Talking Transportation Safety with Black and Hispanic State Legislators

By Nicholas Worrell

Every community is different, but some things are the same. Everybody wants – and rightly expects – to return home safely from work, school, or play.

I recently attended the conferences of the National Hispanic Caucus of State Legislators (NHCSL) and the National Black Caucus of State Legislators (NBCSL) to learn about these legislators’ concerns and to explain the NTSB’s transportation safety recommendations. Much of the work that we do begins with legislators, and to accomplish our goals and objectives we must go where they are.

In my recent blog, Developing Future Safety Advocates: Reaching the Millennials, I discussed educating youth about highway safety. At the NHCSL and NBCSL, I learned about the viewpoints of legislators from two distinct communities, and I had the opportunity to explain how proposed safety measures could benefit their respective communities.

To reach minority communities with safety messages means getting a seat at an already crowded table. The NTSB’s message regarding better education, legislation, and enforcement related to transportation safety, for example, might be lost among news stories emphasizing more contentious issues.

In many cases, these state legislators are pivotal figures in implementing safety recommendations, and many of them are champions of transportation safety in their own communities.

The NHCSL held its annual conference in November, with a focus on improving legislative involvement by and for their constituents in the Hispanic community – the largest and fastest-growing minority in the country, and one that faces particular transportation challenges.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that pedestrian death rates are higher for Hispanic males than for all males (3.93 per 100,000, vs. 2.29 for all males). Rates are higher for Hispanic females as well – 1.29 compared with .92 for all females.

Such disparities are not unique to Hispanics; in fact, Native Americans are confronted with even higher pedestrian death statistics. However, factors contributing to these disparities change from community to community.

Among Hispanics, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) points to possible contributing factors affecting newer arrivals.

Initially, many walk or ride a bicycle, which puts them at higher risk of a pedestrian or bicyclist motor vehicle injury. Additionally, new arrivals must learn uniquely American rules of the road and driving customs and the meaning of U.S. traffic signs and rules. Language barriers might also affect their level of safety.

So for this group, pedestrian and bicyclist safety is of vital importance.

Last week, I had the opportunity to attend the annual conference of the NBCSL. The theme of the conference was “Leading by Balancing Justice and Opportunities.”

Some of the many discussions at the conference included youth development and education, and community safety issues.

In a 2006 analysis of fatal crashes, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that while Whites, African-Americans, and Hispanics all had about the same chance of dying in a motor-vehicle crash, African-Americans were particularly likely to die in a crash involving a bus.

African-Americans killed in passenger-vehicle crashes were also more prone to be unrestrained.

While this study is older, year after year, the National Occupant Protection Use Survey continues to record that, while seat-belt use by African-Americans is growing, it is still below the national average – and we know that seat belts save lives.

In my view, getting my fellow African-Americans to recognize the importance of using seat belts and child restraints on every trip is a community issue – as is the installation of restraints on school buses, motorcoaches, and medium-sized buses.

The early estimates for 2015 point to a dramatic increase in the number of highway deaths nationwide. Better economic conditions are often cited as fueling more travel, and in turn, more tragedies.

Traveling more increases the chances of a crash. But eliminating impairment, distraction, and fatigue – and improving occupant protection – can turn around the statistics for all of us.

Many states still require stronger legislative action on issues such as these. I also had the opportunity to talk with legislators about other transportation issues, such as rail tank car safety, commercial trucking, and mass transit safety that affect their communities, as well.

For me, attending these conferences was about learning from the legislators and, hopefully, they learned a bit from me about how to improve transportation safety.

The NBCSL conference closed with the question, “are you fit for your job?” It was meant to encourage each of us to look at our medical, mental, and psychological fitness for duty. It gave me an opportunity to also talk about the NTSB campaigns for medical fitness for duty and against impaired driving.

The NTSB’s recommendations have no color and no ethnicity, but they resonate differently for different communities.

It was a privilege to join the conferences of our two largest minority state legislators and to review their special transportation safety challenges. While the mosaic that makes up this great nation is complex, safety has no complexion.

 

Nicholas Worrell is Chief of the Safety Advocacy Division in the NTSB Office of Safety Recommendations and Communications.

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