Skip to main content
Speeches and Presentations

GHSA Annual Meeting Opening Session Keynote

Ann Carlson, NHTSA Acting Administrator

Monday, September 19, 2022 |

Louisville, Kentucky

As Prepared for Delivery

Good morning, and thank you so much for inviting me to speak today. It’s so nice to participate in person at big events like this year’s GHSA Annual Meeting! 

This is my first time in Kentucky, the Bluegrass State. Sadly, many Kentuckians are struggling after a once-in-a-thousand-year flood hit Eastern Kentucky last month. At least 39 lives were lost, and the cleanup continues. Our thoughts are with everyone affected by this disaster, and our thanks go out to all the first responders. 

During this tragedy, a number of roads and bridges were damaged or washed out, cutting off whole communities. Thank you to the Kentucky transportation professionals helping to restore these vital connections and ensuring people have access to schools, jobs, groceries, and medical care. And to all the Kentuckians who have come together to help their friends, families and neighbors, thank you.

It’s an honor to be here representing the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. As many of you may have heard, Administrator Steven Cliff stepped down, effective September 10, to join the California Air Resources Board. While we’re all sad to see him go, I’m honored to be able to step up from Chief Counsel to the role of NHTSA’s Acting Administrator. 

You have my commitment that our priorities and work will continue unabated. I’ve had the privilege of working side by side with Dr. Cliff from the start of his tenure and have been involved in virtually all aspects of the agency since I began at NHTSA.

As for my priorities as Acting Administrator, safety is always No. 1 at NHTSA. It’s at the heart of everything we do.

We address safety in many ways – from vulnerable road users to vehicle design, from public education to vehicle defects, from risky driving behaviors to EMS and 911 services. Every decision we make focuses on saving lives on our roads.

I don’t have to tell you that we are facing an incredibly challenging time in traffic safety – you have all seen it firsthand in your communities. As life starts to return to normal, the fatality trends we first saw in 2020 remain a crisis. That is not the new normal we want.

NHTSA projects that an estimated 42,915 people died in crashes last year, a 10.5% increase from 2020. This is the highest number of traffic fatalities since 2005, and the largest annual percentage increase in the history of our Fatality Analysis Reporting System. 

We’re estimating increases in fatalities in 46 states and jurisdictions in 2021, compared to 2020. 

We also saw an increase in risky driving behaviors, including speeding, impairment, and not using a seat belt. There were also startling increases in fatalities involving vulnerable road users; pedestrian deaths were up 13% in 2021. And distracted driving remains a constant concern.

I am pleased to share with you some new data, fresh off the presses.

This morning, we released our latest fatality data, our early estimates for the first half of 2022. We project that 20,175 people died in motor vehicle traffic crashes during the first six months. That’s an increase of about 100 fatalities when compared to the first half of last year.

Over the past couple of years, our data releases have become a grim ritual of bad and worsening news. However, for the first time in a long time, there was one ray of hope in the data we released today. While the overall number for the first six months worsened year over year, the most recent three months saw a decrease in fatalities. 

That’s right. The second quarter of 2022 saw the first decline in fatalities after seven consecutive quarters of increases that started with the third quarter of 2020. We all hope this is the start of a downward trend in fatalities. We also saw a small decline in the fatality rate per 100 million miles driven in the second quarter, from 1.34 to 1.27. We hope this is the beginning of a trend in the right direction.

Because these are early estimates, we don’t have specifics about causes yet. But we know it will take a combination of factors – including education, enforcement, vehicle design and technology, and infrastructure improvements – to drive these numbers down.

I’ve just thrown a lot of numbers at you, and even with the small improvements from Q1, none of them are good. That’s because every number represents a life lost, and a family shattered. It can be all too easy to treat the data as an abstraction. But the numbers represent real people, real lives. As Secretary Buttigieg has said, this is a crisis. We must work together to save lives.

Times like these require that we shake up the status quo and embrace solutions like the safe system approach. Let me explain.

The safe system approach is holistic. It looks at all the factors in traffic fatalities and proposes solutions that address short- and long-term objectives.

The safe system approach is people focused. For example, infrastructure – including roads and emergency services – is designed and maintained to serve users’ needs.

The safe system approach is equitable. It considers the needs of everyone on the road. Not just drivers and passengers but pedestrians, cyclists, children, motorcyclists, older Americans and people with disabilities. 

We urge everyone in the transportation space to consider five key principles of the National Roadway Safety Strategy: safer people, safer roads, safer vehicles, safer speeds, and post-crash care. All of these elements need to be part of our focus for our transportation system to function safely for everyone. NHTSA and the U.S. Department of Transportation have embraced the safe system approach wholeheartedly. 

And for us to turn the tide on traffic fatalities, we need everyone here today to be on board too.

To quote from the National Roadway Safety Strategy, “We face a crisis on our roadways; it is both unacceptable and solvable.”

Solving it will take all of us working together in new ways, with new resources, and with new benchmarks. 

Many of our new approaches will originate from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law – or BIL, as we call it – and its vast new resources for traffic safety. The law increases NHTSA’s overall budget by more than 50%, allowing us to make historic investments in vehicle and road safety. 

BIL gives us the resources to implement the safe system approach and the National Roadway Safety Strategy.

