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Remarks of Acting Chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman at the Virginia Distracted Driving Summit,Richmond, VA
Deborah A. P. Hersman
Remarks of Acting Chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman at the Virginia Distracted Driving Summit,Richmond, VA

Thank you, Joe [Thomas], for the kind introduction - and thanks to Drive Smart Virginia for inviting me. It's great to be here in my home state of Virginia with so many friends and fellow advocates who are COMMITTED to transportation safety. I'm honored to be opening this first-ever distracted driving summit, and today I would like to talk about commitment.

Many of us advocating for improvements in transportation know all too well that behind every safety improvement, there is a story about a life, a family, a community forever altered by a tragedy.

With us today are Patty Perutelli-Woolridge and Paula Johnson. Last year, due to a distracted driver, they lost someone they loved much too soon - Patty's husband and Paula's brother.

Another family in this fight that you may have heard of is the Kruszewski family. Patty Kruszewski's daughter, Lanie, a cyclist, was struck and killed by a distracted driver.

We recognize the courage and strength it takes to continue to share Fred's and Lanie's stories. And for so many others who are here that continue to share your personal stories so that others may be spared the pain of your experience, thank you for your COMMITMENT to make our roads safer.

It has been two months since the enactment of Virginia's new texting and driving law. Congratulations to all of you for making texting behind the wheel a primary offense. I know many of you were COMMITTED to see this accomplished.

So, you may be disappointed that I offer a challenge, along with my congratulations, because I do not see the texting law as the end of your efforts but as an excellent first step. For those of you not familiar with the work of the NTSB, perhaps I should explain.

I say it is a good first step, because we have seen in our investigations the consequences of not just texting but other forms of distractions. And eliminating distraction in transportation will require a COMMITMENT to a cultural shift.

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, when the international runways at San Francisco International airport are closed due to a plane crash - we are painfully reminded about the importance of transportation safety to our communities.

We've seen distracted operations on our nation's railways, airways, waterways, and, as you know all too well, on our roadways.

We've investigated aviation events - the NWA 188 overflight and texting HEMS pilot; rail events including the collision that killed 25 in Chatsworth, CA; and marine events like the duck boat and barge collision in Philadelphia on the Delaware River.

The public agreed: they didn't want their pilots, locomotive engineers or ship's captains to be distracted.

On the highways, we have been at this a long time. Over a decade ago, in 2002, we investigated a crash on the beltway in Maryland where a young driver was talking on her cell phone. Her car crossed the highway median, flipped over and landed on a minivan. That conversation ended in five fatalities.

We recommended then a novice driver restriction. Many parents and state legislatures agreed and put limitations on young drivers.

We completed an investigation where a commercial truck driver in Kentucky, on his phone, crossed the median, overrode a barrier and struck a van - killing himself and ten others.

The general public concurred; they did not want commercial drivers - of 80,000 lb. vehicles or their kids' bus drivers – distracted. Rules were tightened for commercial drivers texting or talking on hand-held phones.

Then, in December 2011, the Board met on a multi-vehicle crash caused by a teen driver in Missouri, who sent and received 11 text messages in the 11 minutes before the fatal accident. After a decade of issuing recommendations about distraction, in December 2011, we issued our boldest recommendation yet. We called for a nationwide ban on the nonemergency use of portable electronic devices while driving: because no text, no phone call, no update is worth a human life.

That recommendation struck a chord. As it should.