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The Road to the Final Four - Highlighting Four Key Transportation Safety Issues, 34th Annual Kentucky Transportation Conference, Lexington, Kentucky
Deborah A. P. Hersman
34th Annual Kentucky Transportation Conference, Lexington, Kentucky

It is, as always, great to be here in my old Kentucky - second - home. My affection for the Bluegrass State runs deep.

Some of you may have heard me talk about my husband and his all-out devotion to the Big Blue Nation. I can't tell you how miserable our house is when the Cats lose. Fortunately, that doesn't happen often, this season it's been limited to that heartbreaker in Bloomington in December.

So last month, when Stan (Lampe) asked for a title for my remarks, I knew it had to be basketball-related. I decided on the "Road to the Final Four" ... which, as everyone in Lexington will tell you, the #2 Wildcats are traveling, and have traveled successfully, so many times. Yet, rankings in January don't really mean anything; it is a tough and challenging road to travel. Making it to the Final Four in March - that requires work, focus, and commitment.

And, that's what I want to talk about today - a transportation safety "road to the final four." And, right here with Kentuckians for Better Transportation (KBT) is where it happens. KBT has done so much for transportation and for Kentucky.

It's your work, your focus, and your commitment that can make the difference in safety. So, I am here - on the 12th day of your General Assembly's legislative session - to lay down a challenge to you, Kentucky's transportation advocates, to get significant safety legislation enacted in this year's General Assembly. This is your road to the final four.

Taking a page from the basketball playbook - you've got to have a vision for where you want to take your team. The four areas where KBT can make a difference: distraction, alcohol-impaired driving, occupant protection, and aviation safety.

The first area - distraction - has garnered a lot of attention in the weeks since the NTSB made its strongest recommendation yet on distraction. Perhaps you heard about our call for a nationwide ban on the nonemergency use of portable electronic devices for all drivers.

The evidence is clear. It is compelling. And, it hits close to home.

In 2010, in Munfordville, a truck-tractor crossed the median of I-44 and struck a 15-passenger van. The truck driver failed to maintain control of his vehicle because he was distracted by his cell-phone. Eleven people were killed. According to interviews after the crash, the truck driver typically used a hands-free device.

Just few weeks ago, an Osgood teen was killed in a single-vehicle crash in Ripley County. According to the State Police, the teen was ejected from the van she was driving after it skidded into a field and overturned. The one passenger, who was not injured, told police that the driver was texting just before the crash.

For nearly ten years, the NTSB has conducted investigations that involve distraction from portable electronic devices across all modes of transportation.

The level of distraction is only going to grow. Last week, I visited the Consumer Electronics Show and it is clear that there is an effort to integrate vehicles with both the home and the office to create a seamless connection across all areas of people's lives.

Yet, what is the price of that seamless connection? It's too high. Just ask the families of the 11 people who died in Munfordville or the family of the Osgood teen.

The second half of the 20th century saw changing societal norms about the dangers of smoking and health. The first half of this century must address distraction and safety. Just because we can stay connected doesn't mean we should.

Legislation is key. Start the conversation.

The second safety issue in your final four is the biggest killer on our roadways: alcohol-impaired driving. As you know, Kentucky has the dubious distinction of being the state with the nation's worst drunk- driving accident.

In 1988, in Carrollton, a pickup driver with a blood alcohol content over three times the current legal limit drove the wrong direction on I-71and hit a school bus head on. Twenty-seven people lost their lives; 34 more were seriously injured.

In 2009, 791 people died on Kentucky roadways. Almost 200 involved an alcohol-impaired driver.

Although the General Assembly has adopted some revisions through the years, there are significant gaps in your DWI laws.

Although 41 other states have done it, Kentucky has never implemented an administrative license system that allows a police officer to take the license of a drunk driver at the time of arrest rather than weeks or months later following conviction.

Here are some additional areas where your laws could be strengthened:

  • Authorizing vehicle sanctions of hard-core drinking drivers - such as vehicle immobilization, impoundment, or confiscation.
  • Looking back 10 years, rather than 5 years, for violations involving repeat offenders.
  • Operating DUI courts, similar to drug courts, which enable the judicial system to take a comprehensive approach to addressing drunk drivers.

I am pleased to see KBT urging the General Assembly to enact an administrative license revocation law.

You have known for a long time that two big areas where you can score big, and save more lives, are booze and belts - seat belts. That brings me to the third area in my final four issue areas - occupant protection.

The Osgood teen was not wearing a seat belt. The passenger, who lived, was wearing a belt. We all know that seat belts, worn properly, are a proven lifesaver.

Before Kentucky enacted primary enforcement seat-belt use in the Bluegrass State was 67 percent. Now, it's up to 80 percent. That shows that your legislation - as well as your enforcement and education - are making a big difference.

Yet, 80 percent still leaves one in five not using seat belts. The consequences can be fatal, as we saw in that Ripley County accident two weeks ago.

Further, Kentucky can expand seat-belt law coverage to 12- and 15-passenger vans, which is a recommendation we made to Kentucky as a result of the Munfordville investigation.

I commend KBT for its position urging the 2012 General Assembly to strengthen the penalty for not wearing seat belts.

My last issue is aviation safety. I was privileged to be invited to speak at the dedication of the Flight 5191 memorial this past August.

As a result of our investigation, more than ten recommendations were issued. This tragic accident is one of the reasons that "Pilot and Air Traffic Controller Professionalism" - so lacking here in Lexington five years ago - is on the NTSB's Most Wanted List of transportation safety improvements.

A continued focus on professionalism is essential. In fact, just yesterday we released information about a near mid-air collision at the Gulfport Biloxi Airport in Mississippi last June where controller professionalism was at issue.

The 2006 Comair accident is also a reason why runway safety is on our Most Wanted List. Runway safety requires constant awareness for commercial and general aviation aircraft.

The FAA has moved forward on half of our recommendations. Last summer, FAA issued guidance requiring that large airports enhance markings on taxiways and at runway entrances.

Aviation is safer because of what happened here five years ago. But aviation, where you are defying gravity, is perhaps more unforgiving than any other mode of transportation. It requires constant vigilance.

Today, I've given you an ambitious agenda for this year's General Assembly.

I am not telling you anything new; you are already aware of the need to develop new offensive strategies on these issues.

I had the opportunity to see Kentucky's education efforts up close on Tuesday night at the Arkansas game in Rupp Arena.

While everyone was watching the Jumbotron to understand the official's strange "double foul" call in the first half or watch one of the many instant replays of Davis blocking shots, I was checking out the scrolling PSAs encouraging people to "click it or ticket it" or "drive sober or get pulled over."

When we were down in the food court we saw the tables with messages on each of the three highway safety issues I have talked about - blackberries, booze, and belts.

You know what needs to be done and are already working on the education piece, I urge each of you to pursue strengthening Kentucky's laws in this year's General Assembly. It is time for a full-court press on these three highway safety issues.

I've talked a lot about the Cats, but I know this isn't just a basketball town, it is a basketball state. We have the Murray State Racers - one of only two remaining undefeated teams in the nation that continued their winning streak by beating Morehead State last night.

Before I take your questions - and I'm delighted to do that - let me made sure the Cardinals don't feel neglected. I will close with a basketball quotation from former long-time Louisville coach Denny Crum, who said, "Most of our future lies ahead."

That is true for our basketball teams and for transportation safety improvements in Kentucky.

The fans in the Bluegrass state are on the road following their favorite team with hopes of reaching the final four. KBT's charge is to put together the winning strategy to make sure that everyone gets to their destination safely.