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Remarks as prepared for delivery
Frederick Wright, FHWA Executive Director
AASHTO Safety Leadership Forum
May 6, 2007, Phoenix, Arizona


OPENING

Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1809: "The care of human life and happiness ... is the first and only legitimate object of good government."

Think of safety as "care of human life" and a big contributor to happiness. At the Department of Transportation, our goal is to make our transportation system a source of safety, not tragedy, for America's families. You are the leaders who can and must make it happen.

SAFETY IN THE NEWS

Let's think about highway safety in the news.

It is likely that your local news includes a highway or pedestrian fatality. Intoxicated teens, motor carrier crashes, and speeding incidents do get covered. But if you add up all the headlines and media coverage from across the nation for a day -- do fatalities and injuries really make the headlines?

Do these stories capture national attention? Every day, on average, 119 people lose their lives on our nation's highways. Every 24 hours, 119 fatalities.

Clearly highway safety is competing with other items too often placed higher on state and national agendas. On the evening network news, there's probably something on the War in Iraq and recently, the tragedy at Virginia Tech. Highway fatalities that happen day-in-and day-out, all around the country just don't have the shock factor, until we add the numbers up.

I have very fond memories of Virginia Tech. I graduated from there ... and it is where I met my wife. But now those memories have been marred -- I can't help but think about the awful nightmare that happened there.

It made headlines on everyone's news -- a massacre that took the lives of 33 people, and changed the lives of so many more. There was around-the-clock coverage.

We can't expect that much attention to highway safety -- the incidents and crashes just don't happen in a shocking news bulletin way that gets national attention.

Not to show any disrespect for the value of those 33 lives taken at Virginia Tech in one morning -- why doesn't 119 unexpected and unnecessary deaths in one day catch the media's attention? Does our country accept 43,000 annual deaths as the price we pay for a mobile and vibrant society?

We understand the cumulative impact and we take notice. I'm glad that this topic is important enough for you to take the time to attend this Safety Leadership Forum. This nation needs your innovative thinking and strong leadership to improve highway safety, our top priority. We have the best transportation system in the world, but we can, and must, make it safer.

THE NATIONAL SAFETY GOAL

Several years ago, we set an ambitious goal. The goal was to reduce highway fatalities by 20 percent. This essentially translated to a fatality rate of no more than 1.0 fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles traveled (VMT) by the end of 2008.

AASHTO, along with GHSA, IACP, AAMVA and others adopted the goal and together, we've made great strides.

  • The 1995 the fatality rate was 1.73 per 100 million vehicle miles traveled. In 2005, the fatality rate was 1.45, an improvement of more than 15 percent over 10 years.
  • Safety belt use has increased steadily from 71 percent in 2000 to 82 percent in 2005.
  • In 2005 the alcohol involvement rate in fatal crashes was 39 percent compared to 42 percent in 1995.
  • Significant progress has been made in reducing passenger car occupant fatalities, which have decreased from a rate of 1.52 per in 1995 to 1.14 in 2005.

STAYING THE COURSE

When you put up an ambitious goal, you run the risk of not reaching your number. Despite real improvement, we are not going to achieve 1.0 in 2008. Other countries, particularly Australia and Western Europe, are outpacing us.

Pedestrian and bicycle fatalities have been on the rise, along with increases in motorcycle rider fatalities. These trends have a significant impact on the overall numbers and rates. We are at a decision-point with our national safety goal.

  • Do we stick with 1.0 or do we move toward using a number?
  • Should we set a long-term goal and shorter term targets?
  • How aggressive a goal should we set?
  • If we go with a number, what number is acceptable?
  • What goal will better resonate with the public?
  • What can we do differently to set ourselves up for long-term success?

U.S. DOT remains committed to safety as a primary goal. The AASHTO Standing Committee on Traffic Safety recently passed a resolution on a new, aggressive national safety goal and we appreciate the perspective. The goal is doable, but requires full use of the programs and principles in SAFETEA-LU, combined with renewed attention, leadership, innovation and legislative support.

It will take commitment and support from the entire transportation community, as well as federal, state, and local cooperation. DOT will continue to work with state and local government, law enforcement, safety advocates and other key players to renew the downward trend in highway fatalities.

