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Speeches and Presentations

Lifesavers National Conference on Highway Priorities

Heidi R. King, NHTSA Deputy Administrator

Monday, April 01, 2019 | Louisville, KY

Thank you

Darren Grondel, thank you very much for the welcome, thank you for the introduction, and thank you, more importantly, for your partnership and the inspiration I get from you in traffic safety. 

I want to thank the sponsors and organizers of this very special event, and all of you for being here at this conference and here today. Thanks also to the awardees for all that you do. 

This is an event that all of us cherish because of the inspiration we get from one another, and the inspiration we can give to one another. We use the word “networking,” but that word doesn’t capture the magic that we create here together. 

Today, I’m going to tell a brief story, and then I’m going to tell you what’s going on at NHTSA. So if you enjoyed your delicious lunch and you need to take a nap now, you know what I’m going to say! 

We support traffic safety from wherever we are, however we are able

29 years ago, after I had entered law enforcement, I had a child. After my daughter was born, I remember driving north on Highway 101 in California and passing a traffic crash. The crash was on a curve in the highway, where a vehicle had gone off the side of the road. I was ready to pull over, to dial 911, to run down the slope to the car and proceed with the rescue: to assess, to triage, to hold head stabilization. 

And it occurred to me: I can’t do that. I had a baby in the back seat—in a car seat, and I was responsible for her and could not assist with the rescue as I was trained to do.

It occurred to me then, and it stays with me still, that I could no longer contribute in the same way on something I cared about so much – front lines work in the field on traffic safety. That day, I was no longer able to contribute in the way that I wanted to. Instead, I was responsible for this young person in the back seat. 

So, of course I pulled over and dialed 911, making sure I gave the most accurate information I could to make sure that rescuers arrived, instead of helping with the rescue.

Why do I tell this story? 

Because now I sit in a headquarters building in Washington, unable to be in the field working a crash by your side, helping you in the way that I’d like to. I help in a different way. I help by leading NHTSA, supporting you with our resources, including the research we do and the information we provide as a federal agency. 

I help you by leading NHTSA to be as effective as we possibly can be, for you in the field, for your communities, and to save lives. 

This conference means a great deal to me because this is my opportunity, and the opportunity of my colleagues from NHTSA, to be with you working towards our shared mission of saving lives.

Partnership and the inspiration we get from one another is the reason that we gather here. Good partners communicate openly -- so I’m going to take a few minutes to tell you about what we’re doing at NHTSA. I’m going to talk to you about some things that we normally don’t talk about at this conference, but that are important for traffic safety and that I think you should know. 

Let’s take a brief tour of NHTSA together! On that tour, we’ll talk about some of the activities that may not be discussed at this conference. Yet these issues are very important because the more we can learn what’s happening in traffic safety, the more we can protect our communities. 

A brief tour of activities across NHTSA

National Center for Statistical Analysis

I’m going to start on NHTSA’s fifth floor. The fifth floor is where the National Center for Statistical Analysis is located: We call it NCSA. That’s where the data collection at NHTSA happens. I have never worked with a finer set of dedicated professionals who are so committed to making sure we all have access to timely, accurate data that informs the programs that we develop to drive traffic safety. 

Some of the innovations in NCSA in recent months have included expanding the collection of FARS data to include additional drugs and concentrations, providing more accurate information on which to make assessments or to develop policies with respect to drug-impaired driving. 

If you haven’t already become a regular reader of Traffic Safety Facts, the series of plain-English but statistically rigorous publications produced by NCSA, I recommend you do so. They are outstanding. This week we’re releasing publications addressing older drivers, and also crash data by vehicle type. 

At NHTSA, as in most of your programs, we have to start with the data because we want to be data- and science-based in our policy development and decisions.

Vehicle Safety Research

On our tour, let’s move now to the fourth floor and visit with another part of NHTSA – our vehicle safety research group. We have an entire team, about 60 professionals, who are largely trained as engineers. These are the folks that support and develop with industry the information needed on safety technologies like automatic emergency braking, which evidence suggests is already reducing collisions and may be particularly effective to prevent secondary crashes. Many of you have experienced technologies like blind spot warnings, lane centering, and other advanced technologies. 

