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"Where there's a Will, There are Ways to Improve Safety" Lifesavers 30th Conference, Orlando, Florida
Deborah A. P. Hersman
"Where there's a Will, There are Ways to Improve Safety" Lifesavers 30th Conference, Orlando, Florida

This morning I am book-ended by Secretary LaHood, who has made distracted driving a signature issue and by Jan Withers of MADD, who reminds us that each victim has a story.

Distraction and impairment, the focus of my remarks, present both challenges and opportunities when it comes to saving lives.

But first, let me introduce my NTSB colleagues: Tom Barth, Dennis Collins, Lynn Dorfman, Peter Knudson, Nicholas Worrell and Stephanie Davis, who served on the conference planning committee. These are the NTSB's "lifesavers," our investigators and advocates. Look for them at the NTSB exhibit.

While I can't recognize each "lifesaver" here individually, I suspect you will identify with three traffic safety heroes in your midst.

When it comes to child passenger safety, Lorrie Walker of Safe Kids should be a household name. Lorrie has devoted her career — 26 years and counting — to improving safety for our most vulnerable travelers.

She was on the team that developed the NHTSA standards and curriculum. Decades ago, when the call went out for technicians, Lorrie thought they wouldn't get more than 50 people from each state. Today, there are 34,000 certified technicians, who check more than 82,000 car seats each year.

There is probably a family vacationing here at Disney, with children who survived a car crash ... because of Lorrie's work.

But, even more to the point, the most recent statistics show that motor vehicle crashes are no longer the leading cause of death of children aged 4 to 7. That is thanks to the work of Lorrie and so many others here today.

I have three boys, who have always been properly buckled up, but only after I got my CPS training from Emilie Crown in 2004. Who knew that a conscientious mom like me would have to come home and reinstall all of the seats in both cars!

Lorrie is a lifesaver, making a difference, one parent and one child at a time.

Those safely secured kids grow up. They become teens who drive, which most parents here can agree is the most dangerous thing we encourage our children to do.

That brings me to Danielle Branciforte.

Yesterday, at a busy Orlando intersection, Danielle and I joined Sandy Spavone from NOYS along with Joe Toole, safety officials, and most importantly -- students -- for a roadway safety assessment.

Dr. Epps and some of those amazing students from Acceleration Academy are here today. Those kids are remarkable. They are tomorrow's engineers, poets, and even presidents. They are the future!

Under Danielle's leadership, there are now 260 Florida SADD chapters. Some schools have up to 300 members. And one high school boasts nearly its entire student body in the SADD chapter.

Danielle is a lifesaver. She is making a difference -- one teen at a time.

Lowell Porter, now the Law Enforcement Liaison for the Governors Highway Safety Association, says he got into the highway safety business because when he was a Washington state trooper, the hardest part of his job was notifying families of a death.

Because, Jan, no family should ever get that news and ... because these crashes are preventable.

That is why, when Lowell headed the Washington Traffic Safety Commission, the state made a commitment to eradicating impaired driving fatalities. To date, with a laser focus on data, targeted enforcement and heightened education, the project has exceeded its goals.

In the first 18 months, the Target Zero Teams Project is credited with saving 88 lives. Eighty-eight: That's nearly the combined game-day rosters of the Seattle Seahawks and the Miami Dolphins!

Lowell is a lifesaver making a difference one driver at a time.

Like each of you, Lorrie, Danielle and Lowell are lifesavers. To a person, they embody the time-honored phrase: Where there is a will, there is a way.

Where there's a will ... more than a million seats checked — and counting — at Safe Kids events.

Where there's a will ... 260 — and counting — Florida SADD chapters.

Where there's a will ... 88 — and counting — lives saved in Washington State.

That's what I want to focus on: the WILL and the WAY to address distracted driving and impaired driving.

When it comes to distraction our investigations have shown it affects everyone.

We've seen a locomotive engineer texting, running a red signal, and colliding head on with a freight train. Twenty five fatalities and dozens injured.

We saw two airline pilots distracted by their personal laptops and out of radio communication with air traffic control for more than an hour. They overflew their destination by more than one hundred miles.

We've seen a tugboat mate distracted by his cell phone and his laptop causing the barge he was towing to run over a "duck" boat killing two Hungarian exchange students.

We've addressed distraction in all modes, but, distraction's death toll is the highest on our roadways.

Ten years ago, in Largo, Maryland, we investigated a crash where a young driver was talking to her boyfriend on her cell phone. Her SUV crossed the highway median, flipped over, and landed on a minivan. That conversation ended in five fatalities.

We recommended that States prohibit novice drivers from using wireless devices while operating a vehicle.

In 2004, an experienced bus driver — driving a familiar route as the second bus in a two-bus caravan — was distracted by a hands-free phone call. He struck a low-clearance stone bridge in Alexandria, Virginia, injuring 11 high school students. When our investigators interviewed the driver he said ... not only didn't he see the sign, he didn't see the bridge until he hit it.

We called for a cell-phone ban for school bus and motorcoach drivers.

Last September, we completed the investigation of the deadliest Kentucky accident in a generation. A commercial truck driver, on his phone, crossed the median, overrode a barrier, and struck a van — killing himself and ten members of a family traveling to a wedding.