With these resources come new responsibilities – and new scrutiny to ensure we are delivering for the American taxpayer. We must also ensure our spending and grants do what they are designed to do: make our roads safer for everyone who uses them. We need to bend the curve on traffic deaths all the way to zero. This is the direction from Congress, and NHTSA is committed to that mandate. 

You, as states, are really on the front line. And one thing I think is important to stress about the various tools we have under the safe system approach is that some of the tools can be implemented quicker than others. 

For example, making vehicles safer by adopting new vehicle safety standards is a crucial part of the safe system approach. But it also takes years to develop the standards, and then they’re only implemented on new cars. So, the safety benefits from technological changes take a long time to implement. 

Other tools can be implemented more quickly. Adding a crosswalk at an unsafe intersection doesn’t take years to construct. And focusing on the behavioral obstacles to safe driving can happen quickly and deliver real and immediate results for all road users. That’s why you, as highway safety officers, are so important. 

As you know, the law moves us to triennial highway safety plans, expanding the planning horizon. 

BIL also requires meaningful public participation and a focus on equity. Performance targets will help demonstrate constant or improved performance.

It’s clear that some stakeholders have strong thoughts on some of the changes that Congress enacted into law. But consider this number – 42,915. The number of people killed in 2021. The most in 16 years.

The crisis on our nation’s roads is growing and evolving, and our solutions must do the same. This moment requires new strategies and new approaches, and, with your assistance, the tools and resources provided by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law will help deliver them.

We must all take a hard and unflinching look at our program and project performance. If an activity isn’t delivering, then it’s time to see what we can do differently. Our investment in these lifesaving efforts must be impactful and results driven, and consistent with the law. 

While there are many who are meeting targets, there are others with greater opportunities for improvement. So, I thank you for your continued work and commitment, but ask that we keep our focus on reducing traffic deaths and ensuring that our approach meets those targets. 

To help achieve our safety goals and guide the highway safety grant programs, NHTSA has issued a notice of proposed rulemaking for “uniform guidance for state highway safety grant programs.” 

This NPRM responds to the feedback we received during the May public meetings and the Request for Comments. I’ve read every word of it, and I’m heartened by the direction it has taken, though of course it isn’t final. Stakeholders and states will have another 45 days from the NPRM’s publication to comment. We encourage everyone to weigh in, especially those who work closely with populations disproportionately affected by traffic fatalities.

This NPRM reflects just one way the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law requires us to do things differently. The law is an opportunity to address the fatality crisis by bringing everyone to the table. 

For example, there must be, and I quote, “meaningful public participation and engagement from affected communities, particularly those most significantly impacted by traffic crashes resulting in injuries and fatalities.”

In other words, equity. Safety and equity must go hand in hand. We can’t have a system that delivers safety only for some. 

We’re finalizing some new research, and preliminary data suggest that road travel is riskier for Black, American Indian and Alaska Native travelers than for white people. The disparity persists even when accounting for the amount and type of travel. 

We also recently published a study examining gender disparities in crashes with similar physical impacts. 

We found men die in greater numbers than women, but women face slightly greater risks of death in crashes. We are also researching whether women and men face different risks of serious injury and will release those results when they’re ready.

The fatality risk for all vehicle occupants is significantly reduced in newer vehicles, starting as early as model year 2000. And the disparity between risk for women and men drops dramatically. The overall gap for women in the front seat drops from 19.9% in model year 1960-1999 vehicles to 2.9% for 2015-2020 vehicles. The risk is slightly higher for passengers but significantly lower than in older vehicles.

NHTSA’s safety measures, including stronger federal vehicle standards, have helped close the gap and protected countless lives. 

But more work is required to eliminate the disparities that remain.

A safe system acknowledges historical disparities and seeks to eliminate them. That starts by listening to the voices of those who use the roads, particularly in communities of color, underrepresented communities, and people with disabilities. 

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law reinforces this by requiring meaningful public participation. Public participation is not an inconvenience but a necessity. Equity cannot be an afterthought – it must be woven into the entire process. 

Data addresses equity by helping identify groups overrepresented in crash fatalities, the causes of crashes, their location and potential solutions.

The law provides additional funds for two critical NCSA crash data programs. These programs will help states modernize their systems to allow full electronic data transfers, and for NHTSA to expand its Crash Investigation Sampling System to gain greater insights into emerging safety challenges on our nation’s roads. 

In doing so, we have a real opportunity for all of us to better understand the trends on our roads. Electronic data transfers are much more efficient and allow earlier, more timely access to data.

After all, if we’re to reverse these trends, we must know what’s going on – and who’s affected the most.

Lives are at stake.

Before I conclude, I would like to leave you with this: In 2021, one person was killed in a traffic crash every 12 minutes, according to NHTSA estimates. That’s one life ended in the time it took me to deliver these remarks.

And let’s all remember that those we lose are more than statistics – they’re a parent, a child, a spouse, a partner, a sibling, or a best friend.

We cannot accept the deaths of more than 42,000 people a year as the new normal. If there was ever a time for action, it’s now.

This crisis demands urgent action. Doing what worked five, 10 or 15 years ago is not enough. So, I urge you to work comprehensively and urgently to implement strategies that embrace the safe system approach – 

To set standards and benchmarks – 

To invite everyone to the table – 

To infuse equity from beginning to end – 

And to commit wholeheartedly to the day when we can see no more traffic deaths.

I commit to working hand in hand with you. 

Thank you very much.