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"Transportation Safety: A Series of Great Opportunities", American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials Spring Conference, Providence, Rhode Island
Deborah A. P. Hersman
"Transportation Safety:  A Series of Great Opportunities", American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials Spring Conference, Providence, Rhode Island

Thank you, Michael (Lewis), for your leadership and for challenging your members to be "good stewards of the public trust."

I like how Michael says, "It's not about the bridge; it's about people using the bridge."

Today, I'd like to expand on that sentiment. Michael is right, transportation is not just about the bridge; it's about people using the bridge and the highways, railways and airways. And, it's about using all these modes ... safely.

An independent federal agency, Congress established the NTSB to investigate transportation accidents, find out what happened and issue recommendations to improve safety.

Improving safety: That's why I am joining you today. As state highway and transportation officials, you play a key role in transportation safety – in saving lives and preventing injuries.

What you do is so important to your state's economy and to your citizens' mobility, but your decisions, your priorities and your impact as transportation leaders can affect and save more lives than any other appointed official.

That's because when it comes to safety, it's at the state level where the biggest difference can be made. Today, we learned about the first year-to-year increase in the number of fatalities on U.S. roads since 2005. Fatalities are up more than 5 percent.

This mean we have more work to do.

As you know, the difference starts at the very beginning with sound design and engineering decisions and continues with execution and maintenance. This is hard work, and you do it well.

But, when it comes to the behavioral aspects of safety — such as speeding, impaired driving or occupant protection — the work continues with strong laws and enforcement, with education and outreach and with evaluation to understand what's working and what isn't. This part of the job is a bit harder than setting bridge piers and pouring concrete because the job is never done.

But, look at the considerable progress achieved at the state level over the past two decades with novice drivers. Twenty years ago, the NTSB recommended graduated driver licensing.

At that time, no state had the recommended GDL system. Today, all 50 states and the District of Columbia have at least some form of graduated driver licensing restricting nighttime driving, teen passengers and portable electronic device use. NHTSA reports that GDL laws have reduced teen crashes between 20 and 50 percent. These are our children and grandchildren.

Over the years, the NTSB has investigated thousands of accidents — in aviation, highway, marine, pipeline and rail.

Each year, we issue a Most Wanted List of our top ten safety concerns that need to be addressed in a given year. And, these are the areas where we think we can have the greatest impact on improving safety and saving lives.

You may have read about the 2013 list in the AASHTO Journal last November.

Five items on this year's list focus on traffic safety: preserve the integrity of infrastructure, eliminate substance-impaired driving, eliminate distraction, improve bus safety and mandate motor vehicle collision avoidance technologies.

Today, I'll highlight the three most-wanted areas where you can make the most difference.

First, preserve the integrity of transportation infrastructure.

You, more than most, appreciate the scope and importance of infrastructure – our nation's more than 3,000 airports, some 4 million miles of public roads, 2 million miles of oil and gas pipelines, 120,000 miles of major railroads and more than 25,000 miles of commercially navigable waterways.

The state of our transportation infrastructure deserves greater awareness as a serious safety issue. When lawmakers debate where and how to spend dollars on infrastructure improvements, safety should have a seat at the table.

A lot has happened since the 1950s, when the national highway system was approved and thousands of pipeline miles were laid. Materials have improved, technology has advanced and we have learned a lot about safety through our investigations.

We have seen that, as a nation, we don't always provide sufficient guidance for the owners and inspectors of bridges, pipelines and other infrastructure across the country. While some assets must be replaced, with proper inspection and maintenance other parts of our transportation infrastructure can age gracefully and retain its structural integrity.

Many of our recommendations have focused on strengthening inspection requirements and standards. We have recommended that a risk-based priority be assigned to the rehabilitation and reconstruction of each structurally deficient and functionally obsolete bridge.

Many of these recommendations were a direct result of NTSB's investigation of the I-35 bridge collapse in Minneapolis.

