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Remarks to the National Association of Regional Councils, Washington, DC
Deborah A. P. Hersman
National Association of Regional Councils, Washington, DC

Thank you, Mayor Morrison, for your kind introduction.

Welcome to Washington, D.C. I don't know who planned this event on February 14, but I am pretty sure that telling your significant others that you were going to Washington, D.C. to stay at the Ritz-Carlton for a conference on Valentine's Day probably didn't over go over too well. Knowing of your interest in economic development, I'm sure you're doing your part by supporting the local florists at home.

Let me begin by thanking you for all the work you do – in every region and corner of our country – to make us stronger, safer and more prosperous.

We at the National Transportation Safety Board share your belief that much of the hard work happens at the regional and local levels. The federal government can pass laws, fund projects and set priorities. But it's up to you and your colleagues to roll up your sleeves and make things happen.

For those of you not familiar with the NTSB, the Safety Board is a unique, independent agency of the Federal government. We have a statutory mission to investigate accidents in all modes of transportation, to find the probable cause of those accidents, and to make recommendations to ensure that those accidents do not happen again.

But, we have no authority to implement those safety recommendations. Once we issue a recommendation, it's up to the federal, state or local government, or other entities, to either accept or reject our advice.

We recognize that in making our recommendations, we sometimes set a high bar. That's because our recommendations are rooted in our investigations. When our investigations lead us to very technical or costly solutions, we recommend those solutions because we know that they will save lives.

We also recognize that dollars are tight, particularly in today's budget environment, and we do not have any funding to contribute to implementing our recommendations. We are used to people saying that our recommendations cost too much. We get that. But our charter directs that safety always comes first in our discussions and recommendations.

It is a pleasure to be here today to talk about the work of the NTSB. I understand that you are particularly interested in transportation policy with the pending reauthorizations in Congress. With the President's budget announcement today and the spending reductions outlined by some in Congress, we can see how challenging it will be to make investments in infrastructure.

Historically, transportation has always been one of the first targets to hit the budget chopping block. It's not hard to figure out why. Building new projects is extremely expensive, and maintaining roads, runways, bridges, tunnels and transit systems is often taken for granted with projects lasting far longer than an elected official's term in office.

From a purely political calculation, spending on maintenance activities can be deferred. But we see the effects of a decade or so of neglected funding – crumbling roads, traffic tie ups and tragic accidents that can result from disrepair.

Congress has already passed, by my count, at least 17 extensions for the FAA and air traffic infrastructure funding, and at least 6 extensions of the highway authorization act. Meanwhile, admittedly tougher issues like funding sources aren't even discussed in a serious way.

A few weeks ago, I had the honor to address the 90th annual meeting of the Transportation Research Board. For those of you who attended, I'm going to again share a message that I think bears repeating.

Until transportation is dramatically better funded, those engaged in design and planning will have no choice but to incorporate even better safety and maintenance in their projects up front. The new reality is that the concept of a lifecycle no longer exists. Just because a project is meant to last 30, 40 or 50 years doesn't mean it won't be around for 75 or more.

We need to plan smarter up front. We need to look not only down the street, but around the corner, and do a better job at forecasting what the future holds. When it comes to our future transportation projects, we should probably ask for the lifetime guarantee.

At the NTSB, we're focused solely on safety. So why should you care about the safety of your transportation projects? I can promise you that if you don't, it will cost you – not only in money, but in the lives of people in your community.

Ninety-five of all transportation fatalities occur on our nation's highways. Last year, 33,000 people were killed. The causes of those crashes are well-known and preventable. They include:

  • impaired driving
  • child and adult occupant protection
  • eliminating distractions.

We know that laws and programs addressing just two of these areas – impaired driving and the need for all vehicle occupants to use age and size appropriate restraints – can save thousands of lives.

States and local governments are critical to spreading these highway safety messages and enforcing highway safety laws. In addition to being a local leader, perhaps you are a parent, grandparent, aunt or uncle. If you are, then you may be interested in our initiative on child and youth transportation safety.

So, let's talk about what you can do closer to home. Here are the facts: highway crashes are the leading cause of death for toddlers through young adults every year. Almost all of us have likely been touched by a young family member, friend or neighbor who was tragically killed or injured in a preventable accident.

Too many teens are taking to the road without the training and experience they need, putting them and other drivers and passengers in danger. And once behind the wheel, young drivers are inundated with more and more communication and entertainment options, all of which take their focus off the road. At the same time, thousands of babies and small children suffer needless injuries because they are not properly restrained in cars or on airplanes.

That's why this year we are raising awareness on transportation issues that affect youth and distracted teen driving; safe recreational boating practices; the proper use of child seats; and lots of simple, practical ways to make America's youth safer.

Here again, we need your help to spread the word throughout your cities and communities to make transportation safer without spending a single dollar on construction or repair. You can't get a better bang for your buck than that.

So let me conclude by thanking you once again for what you do throughout our communities every day. The next few weeks of debate in Congress will have an enormous impact on the coming years, and even decades, of transportation funding and safety.

This is a critical time for your voices to be heard. This being Valentine's Day, let me say what a former U.S. Senator used to tell me about legislating: "you don't have to be in love to dance." I know you're in Washington to dance this week, and I am confident that your voices and active participation in the next few months will be valuable.

Thank you very much for being involved. Happy Valentine's Day.