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Speeches and Presentations

Road to Zero Coalition Meeting

Opening Remarks | James Owens, Acting Administrator

Tuesday, February 04, 2020 | Washington, DC


Thank you for the invitation to join you today.  Lorraine, it’s good to see you again.  Clarence, thanks to you and the National League of Cities for hosting us in this beautiful building.  And to those of you here and joining us online – thank you for your commitment to Road to Zero.

This month marks six months since joining NHTSA as the Acting Administrator, and I’m pleased to be able to speak to you.  Your mission is close to the hearts of not only me, but every single person at NHTSA.  We come to work every day determined to save lives.

As you know, NHTSA is a data-driven organization.  We must understand the scope of an issue if we are to solve it.  I know many of you use data from the National Center for Statistical Analysis, which is a global leader in traffic fatality data collection.

Our 2018 FARS data was encouraging, as the fatality rate dropped by 2.4 percent.  Early reporting data for the first three quarters of 2019 shows that drop continuing.

That’s good news.  But it doesn’t make up for the more than 36,000 lives lost on our roads in 2018, every single one of whom left behind families and friends who will never be the same. 

It’s simply unacceptable that so many lives are lost on our roads.  Secretary of Transportation, Elaine L. Chao, feels the same way.

We will not be satisfied until that number drops to zero.

Under Secretary Chao’s leadership, the Department of Transportation is addressing this issue in several ways:  infrastructure, behavioral changes, and technology.

NHTSA is working closely with our counterparts at the Federal Highway Administration, and the other DOT modes, on ways our respective agencies can collaborate to achieve our safety goal.  

In particular, we are planning several events across the country this year to bring attention to pedestrian and bicycle issues, including the importance of sharing the road.  

In fact, we had one event with Federal Highways and the Federal Transit Administration in December in Denver celebrating the city’s Vision Zero initiative.  It will take cooperation and collaboration at every level of government to solve this issue, along with the efforts of safety partners like you.

NHTSA’s approach to road safety mirrors that of the Road to Zero pillars: doubling down on what works, accelerating advanced technology, and prioritizing safety.

We know what works.  There are many proven ways people can reduce their risk on the roads:  Wear your seat belt, every trip, every time.  Drive sober.  Put down the phone and avoid other distractions.  Slow down.  Wear a helmet.  Stay alert.  

Many of our proven strategies are contained in our Countermeasures That Work report.  Other agencies have similar publications; FHWA has their Proven Safety Countermeasures, for example.

We are constantly driving these messages through our consumer communications and supporting state highway safety offices, local and national partners, and law enforcement, who echo these messages.

We can’t do it alone.  Safety advocates like all of you in the Road to Zero coalition can help share best practices and new countermeasures.

One example of how we are doubling down is our new partnership on pediatric vehicular heatstroke.  Many of you in this room are involved; I’m especially thankful to Torine Creppy from Safe Kids Worldwide for her steadfast support on this issue.

This year, we have moved National Heatstroke Prevention Day up to May 1.  We want to start pushing this message before the hottest months of the year.  We need all the partners we can get to share this message – it’s too important to keep to ourselves!

If you aren’t familiar with our campaign – Park.  Look.  (then) Lock. – please visit our partnership website at – to learn how you can be a hero for children.  It’s not too soon to start planning and reaching out to folks in your communities who may help share this message.

Another example of doubling down on what works is our overall impaired-driving campaign.  We have long-established, fruitful relationships with safety partners such as MADD and the National Safety Council to address ALL forms of impaired driving.

Over the weekend, we promoted our Fans Don’t Let Fans Drive Drunk materials in connection with the Super Bowl.  You are all familiar with our Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over campaign.  We have paired that with a drug-impaired driving component:  If You Feel Different, You Drive Different.  You may also have seen our over-the-counter and prescription medication materials.

Simply put:  Impairment is impairment, no matter the substance. 

Maintaining strong partnerships with the folks on the ground is a critical part of our work.  That may be law enforcement, where we are partnering with the International Association of Chiefs of Police to provide grants to expand access to training for Drug Recognition Experts.

We provide training to leaders in the criminal justice community, including judges and prosecutors, on impaired driving detection and adjudicating impaired-driving arrests. 

We also support the first responder community, including EMS personnel. We can’t do what we know works without our partners – and that includes those of you in this room.

That brings me to the second pillar: accelerating advanced technology.

We believe technology can and will play a large role in preventing crashes and saving lives.  Widespread adoption of new safety features, like automatic emergency braking, is important and something we highly encourage.   

Consumers are letting their voices be heard through their purchases; they are increasingly demanding vehicles with advanced safety features.

One aspect of technology that holds particular promise is vehicle-to-everything technology – V2X.  In fact, in January, Secretary Chao announced a $38 million pilot program to equip emergency response vehicles, transit vehicles, and highway infrastructure with V2X.  

It is our hope that V2X – and the Safety Band it uses – can help address a serious issue facing first responders.   
Each year, there are an estimated 46,000 crashes, 17,000 people injured, and nearly 150 fatalities involving emergency response vehicles.  

The Secretary and I believe V2X has incredible lifesaving potential for both the emergency response community and the traveling public.  I am eager to see the results of this pilot.

I envision a day when V2X could alert a driver of a pedestrian in the roadway, perhaps in a median, or just cresting over a hill where visibility is severely limited, thus preventing a catastrophic crash.

Finally, we have our third pillar:  Prioritizing safety.  I know that’s what you do and why you are here.  Secretary Chao tells us repeatedly that safety is the Department’s top priority.  It is mine too, personally.

Per her leadership, we are focused on several key areas, including pedestrian and rural road safety.

NHTSA has a Vulnerable Road Users Working Group that is meeting regularly, and as I mentioned earlier, we are doing several collaborative events with Federal Highways across the country to bring attention to pedestrians and bicyclists.   

In my opinion, we can never remind drivers too many times of the need to share the road.

One area of particular concern is rural road safety; the statistics are particularly alarming.  According to the Census Bureau, only 19 percent of the country’s population lives in rural areas.  But in 2017, they accounted for 46 percent of all traffic fatalities.

That’s one reason why the Department has launched the Rural Opportunities to Use Transportation for Economic Success Initiative – ROUTES.  This initiative is needed for the nation’s economy – moving freight – but more importantly, it is needed for safety.

By using a systems approach, and bringing in partners like EMS, transit, rail, and our traditional safety partners, we can make an outsized difference in making rural roads safer. 

As you know, prioritizing safety and building collaboration into the way we work requires a culture change.

  • A change in the way we speak – crashes instead of accidents.
  • A change in the way we work – together, not separately.
  • A change in the way we live – mindful of all road users.

It will take all of us working together, sharing ideas and creating and supporting innovation, to reach zero – but I know we can do it.

Thank you.