Remarks Prepared for Delivery by
U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine L. Chao
Lifesavers National Conference on Highway Safety Priorities
Sunday, March 31, 2019
Thank you, Jason. Kentucky Transportation Cabinet Secretary Greg Thomas is also here today. Thanks very much for everything that you’re both doing to make Kentucky’s roads safer.
There is no higher calling and greater mission than saving lives and preventing injuries.
The men and women gathered here today at the Lifesavers Conference are approaching this mission from every conceivable angle. That’s how gains in highway safety have been achieved in the past. That’s how traffic fatalities and injuries will be reduced going forward.
Behavioral changes, vehicle safety innovations and improved infrastructure are keys to preventing traffic crashes. For several decades, there have been extensive, ongoing safety efforts by government, by law enforcement, advocates and vehicle manufacturers. They – together with many of you in this room -- have been working to make people safer drivers, to produce safer vehicles and to improve infrastructure.
When crashes occur, vehicle safety innovations -- including seatbelts, air bags, head restraints and crumple zones -- have improved the odds of survival. Tremendous advancements in emergency medical services and trauma care have also contributed to a reduction in traffic fatalities. Better EMS and trauma care have enabled many crash survivors to have better outcomes than they would have had in the past.
The result of these comprehensive efforts to save lives has been extremely positive: traffic fatalities have declined 32 percent since 1972. That’s remarkable, especially considering that there has been a 153 percent increase in vehicle miles travelled. In fact, the fatality rate in 1972 was four times higher than it is today.
But no one here is going to rest on those laurels. Motor vehicle crashes in the U.S. in 2017 killed 37,133 people. This includes 5,977 pedestrians, 5,172 motorcyclists and 783 bicyclists. Nearly 3 million adults and children were injured – many in life-altering ways.
The annual economic cost of motor vehicle crashes in the U.S. is over $240 billion.
The pain, suffering and grief are not quantifiable. And should not be happening. These crashes are preventable.
In 2018, Americans drove a record 3.2 trillion miles. There are currently more than 222 million licensed drivers in the U.S. – nearly double the 112 million licensed drivers in 1970.
With more people on the road than ever before – including pedestrians and bicyclists -- it has never been more important for all road users to be sober and solely focused on safe travel. But “distracted driving” has entered the national lexicon because so many road users are fixated on phones, and other things, instead of focused on the road. And so local, state and federal safety campaigns must be intensified, sustained, and creative.
Impaired driving is a daunting challenge. Alcohol remains a major factor in traffic fatalities every year. And now, so many drivers are using opioids, fentanyl, meth, heroin and other drugs – including some over-the-counter medications – that impair motor skills and judgment. 30 states and the District of Columbia have enacted laws that increase access to marijuana. Law enforcement and policymakers are challenged by the fact that there are so many drugs and so many variables in terms of how their active ingredients may impair an individual’s driving performance.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is spearheading several initiatives and working with partners and stakeholders to reduce drug-impaired driving. NHTSA Acting Administrator Heidi King, who you will be hearing from later on, has hosted meetings around the country to hear from the experts confronting these issues in our communities.
Law enforcement bears most of the burden of detecting drug-impaired driving. NHTSA continues to work with partners to develop and support training tools. These include Advanced Roadside Impaired Driving Enforcement and Drug Recognition Experts. These programs train officers to identify symptoms of impairment by different categories of drugs. These programs need to reach as many committed officers as possible. Our nation needs more Drug Recognition Experts in our police departments. And the nation needs more support for Traffic Safety Resource Prosecutors. They are the valuable legal experts who support local prosecutors and district attorneys confronted with increasingly complex impaired driving cases.
Public awareness efforts are also vital. Last fall, NHTSA launched a new campaign: “If you feel different, you drive different: Drive high, get a DUI.” Decades of experience in highway safety have proven that public service educational campaigns, backed by tough laws and effective enforcement, can change behavior and save lives. The Department will continue to invest in these campaigns to improve road user behavior.
One of the aspects of traffic safety, which is deeply concerning, is the increase in responder fatalities. There have been 22 responder fatalities since January of this year. These are firefighters, EMS personnel, law enforcement officers, towing and recovery personnel and transportation and public works personnel.
The 21st responder fatality of 2019 occurred on Thursday: 34-year old Illinois State Trooper Brooke Jones-Story. She was conducting an inspection on a tractor-trailer when she was struck by another semi-truck. Trooper Jones-Story’s husband is a retired police officer who now must endure -- and help their family to endure -- the awful grief of their loss.
Just yesterday, Illinois State Trooper Gerald Ellis was killed by a driver travelling the wrong-way on I-94. Trooper Ellis is survived by his wife and two children.
These horrific, needless tragedies have got to stop. Efforts to enforce and educate about “move over” laws must be stepped up. The Department will assist with that.
Addressing the dangers to crash responders is one of the reasons that the Department’s Federal Highway Administration developed the National Traffic Incident Management Responder Training program. Nearly 400,000 responders have so far received the training. Federal Highways’ goal is to train well over a million responders. So your partnership and continued support is very important. The training is available in all 50 States, DC and Puerto Rico. It can be done in-person or online.
The collection of data through crash reports is vital to improving traffic safety. The collection of secondary crashes is now recommended in the Model Minimum Uniform Crash Criteria. Although secondary crashes are often more severe than the original crash, there is not yet sufficient understanding of the phenomenon. Increasing the collection of secondary crash data will also help in addressing the tragedy of responders being killed or injured in the line of duty.
The Department has launched a Safety Data Initiative to integrate data sources with each other and with new 'big data' sources that are becoming available. The current tools around safety data were created in the 20th century. So we worked with Congress to secure funding for this new safety data initiative. It builds on the Department's capacity to utilize predictive data analytics to identify and mitigate the systemic factors contributing to serious crashes.
Research is also ongoing to better understand the relationship between roadway design, traffic volumes, speed and crash outcomes. The Department is also focused on improving pedestrian and bicyclist safety through infrastructure design.
More, much more, needs to be done to make the nation’s road infrastructure safer. For example, converting a two-way, stop-controlled intersection to a roundabout can reduce severe crashes at that location by 82 percent. Infrastructure countermeasures -- such as rumble strips -- alert drivers so they may recover from their error in time to avert a crash. But even such modest measures are not inexpensive. That’s why the Administration has pushed for a substantial, sustained and comprehensive program to boost investment in our nation’s infrastructure.
Our country is in the midst of one of the most extraordinary eras in transportation history. New technologies are being developed that have the potential to save lives, revolutionize travel and commerce, and provide better mobility options for underserved communities. Some potentially transformative technologies are still in the early phases of development. Fully autonomous or self-driving vehicles, for instance, exist primarily in limited and controlled circumstances.
The Department’s approach to regulating automated, or self-driving, vehicles stresses collaboration, cooperation and transparency. The potential of this technology to increase safety is very significant. Research has shown that over 90 percent of fatal crashes involve human error. But the promise of automated vehicles will never be realized if the public does not have confidence in the safety, security and privacy of this technology. And so I have challenged the AV companies to address these legitimate concerns.
As Secretary of Transportation, safety is my top priority. And I want to thank you for what you do. Together, we will advance the mission of making our nation’s roads and highways safer, for everyone.
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