My hat's off to AASHTO for your Highway Safety Manual and for the infrastructure improvements and changes you are making.

When you're dealing with infrastructure, yes, there are lots of decisions and variables, but no bridge, road or tunnel is as complicated as a human.

Look at alcohol-impaired driving. On average, someone dies in this country every hour - and every hour, 20 other people are injured.

In total, some 10,000 deaths each year involve alcohol-impaired drivers.

That's why eliminate substance-impaired driving is on the NTSB's Most Wanted List.

In the last year, we really stepped up our focus on this issue. Last May, we held a two-day forum on Reaching Zero. We followed that in November by issuing safety recommendations focused on better reporting and data collection.

Then, in December, we completed a study on wrong-way driving and found, not surprisingly, that a high percentage of these crashes are caused by substance-impaired drivers. The NTSB issued a number of safety recommendations related to technology, highway design and signage, and older drivers. Perhaps the most important recommendation focused on requiring use of ignition interlock laws for all convicted DUI offenders.

At a Board meeting next week, we will consider a special report on strategies to "reach zero" deaths from substance-impaired driving. We expect to issue several additional safety recommendations which will identify bold actions to eliminate alcohol-impaired driving.

Raise your hand if you've seen someone talking on their phone or texting when they were driving. Keep your hand up if it made you uncomfortable. How many of you do it?

In our investigations, we've seen the deadliness of distraction in all modes of transportation. That's why eliminate distraction is on our Most Wanted List.

In 2008, a railroad engineer who was texting ran a red signal, causing a collision between a commuter train and a freight train killing 25 and injuring dozens. In 2010, a tugboat mate, pushing several barges, was distracted by his cell-phone and lap-top use, and ran over a "duck" boat and killed two tourists.

As for our roadways, we've seen distracted truck, bus and personal-vehicle drivers. In our first distracted driving investigation, in 2002, a novice driver, distracted by her cell phone, crossed a highway median, flipped over, and landed on a minivan. That conversation ended in five fatalities.

In a recent investigation, a pickup driver sent and received 11 texts in the 11 minutes before he ran into a truck triggering collisions that killed two and injured 38. After that investigation, the NTSB called for a nationwide ban on the use of portable electronic devices while driving.

In addition to the ban, the NTSB recommends that the states and the District of Columbia use the NHTSA model of high-visibility enforcement to support these bans and that they implement targeted communication campaigns to inform motorists of the new law and heightened enforcement.

A full ban may sound extreme. But it's going to take extreme action to put attention back in the driver's seat.

As for distraction laws, ten states and the District of Columbia ban all drivers from using handheld cell phones while driving; 39 states and the District of Columbia ban text messaging for all drivers. Florida will make 40 – the law is pending with the Governor.

Where does your state stand on this issue?

Where do you stand?

Yes, we face many challenges in transportation safety. But, with more than 30,000 fatalities each year on our roadways, that's a high price, much too high, to pay for mobility.

We can do better. And, with AASHTO's stewardship, I know we will do better in the future. Your work and your leadership can help bring down the accident rate.

Yes, it won't be easy. I'd like to close with a quotation from John W. Gardner. Gardner was a Marine Captain in World War II, an educator, and President Johnson's secretary of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare.

Gardner said: "We are continually faced with a series of great opportunities brilliantly disguised as insoluble problems."

Indeed. Improving highway safety may seem difficult, even unsolvable, but through your work you can make a difference. That's why I'm so thrilled with Bud's focus and your agenda this afternoon on how to address some of these behavioral issues.

If I have the opportunity to address you a few years from now, I hope we won't be talking about the previous year's highway fatality numbers going up — but rather down.

That's because behind each one of those numbers is a story. There is an individual. There's a family. There's a community that is affected. In your line of work, the most important message you can deliver to your team is that it's not about the highway — it's about the people who use the highway.

And, now, I'd be delighted to take your questions.