We asked the States to prohibit the use of both handheld and hands-free cell phones by all commercial drivers.

Finally, last December, we completed an investigation into the chain-reaction crash in Gray Summit, Missouri, that killed two and injured 38.

A pickup truck hit a large truck, which, in turn, was hit by a school bus, which was hit by another school bus. The cause: the distracted pickup driver who sent and received 11 text messages in the 11 minutes prior to the accident.

We called for a nationwide ban on portable electronic devices for all drivers.

And we recommended using NHTSA's model of high-visibility enforcement and education campaigns to support these bans.

You may have heard about these recommendations...

Perhaps you thought we were going too far.

Or, perhaps you cheered.

Yes, the NTSB has a bully pulpit, which we are WILLING to use for important safety messages. As I do today, when I challenge you to build on your successes in highway safety committing to end distracted driving.

Where there's a will, there is a way.

Yet, the first step ... as with so many things ... is acknowledging the problem. Some define distraction as texting or as something that other people do.

So many people don't want others to drive distracted, but think it's okay if they do it. You know, "I'm hands free..." it's just one quick call ... or a short text.

Distraction is serious. And, it's only going to grow as new devices are released and cars are equipped with ever-more sophisticated in-vehicle systems.

A full ban is strong.

But, we cannot be complacent on this crucial safety issue.

If you choose convenience over safety, you'll use your devices.

If you choose safety over convenience ... lives can be saved, injuries prevented.

Just ask the people we interviewed for our forum on attentive driving — like Jacy Good and Al Andres.

It will take commitment — yours and mine — and the courage of our policymakers to address this safety issue.

And, they need to hear from you that addressing distraction is the right thing to do.

The Lifesavers community has persevered on difficult issues.

Time after time you have shown the will and led the way on seat belts, on child safety and so much more.

At a future Lifesavers Conference, I look forward ... to looking back ... and discussing the great progress made on distracted driving ... by those who stepped forward ... people like you ... the DOT... the National Safety Council ... and so many sponsoring organizations.

You know, I'm honored to be followed on the program by another hero -- Jan Withers has spent the last 20 years working to prevent impaired driving deaths, but, more importantly, supporting other victims and survivors of this violent crime.

Impaired driving has been on the NTSB's Most Wanted List since it was created in 1990.

A generation ago, we investigated the nation's deadliest impaired driving crash involving a school bus in Carrollton, Kentucky. Twenty-four children and three adults returning from an amusement park were killed.

Since then, more than 300,000 people have perished at the hands of impaired drivers.

Three hundred thousand.

What have we learned in a generation? What have we accomplished?

Yes, the percentage of highway fatalities due to impaired drivers is down from 41 percent to 31. But, that percentage has been stagnant since 1995.

What happened to the will to find the way to stop these needless losses?

With so many crashes and lost lives ... it could be easy to grow complacent and think the task is too daunting — that we can never eliminate impaired driving.

Yet, I propose that complacency is part of the problem. All of us involved in highway safety — including the NTSB — bear some responsibility for this complacency.

We need as much attention today on impaired driving as we saw in the early 1980s when MADD was founded and the drinking age became 21.

So how do we achieve more progress?

Here's what we heard at our recent forum on impaired driving.

It came through loud and clear: to be successful, every constituency must be at the table ... and willing to work together.

Willing to work together.

Let me share a story from commercial aviation, which is enjoying its safest period. Ever. No fatalities in three years. Thousands of flights each day. Millions of passengers each year.

What did they do? How did they do it?

The aviation community came together after a brutal year — 1996. Hundreds of fatalities from the ValuJet crash here in Florida and the TWA crash off the coast of Long Island.

Government ... industry ... labor ... all came together. With a common goal — reducing airline fatalities by 80 percent. Everybody was at the table.


The aviation community used data to identify and understand the problem. They set priorities. And, they embraced one of the sharpest tools in their toolbox — technology.

Commercial airplanes used to have mid-air collisions and in poor visibility pilots often flew perfectly good airplanes into the ground.

For years, they worked to educate and train pilots and controllers ... improve procedures ... but, the crashes persisted. The solution that all but solved the problem: you got it, TECHNOLOGY.

TCAS, or collision avoidance systems, use transponders to identify aircraft on a collision course and instruct one crew to climb and the other to descend to prevent catastrophe.

Terrain Awareness Warning Systems give pilots both aural and visual cues if they are dangerously approaching terrain and advise the crew to "pull up, pull up!"

Since the technology was mandated across the commercial fleet, these types of accidents have been virtually eliminated.

What does that tell us about highway safety?

We have the technology. We have the way to solve distracted and impaired driving.

But the real question is: Do we have the will?

To take on the challenge ... to work together.

Change, true change, and future safety improvements will require the courage to take on societal norms and ask people to forego their self-interest in favor of the greater good.

Yet, if anyone can do this - eradicate distracted and impaired-driving fatalities, it is you - the Lifesavers - here this week.

It is you. It is me. It is all of us.

We are in this together.

Remember; where there is a will, there is a way.