It will be extremely important for data to drive decisions at all levels.

States, together with USDOT, must create accurate and timely safety data systems covering all public roads -- giving decision-makers the capability to confidently select strategies that will make the biggest impact.

WHAT WE WILL DO

Secretary Peters has assembled a cross-modal working group to focus on road users whose rates have not progressed to the extent of passenger cars.

Overall, we are looking at developing policies and programs that have long-term sustainability -- because we realize this isn't a short-term problem.

We will continue to encourage all of our partners to use their resources to invest in technology and innovation and solutions that work ... rumble strips, cable median barriers, roundabouts, automated enforcement, primary safety belt laws, and enforcement efforts to combat impaired driving.

FHWA, NHTSA, and FMCSA will work with state agencies on speed management, since speeding is involved in at least one-third of all fatalities.

WHAT STATES CAN DO

Your involvement and leadership will save lives.

SAFETEA-LU provided new tools for improving highway safety:

  • Doubled the money set aside for safety infrastructure projects,
  • A new focus on high risk rural roads,
  • Created a $600 million Safe Routes to School program,
  • Increased funding for behavioral programs,
  • Created new incentive programs for primary safety belt laws and for achieving higher levels of belt use, and,
  • Started a new grant program for motorcycle training.

Perhaps the most significant new requirement was for each state to develop a Strategic Highway Safety Plan -- comprehensive in nature, covering all public roads, and involving all major safety stakeholders. 34 of these plans have been approved around the country, including Iowa's just last week, plus 17 more by end of year -- but we need to keep the momentum going.

Plans don't save lives, but actions do. When the Strategic Highway Safety Plan is complete, you aren't finished. You're just getting started.

We are encouraged by the level of collaboration in SHSPs and encourage you to take advantage of your data to target specific problems. As you are aware, if a state certifies that it has met its needs related to hazard elimination and railroad crossings, it is allowed to use up to 10 percent of Highway Safety Improvement Program funding for other safety activities.

To date, only two states have taken advantage of this flexibility.

We believe that one productive use of funds in eligible states is for education and enforcement programs that directly address impaired driving, safety belt use, and other behavioral factors. The amount of money available is significant, and the payoff from alternative programs is likewise significant.

NHTSA, working with GHSA, has just published a guide, Countermeasures That Work, that lists dozens of successful programs. It is available on the NHTSA website.

States have a major role to play in driving fatality numbers down. Each of you can be a safety champion. You can support strong enforcement -- including national mobilizations such as Click It or Ticket May 21-June 3 and Drunk Driving, Over the Limit, Under Arrest around Labor Day and end-of-the-year holidays.

In looking at states that have made significant progress in safety, there are several success factors:

  • Long-term commitment of career middle management coupled with top management support of a strategic plan and a specific fatality or rate reduction goal.
  • "Safety Champions" to overcome obstacles.
  • Focus on specific crash types, such as impaired driving, intersections, lane departure, occupant protection and pedestrians ... supported by crash data.
  • Finding sufficient funding and resources.
  • Perhaps most important, an organizational culture within the agency and across all levels, a culture that says, "Even one fatality is one too many."

Pete (Rahn, Missouri DOT CEO) might not volunteer this, but one of the biggest success stories in 2006 was Missouri, which recorded a 12 percent decrease in fatalities from 2005 and has continued to lower their numbers in 2007. The reasons for Missouri's success are many, but one of the big ones is Pete himself.

If you get a chance to talk to MODOT Chief Engineer Kevin Keith while you are here in Phoenix or one of Pete's District Engineers, I think they will confirm that his focus on highway safety is personal, relentless and infectious. I know there is only one Pete Rahn, but we need YOUR passion to make the kinds of progress that all of us want.

CLOSE

Making progress in safety will require strong action in every state. Every state can improve.

You've heard case study results from three states this morning and I just mentioned the success in Missouri. I congratulate you on all you are already doing to improve highway safety. We at FHWA and U.S. DOT are here to help anyway we can.

Everyone is touched by highway crashes. No one is immune. We are all in this together.

-end-

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