take a shared commitment to safety - beginning with the people in this room.

Your passion for safety offers the greatest opportunity to reach zero deaths. However, if we keep doing what we have always done, we will continue to get what we have always gotten.

If technology holds the solutions and impaired driving and distracted driving are the issues of this generation, what does your commitment to safety mean, what will your legacy be for the future?

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, "The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy."

Yes - these are controversial issues, but I have every confidence that you are up to the challenge.