Highly automated vehicles, or “self-driving cars” and the technologies that go into building a self-driving car open questions that EMS rescuers and law enforcement are struggling with. What happens if a crash happens? How do we perform a rescue on a self-driving car? 

Our vehicle safety research group is leading research that is science- and fact-based, so that you and I will be ready to pursue traffic safety with the technologies that are coming to market now and in the future.


Next on our tour of NHTSA: Rulemaking. Our rulemaking office writes regulations to improve vehicle safety. 

You might ask, why is that relevant to us? Our rulemaking office advances safety through the federal motor vehicle safety standards for vehicles. 

They also manage the program responsible for educating consumers about the safety of new cars, called NCAP. This 5-star program helps consumers choose a car that is safer for them to drive, and appropriate for their needs. 


Where there are rules, somebody will probably do enforcement.

I’d like to tell you about our enforcement group. Enforcement kind of sounds scary—maybe not to this group! But the thing I want you to know about enforcement at NHTSA is that they are responsible for receiving and acting on some 80,000 to 100,000 vehicle safety complaints a year. They follow a rigorous risk-based process for assessing each and every vehicle safety complaint received. It is this group that works the hardest to lead on traffic safety matters related to defects, such as the tragic defective Takata air bag recalls. 

In the field, not everybody realizes how important it is to be aware of something like an open safety recall. But it is so important to traffic safety! When an air bag deploys, it should save a life. But a defective airbag could explode and send shrapnel into the face, neck, and chest of someone in a car crash, even a minor car crash. 

A defective car, a car with open recalls, is a safety threat. All of you can help us get the word out. You and your colleagues in the field can help NHTSA identify when something has gone wrong with a car or equipment, something that might become a recall, or information that could improve a regulation. It’s important for you to know that you can tell NHTSA, that you can tell me. 

I ask all of you to join me as partners to make sure our eyes and our ears, and those of our colleagues and our communities, are aware of the importance of open vehicle recalls and getting those vehicles repaired.

Program Development

Continuing on our tour of NHTSA, let’s wander over to the group that works on issues that are more familiar to this group—our behavioral research and behavioral program groups. 

For example, I’m very pleased that our behavioral research team has been working with the National Safety Council to develop a digital checklist for children’s car seats. Now, not only will we have trained technicians in the field, but consistent online data that will allow us to learn which are the most common problems, so that we can target programs to improve the use of appropriate fitted car seats. 

Our research shows that drug-impaired driving was becoming a problem, and I have heard from many of you that drug-impaired driving is becoming a problem. That is why NHTSA launched an initiative last year to combat drug-impaired driving, while continuing our work to combat alcohol-impaired driving. 

Impairment is impairment is impairment. No one should drive impaired, whether drunk or on drugs. We have found that people seem to know they’re not supposed to drive drunk, but they seem to be unaware that they’re impaired by pharmaceuticals or by illicit drugs – especially now that marijuana is increasingly available. 

We launched a campaign last fall: If you feel different, you drive different. And we already have another campaign under development. We’re also working on additional materials for drugs other than marijuana. We will not stop developing materials; the need for public education is great in the area of drug-impaired driving. And we will continue to work to combat drunk driving because there are still more than 10,000 deaths per year from alcohol-impaired drivers. 


One of our most important offices at NHTSA, and one which you may already be collaborating with, is our communications office. 

NHTSA has recognized that to change human behavior we have to find messages that work. Many of you do this work as well. We have to find a channel to reach, to influence, and change those dangerous behaviors that result in injury and loss of life. Whether a bicycle program, a pedestrian program, even drug impairment, our communications team at NHTSA is one of our most important teams in executing our mission. 

