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Remarks before the Governors Highway Safety Association Annual Meeting, Savannah, Georgia
Deborah A. P. Hersman
Governors Highway Safety Association Annual Meeting, Savannah, Georgia

Thank you for that kind introduction, Vernon.  And thank you to Barbara, Jonathan, Kara and Denise for putting together this conference. It is an honor to have this opportunity to speak with Governor’s Highway Safety Representatives from every state.

We are all public servants here.  We are all here because someone—in your case, the governor of your state, and in my case, President Obama -- has tasked us to make transportation safer in our country. Together, we hold the public’s trust to make our rural roads, city streets, and interstate highways and bridges safe places to move. That’s a huge responsibility, and a very important assignment.  No matter what our individual job is, we need to do it right.

The theme of this conference is “Toward Zero Deaths” which seems to raise the bar higher than humanly possible. Can we really expect to reach zero deaths?  Is that realistic?  Well, let me just pose some questions to you.  How many people in this country died of polio last year? How many from small pox? From cholera?  Fifty years ago, could anyone have imagined these diseases would be virtually wiped out from our society?  Apparently there were some people who imagined that they could wipe out those killer diseases and then they worked hard to make it happen. Some people had a huge job to do, and they did it right.  

Last year the death toll on our nation’s highways decreased by 10 percent. Did any of you predict that? I know I didn’t. Let’s imagine a line graph where fatalities decrease by 10 percent every year for the next 10 to 20 years. That would be some significant improvement, wouldn’t it?  Could we be a part of an accomplishment as good as that?  We could and we will, if we do our jobs right.

What can we do to make highway fatalities decrease year after year? Well, the experts can debate that ‘every day, but I’ll tell you what I think.  At the NTSB, we investigate individual accidents in all modes.  Once in a while, we find that the probable cause of an accident was one particular thing: a design flaw, a faulty part, a poor operator.  More often—much more often—we find that the probable cause of an accident was not one thing, but many things.  Each flaw or error was small, but when combined together in one event, they created the perfect storm for that accident to occur. 

I think that the same phenomenon can work in the opposite direction, in a positive way.  We can keep the highway fatalities trending down by doing lots of individual, maybe small things that, cumulatively, have a huge impact on safety.

Of course, it would be much more convenient if we could point to this program or that initiative as “the answer”; implement this program and our problems will be solved!  Wouldn’t that be great?  We could walk out of this meeting knowing exactly what we are all going to do to achieve our goal of zero deaths.  I’m afraid it just doesn’t work that way.  Just like the causes of accidents are the result of many things, safety solutions are the result of many efforts.  This means that if we are going to do our jobs right, we may have to dig a little deeper, take a more aggressive stance, embrace a leadership role and ultimately raise the bar for ourselves and others.

If your home got broken into, what would you do to keep it from happening again?  Would you cross your fingers that it won’t ever happen again, or would you buy deadbolt locks for your doors?  What if you put on the deadbolt locks, but you got robbed again?  Would you roll your eyes and chalk it up to bad luck, or would you install an alarm system? Say you’re robbed yet again.  Would you throw up your hands, or would you get a big, mean, growling dog?  Maybe you would take some of these steps, maybe you would take all of these steps, or maybe you would think of other steps.  My point is that you would take incremental steps each time the problem occurred.  And if the first action didn’t fix it, you would try something else. You’d try one thing after another until you found the solution that works. You wouldn’t give up. So why would we take a different approach to improving highway safety?

It’s important not to forget what we already know.  There is no silver bullet, no one thing that will make our highways safe.  That is why we need a comprehensive list of safety countermeasures if we are to move the nation to zero deaths.  At the Safety Board we look at the man, the machine and the environment.  Looking at this week’s agenda, GHSA is addressing all three areas.  There are many things you are addressing regarding the environment, whether it is the session on rural roads, blending engineering and behavior strategies, or engineering safety for pedestrians -- you are looking at these issues.  Likewise, the NTSB has made recommendations about improved signage following the motorcoach accident involving the Bluffton baseball team; or oversight of bridge design following the I-35 collapse in Minneapolis.  Technical improvements also have a role in improving the safety of the machine whether it be through anti-lock brakes, brake transmission shift interlocks, stability control.  Just as technical improvements present us with challenges, it also provides solutions.

