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Highway Special Investigation Report - Wrong-Way Driving, Washington, DC - Chairman's Opening Remarks
Deborah A.P. Hersman
Highway Special Investigation Report - Wrong-Way Driving, Washington, DC - Chairman's Opening Remarks

Good morning. Welcome to the Boardroom of the National Transportation Safety Board. I am Debbie Hersman, and it is my privilege to serve as Chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. Joining me are my fellow Board members, Vice Chairman Chris Hart, Member Robert Sumwalt, Member Mark Rosekind and Member Earl Weener.

Today, we meet in open session, as required by the Government in the Sunshine Act, to consider a Special Investigation Report that looks at accidents involving motor vehicles traveling the wrong way on high-speed, limited-access highways. We initiated this series of investigations because wrong-way accidents are among the most deadly types of motor vehicle accidents - they usually occur at high speed and are primarily head-on collisions. Our goal was to better understand why these accidents happen in order to understand how to recommend the best ways to prevent them.

Our team reviewed previous NTSB investigations, going back to one of the Board's earliest - a 1968 crash in Baker, Calif., that killed the wrong-way driver and 19 bus passengers. We also looked at recent field investigations of accidents, such as the Oct. 14, 2011, crash in Fernley, Nev., that killed a mother of two. That was Fernley's second fatal wrong-way crash that night.

Wrong-way crashes shatter lives and families. To gain a thorough understanding of the host of factors at play in these crashes, our investigators also reviewed data from NHTSA's Fatality Analysis Reporting System and performed a thorough review of wrong-way driving research.

Today, we'll hear about drivers and the driving environment. The environment is an important factor since wrong-way driving is most frequently initiated by a driver entering a limited-access highway on an exit ramp. As for the drivers, they are all ages, male and female, but our research revealed that drivers over age 70 are overrepresented in these crashes.

An even more dramatic finding was the number of alcohol-impaired wrong-way drivers. This is not new; we have long known that alcohol-impaired drivers are particularly dangerous - causing nearly one-third of all highway fatalities.

Not only was there a high number of alcohol-impaired drivers, our study revealed high levels of impairment. More than half of the impaired drivers in our study had a BAC more than twice the legal limit.

We are a car-centric nation. Nearly 90 percent of long-distance trips are by personal vehicle. The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers calls this "automobility." The essential question raised by the special investigation report is: How can we make automobility synonymous with safety?

Here's a more telling way to look at the impaired-driving challenge: Alcohol-impaired crashes result in nearly 31 percent of the country's motor vehicle fatalities. And, that percentage has remained stubbornly stuck between 30 and 32 percent of overall highway fatalities since 1995.

There are solutions, which we discussed at the NTSB's May 2012 forum on impaired driving and which are underscored in the wrong-way driving report that we'll hear about today.

The solutions we will hear about today are centered on technology, which holds great promise to be a game changer in highway safety.

It's time for action. Even as our team was putting together their presentations for today's meeting, there was yet another fatal wrong-way crash near Fernley, Nevada, marking the third wrong-way crash in that community in little over a year. This crash involved four vehicles.

Clearly, there's work to be done ... in Fernley and across the nation. We can do better. And, that is precisely why we are here today.

Dr. Mayer, would you please introduce the staff.