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Remarks on 2010 Roadmap to State Highway Safety Laws, Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, Washington, DC
Deborah A. P. Hersman
Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, 2010 Roadmap to State Highway Safety Laws, Washington, DC

Good morning, everyone, and thank you, Judie and Jackie, for your leadership in making highway safety a national priority.  True to form, the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety have once again put together an outstanding report, and I congratulate you on your effort. 

I am honored to be here as you unveil the 2010 Roadmap to State Highway Safety Laws.  For many years, this report has been an invaluable tool – it literally is a roadmap for legislators and advocates alike – to identify transportation safety goals and to measure our progress.  Each year the National Transportation Safety Board publishes our Most Wanted List of transportation safety improvements – our list mirrors many of the priorities in the Roadmap. 

Reducing highway fatalities must be a national priority.  The number of fatalities on our highways in any given year is about eight times the number of people lost in Iraq since the war started, is four times the number of fatalities due to swine flu in 2009, and twice the number lost to leukemia annually.  Deaths on the highways result in almost 40,000 funerals for mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, sons, daughters, friends, and neighbors every year.  Fortunately we know how to prevent fatalities on our roads. 

Whether it is preventing a drunk driver from getting behind the wheel, properly buckling our children in their car seats, supporting our teen drivers through graduated licensing programs, or making sure drivers do not text and drive, comprehensive and robust safety measures – like the ones identified in this year’s Roadmap – can and do save lives.  What has been missing is the political will to take action.  The Roadmap helps identify the areas in each state where work must still be done, but it is up to leaders at the state and federal level to raise the bar on safety. 

Some of those leaders are here today.  They can tell you how hard it is to make a change.  It has been said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.  And while passing these new laws is a challenge, we can’t expect the fatality numbers to change unless we do something different – the status quo is not enough.  Highway fatalities are the number one cause of unintended death in children, teens, and young adults – this alone should be reason enough for us to do things differently, especially when we have a roadmap to help us get there.

Let me talk for a minute about a couple of those initiatives related to young adults.  

Distracted driving – it is something we have all heard and read about.  Research clearly demonstrates that driving when distracted by any sort of wireless device – whether talking on your cell phone, texting or something else – is dangerous and, often, deadly.  Of the fatalities on our roads each year, 6,000 involve drivers who are distracted.  And the problem is not abating -- 81% of cell phone users say they have talked while driving. 

Texting and cell phone use is a concern on our roadways, as well as in other modes of transportation.  Next week, the Safety Board will meet to adopt a final report on its investigation into last year’s train collision near Chatsworth, CA, which killed 25 people.  The train operator was texting moments before the crash.  I am certain that those who lost loved ones are outraged by the senseless deaths that occurred in that accident.  Loosing situational awareness, in the critical moments before a collision, is not what we’d expect from someone driving a locomotive, but how many of you may have talked or texted on your wireless device while driving?

Nobody thinks they are going to be distracted to the point that it could cause an accident or result in a fatality, but let me just cite one tragic example that I read about earlier this month.  In North Carolina, a mother with two of her children in the car was talking on her cell phone when she crashed through a rail crossing gate into the path of a moving train, killing the woman and her five year old son.  Miraculously, her infant was strapped securely in a child safety seat and survived the crash without injury.  Whether it’s a car full of teens texting each other or adults hooked to their wireless devices, it’s clear that distraction is a danger we must eliminate.

We can and must do more; we need to raise the bar.  I mentioned how hard change is, but we must start with ourselves and our own organizations.  Sometimes the right thing is not the popular thing.  When I became Chairman of the Safety Board last July, we implemented an agency-wide policy that prohibits employees from using electronic devices, including cell phones – hands free or hand-held – while driving.  Will this ban inconvenience some people?  Yes, but it might also save their life or someone else on the road if it is followed. 

Others have taken similar steps.  Effective January 1, under President Obama’s direction, federal employees may not text and drive while on government business, and in December, the Committee that governs internal operations for employees of the U.S. House of Representatives passed a similar ban.

While distracted driving is a concern for drivers of all ages, we know it is particularly dangerous for teenagers.  Research has shown that new drivers lack the experience and maturity to safely drive on our busy roadways and that the danger of this inexperience is compounded when the new driver is talking on a cell phone, sending text messages, driving in a car full of friends, or travelling late at night.

That is why robust safety laws geared towards teenagers are particularly imperative – measures like graduated licensing programs that put new drivers at the wheel under graduated, less risky condition, and laws that restrict the number of teen passengers travelling with new drivers and restrict nighttime driving, which statistics show can reduce teenage crashes by up to 60%.

But these measures are just the beginning.  It has long been known that enacting primary seat belt enforcement laws, reducing crashes involving repeat DUI offenders, and properly restraining children in age and size appropriate restraints will save lives.

I commend the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, as we begin the new year, for highlighting the successful states because they are models for what can be accomplished, and also pointing out those that are poor performers.  Frankly, if some of these states were in school, they’d be considered failing.  Together, we must take our message on the road, directly to the States, so they enact comprehensive and robust highway safety programs that get us not only where we want to go, but where we need to be.   

Together, we can do it.  One initiative and one life at a time.  Thank you.