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Secretary Ray LaHood Remarks as Prepared 22nd International Technical Conference on the Enhanced Safety of Vehicles Gaylord Resort and Conference Center

Good morning. Welcome to Washington. Thank you, David, for the great introduction. And thank you, all, for the warm welcome.

For four decades, this conference has hosted the brightest safety luminaries from around the world. You’ve shared your ideas and innovations. As a result, vehicles are safer than ever before. Here in the United States, we’ve seen highway fatalities and injuries fall to their lowest levels since we started keeping track more than 60 years ago.

You deserve a great deal of credit. We salute your creativity, and advocacy, and hard work. But we’re not here to take a victory lap. We’re not here to declare the fight over and won.

Even in the best year on record, tens of thousands of lives were lost on American roads – and tens of thousands more suffered serious injury. The worst part is that many of these fatalities and injuries were preventable. That’s why none of us can rest on our laurels.

I’ve said it many times: Safety is my number one priority. Nothing else even comes close. So, I’d like to take this opportunity to talk about a few of the things we’re doing to make cars safer, to make roadways safer, and to make drivers safer. Let me take these one at a time.

First – safer cars. I know you’ve done a lot of work on this front. But I want to mention one of our initiatives: NHTSA’s new, tougher five-star rankings.

We think it’s no coincidence that, since the NHTSA rankings were created in 1979, automobiles have gotten safer and safer. Still, over time, we started to see a little grade inflation. Shoppers were having a harder time determining which vehicles deliver truly exceptional safety performance. We wanted automakers to push the frontier of safety even further.

So, we brought NHTSA’s rating system into the 21st century by mandating more rigorous crash tests – including an additional side impact test; using data from female test dummies – for the first time ever – so we can learn the effects of crashes on women, not just men; and rewarding vehicles with advanced safety technologies, like electronic stability control, lane departure warnings, and forward collision warning systems. Ultimately, this new five-star system will combine all of a car’s safety ratings into an overall vehicle score. More stars means safer cars.

So, that’s step one. Step two is safer roadways. That means safer intersections, better signs and lighting, and more effective crash barriers. For example, we’ve allotted more than $1 billion – just in the last two years – to road projects that are improving traffic management and installing hundreds of miles of rumble strips and cable medians. We’ve also required that highway projects built with Recovery Act funds include wider shoulders, more effective guardrails, and – if they’re local roads – bike and pedestrian paths.

Now, the third step of our approach is promoting safer driving. This is where we continue to ramp-up our efforts.

As many of you know, our campaign against distracted driving has become something of a crusade for me. The reason is simple: Distracted driving is an epidemic. It’s an epidemic because everyone has a cell phone – and everyone thinks they can use it while driving. They can’t.

Every single time someone takes their focus off the road – even if just for a moment – they put their lives and the lives of others in danger. Distracted driving is unsafe, irresponsible, and, in a split second, its consequences can be devastating.

The evidence is clear-cut: Distracted driving-related crashes caused nearly 5,500 deaths and 450,000 injuries during 2009. We believe that this represents only the tip of the iceberg because police reports in many places don’t routinely document whether distraction was a factor in vehicle crashes.

Either way, the victims aren’t statistics. They’re moms and dads; daughters and sons; sisters and brothers.

Still, the situation is not without hope. We’ve seen that drivers can and do change their behaviors.

For instance, we’ve told Americans to click it or get a ticket. And we’ve seen seatbelt use increase to 85 percent, up from 60 percent only 15 years ago.

We’ve also reminded Americans that if they’re over the limit, then they’ll be under arrest. And although driving under the influence is still a serious problem, we’ve seen drunk driving fatalities decline by almost 20 percent between 2006 and 2009.

When we stop for a moment and ask “why,” we see the ingredients of a recipe that are also proving effective against distracted driving: Tough laws, consistent enforcement, ongoing public education, and personal responsibility. And – for the last two years – we’ve been working on all these fronts.

Because of our collective efforts, 32 states have outlawed texting behind the wheel and eight states have banned handheld cell-phone use for all drivers.

The Obama Administration has banned federal employees – a workforce of 4 million people –from texting on the road. The Department of Transportation has done the same for commercial bus and truck drivers.

We’ve seen enforcement pilot programs dramatically reduce distracted driving in Hartford, Connecticut, and Syracuse, New York.

Public education efforts are changing minds and behaviors in communities across America.

And the American people are taking notice. People tell me all the time that they turn off their phones when they get behind the wheel.

Even Disney-Pixar is getting in the act. In fact, they just released animated previews for their big summer movie, Cars 2, which remind us that “only bad guys drive distracted.”

The bottom line is this: At the Department of Transportation, our fundamental mission is to help Americans move safely from one place to another. Although accidents or crashes can and will happen, our solemn obligation is to help prevent them. Our charge, above all else, is to save lives.

Yes, we still have a long way to go before we reach that year with zero fatalities. But, like many of you, I go to work every morning thinking about how we can make our roadways safer. This Department of Transportation is always looking for new ideas and always challenging old assumptions. We’re grateful for your partnership – and for your continued vigilance as our journey continues. Thank you very much.

Monday, June 13, 2011