But when we look at the human part of the equation, we know the roadmap to zero deaths includes:

  • Improving child occupant protection;
  • Enacting primary enforcement seat belt laws;
  • Eliminating distractions for young drivers;
  • Improving motorcycle safety; and
  • Eliminating hard-core drinking driving.

These will be my safety priorities as Chairman.  Getting it right may mean making incremental changes in many different areas, including some new areas, that add up to a big improvement.
Last year a lot of people made incremental improvements that I know will lead to a reduction in fatalities. Alaska, Minnesota, Ohio, and Texas enacted booster seat laws this year.  They are to be congratulated, and if 25 more states implement new or strengthen existing booster seat laws, we may reach the goal of zero deaths for children in highway accidents.  Arkansas, Florida, Minnesota, and Wisconsin now have primary enforcement of their seat belt use laws.  Wonderful!  If 20 more states enact primary enforcement seat belt laws for all seating positions, we will be another step closer to the goal of zero deaths on the highways.

If we are doing our jobs right, we are going to have to keep pushing, keep thinking, keep inventing, keep talking until people are tired of hearing from us, keep working to improve highway safety, one step at a time.  We are the change agents.  We want to make sure that the passion we feel for reducing death on our highways is contagious.  We have been given a job to do, and we want to do it right.

As public servants, we are change agents.  But let me address those of you out there who are also another kind of change agent: parents.  In 2007, teen drivers (age 15-20) were involved in over 8000 motor vehicle fatalities. There’s a video circulating on the Internet right now that’s getting lots of attention worldwide.  It’s a public service announcement produced by a small police department in Wales, and it depicts a horrific highway accident caused by a young driver talking with her friends in the car and texting while she is driving.  The video is graphic and very powerful, and if you have a young driver in your home, you may have watched this video with your teen.  But while the video is compelling, it’s not nearly as powerful an influence as you are as an exemplar driver in front of your kids.  Here’s a test: pat your head, rub your stomach, recite the last 6 letters of the alphabet backwards, while you subtract 67 from 313.  What? Can’t do it? That’s called multi-tasking, and while most of us like to think we’re pretty good at it, we really aren’t.  So why do so many of us think that we can handle our cell phones while we maneuver a multi-thousand pound vehicle down the road, in the rain, at 30, 40 or 70 mph alongside other vehicles? 

Unfortunately that fictional video is played out every day on our nation’s roads.  In June 2007 in Fairport, New York, 5 teenagers were killed only a few days after their high school graduation when their SUV swerved into the wrong lane and slammed into a tractor-trailer.  Police reports indicated that the driver of the SUV may have been sending and receiving text messages at the time of the crash.  The 911 call came just 38 seconds after the driver received the final text.  The NTSB has made recommendations to states to address novice drivers using cell phones.  What do you think is the most effective way to teach novice drivers not to use cell phones while driving?  Don’t do it yourself!  Your children and your grandchildren are watching you.  And the next time you call someone on their cell phone, take this simple safety precaution.  It’s quick and easy.  After the person says hello, say, “Are you driving?”  If the answer is yes, ask the person to call you back when they are no longer behind the wheel and hang up.  You just might save that person’s life.  This is just another small thing that we can do in our lives, that if multiplied by thousands or millions doing small things, the effort will add up!  Just another job we need to do right.

Just last week, I had the opportunity to speak to the State Motorcycle Safety Administrators at their annual meeting in Madison, Wisconsin.  I went to that meeting because I consider improving motorcycle safety as an essential component to reaching zero highway deaths.  While overall highway deaths decreased last year, deaths among motorcyclists and their passengers continue to trend in the wrong direction.  Since 1997, the number of motorcycle deaths has increased 150 percent, and now makes up 14 percent of all highway fatalities.  This is a significant data point, when we are seeing fatalities in all other modes of transportation on a downward trend.