I hope that if you haven’t already, you’ll connect with NHTSA’s communications team. You can start by visiting and downloading the free materials developed for many of our programs. I encourage you to ask us to share your programs. Many of you have developed programs from which we have learned, allowing us to echo and make more noise and raise more awareness and save more lives together.


When there is a crash, and there is a loss of life or an injury, there’s 911. NHTSA, together with the National Telecommunication and Information Administration, coordinate the national 911 system.

Right now we have two important activities underway. One is a grant program: We have been accepting grants to support 911 centers seeking to further develop their capabilities. The other is is a broader initiative to update and digitize the 911 system in the United States to allow for transfer of photographs of other media to improve the effectiveness of 911. 


And when we dial 911, who comes? EMS. NHTSA coordinates the national EMS program. 

The EMS community has recently published EMS Agenda 2050. It represents a vision for the next generation of EMS that’s more patient-centric, that preserves the resilience and the physical well-being of the rescuer as well as the rescued, and also recognizes the important role of the family in changing behaviors and assuring healthy communities. 

So there’s a lot going on all across NHTSA. I wanted you to be aware because all of us are very passionate, and we’re also very busy working on the elements of our programs. Sometimes, all of us can benefit from pausing and looking and seeing across the horizon all these other things going on—that’s what NHTSA is doing. 

Fuel Economy

The last program I’ll mention to you are the fuel economy standards. 

Why would I talk about fuel economy standards at Lifesavers? I’ll tell you why. 

The analysis of proposed fuel economy standards includes a safety component. Because I am a safety professional, I will make sure that safety impacts are considered in any policy. In considering fuel economy standards, we see that a choice to pursue a very aggressive change in the technologies that operate our vehicles would also increase the prices of cars. And one thing we know is when cars are more expensive, people are less likely to replace their existing car, and they’re more likely to stay in their older car because it’s just more expensive—it’s too expensive to buy a new car. 

And we know that newer cars are safer than older cars. So fuel economy standards that increase the price of a new car can impact safety by keeping people in their older, less safe, less clean cars because they would want to avoid the higher price of a new car. These are the kinds of things we think about in the very diverse policies we work on. 

Policy Development

I hear from some of you that NHTSA is kind of slow, and sometimes I feel it too. We have to be very careful that our passion for safety does not cause us to act so quickly that we generate unintended consequences. We need to make sure that our policies are thoughtful, that they’re based in science, that they’re based in data and research, so that in our passion to save lives we don’t take an action without considering the potential unintended consequences and the potential harm that might be caused for haste. 

That’s why we start with NHTSA’s National Center for Statistics and Analysis data, statistics and science. We perform behavioral research; we perform vehicle safety research. We try every step of the way to make sure that when NHTSA develops a program, when NHTSA issues information, that it’s based in science and it’s rigorous so you can trust it.


So, that’s what’s going on at NHTSA! 

I wanted all of you to be aware because as your partner, as someone who can’t be in the field with you every day, I want to support your community, but I’m responsible to serve in Washington. So I want you to know what I am doing, what Brian is doing, what Rob and Katie are doing, and Jamie, what Beth is doing, what all of the NHTSA team are doing to support you wherever you are, whatever your area of focus—whether it’s bicyclists, whether it’s impairment, whether it’s car seats. We care a great deal, and we are working to support you. And we want to hear from you how we can better support you. 

Thank you for the great benefit of being here today at this fantastic conference, being inspired by you. We appreciate hearing from you, and the opportunity to cherish one another, to thank and reward those who have been extraordinary. 

So it is my great honor now to introduce Brian Barnard. Brian has a formal bio on the website, but I will tell you this: Brian is extraordinary in that he, like me, like the others at NHTSA, shares a passion for our mission. He is always there, 24/7. He is always thoughtful about making sure that you are considered and that our communications are strong. He’s an expert at making sure we retain the trust and open dialogue with our stakeholders and Congress. And I’m honored and thrilled to have him as a partner at NHTSA. 

Together, Brian and I would like to introduce you to some of the folks that are honored at this meeting this week, so Brian if you wouldn’t mind taking the podium.