Changing human behavior may be harder than finding a cure for polio, but I know it can be done, because many of you have been a part of doing just that.  It used to be fashionable to smoke.  It no longer is.  It used to be acceptable to drink and drive.  Now society is less tolerant of such behavior.  Seat belts used to be pushed back into the byte of the seat to get them out of the way.  Now, as a nation, over 80 percent of drivers are buckled up.  Societal attitudes can change.

And I have seen these changes in my lifetime.  Thirty years ago, I recall something that resembled a child seat in our station wagon -- although I suspect my mother purchased it not for safety, but to keep the smallest of three kids from getting into trouble while she was driving.  Let’s not talk about proper installation – since it would slide around when we went around corners.  I distinctly remember my mom and dad letting my little sister, who was a toddler, sit on the armrest between them in the front seat of our station wagon when she got fussy and wanted to get out of her car seat.  I shudder to think about that now.  Because of advances made in vehicle and safety seat compatibility as well as fitting stations in all 50 states, my husband and I, and over 95 percent of parents, now buckle their babies into safety seats that are designed and tested to protect them in a crash.  My kids have grown up with restraints; my 9- and 7-year-olds are in booster seats (which I don’t think even existed when I was a kid) and my 4-year-old is still in a car seat.  He always reminds people to “strap me in.”  My mother-in-law has worked hard to ensure that she has age- and size-appropriate restraints for all seven of her grandchildren whenever they ride in her car, but a generation ago, she nursed her babies in the car, while she drove.  How is that for change?  This is an area where a lot of people did a lot of things right!

It is important to personalize highway safety because there are a lot of people out there who believe highway safety is someone else’s problem. Or it’s an insurmountable problem that can’t be fixed.  So close your eyes and imagine the most recent addition to your family or extended family. You probably see a bright, young face filled with possibilities. This is the person whose environment you are going to change. This person is the reason you are going to go back to your state, back to your town, back to your office and you are going to do something different.  This is the person for whom you are going to do your job right.  What do you want them to say has changed when they look back 30 years from now?

We must be change agents if we are going to move society toward zero deaths on the highways.  And because of the change agents that have come before us, we are safer.

Let me talk about one of those change agents whose efforts have made us safer for a minute.  I know that many of you worked alongside a member of the NTSB family who is no longer with us, Mr. Kevin Quinlan.  If you didn’t know Kevin, then you probably know some other safety advocate like him.  Kevin spent much of his life working on highway safety measures; testifying in state legislatures in support of occupant protection, working on coalitions to prevent drunk driving and drafting safety studies and recommendations at the Safety Board.  Kevin had an indomitable spirit, a passion for challenges, and a dedication to his mission to improve highway safety.  And with his infectious enthusiasm, he trained the next generation of advocates, like Danielle Roeber and Stephanie Davis of the NTSB, who are with me today.  They worked alongside of Kevin and learned from one of the best.  I was privileged to work with Kevin for four and a half years before he passed away last December.  Within a week of coming to the Board, I attended an event with some state legislators in Richmond with Kevin.  As he always was, he was very organized and prepared, but what I recall most was how assertive he was about his business, and frankly, his intensity was a little intimidating.  But do you know what, Kevin Quinlan was intense, he cared, and he was a change agent – he was one of the soldiers who fought every day to change the political, social and cultural attitudes that have built the highway safety structure we have today.

It is our responsibility to leave our children with a better world. We may not achieve zero accidents in our lifetime, but we can help the next generation of drivers get close. We can lay the safety groundwork for future generations by establishing a culture of incremental changes that will collectively make a huge difference. We must do our jobs right.

In the beginning of my speech, I talked about diseases that have been eradicated.  I said some people had a huge job to do, and they did it right.  Today our charge is to be more like Kevin, let’s do it right!


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