Being a Gadfly of Transportation Safety

By Nicholas Worrell

NTSB’s Nicholas Worrell (bottom row, far left) with IRF Caribbean Regional Congress attendees.
NTSB’s Nicholas Worrell (bottom row, far left) with IRF Caribbean Regional Congress attendees.

Recently, I had the opportunity to address the International Road Federation Caribbean Regional Congress (IRF). I was born in Barbados and became a U.S. citizen by choice, and it has been a pleasure to return to the region to share road safety messages and to learn what is being accomplished there to improve road safety.

My opening remarks before members of the regional congress invoked the Greek philosopher Socrates, who called himself “the gadfly of Athens” because he challenged the status quo. In many ways, the NTSB is a gadfly of transportation safety.

The NTSB, an independent agency, has no regulatory power of its own; however, we have the broad latitude to investigate accidents and to issue recommendations to all sorts of potential change makers, even to other government agencies. We advocate for and urge change through the results of our accident investigations; we have seen firsthand the impact of poor transportation safety decisions, and this gives us a unique and respected voice.

The NTSB’s ability to improve U.S. transportation safety relies extensively on the quality of our reports and recommendations. These are based on exhaustive safety investigations that can take a year or longer, and which ultimately result in a report with recommendations. In every accident, our investigators take into account the human operator, the machine, and the environment.

Our Chairman often says that it is a testament to the work of our amazing investigative staff that more than 80 percent of our recommendations see favorable action.

As I told the IRF, we will continue to play the gadfly to the states, advocating for graduated driver’s licensing, so our children have time to learn and practice their knowledge before they are exposed to hazards like additional teens in the car or nighttime driving.

We’ll continue to play the gadfly about removing portable electronic devices from the driver’s seat.

We’ll continue to play the gadfly about separating drinking from driving and the fact that a driver is impaired before reaching a blood alcohol level of 0.08.

Why? Because our investigations often lead to findings that challenge the conventional thinking regarding transportation safety. And sometimes a new approach is what is needed to save lives and prevent injuries.

Esteban Salinas, IRF Director, Latin America & Caribbean, with members of Jamaica law enforcement.
Esteban Salinas, IRF Director, Latin America & Caribbean, with members of Jamaica law enforcement.

We also want to nurture and create other gadflies, safety advocates, and ambassadors for safety in their own region. And that’s part of the purpose for attending a conference like this. We recognize that each country is different, with its own unique legal and administrative challenges. But one common goal we share is to work harder to save lives and reduce crashes and injuries on our roadways.

We hope that, by working together, our safety messages will trickle down to the pedestrian in the street and the taxi and bus drivers who take the thousands of tourists to their destinations. We hope these messages reach the bicycle and motorcycle riders who do not feel the need to wear a helmet or the everyday driver who feels it’s okay to drive distracted or impaired.

Developing advocacy leaders is a constant daily process – as is advocating for transportation safety improvements, especially when these changes require changes in behavior. Creating effective advocates requires effective research, outreach, and engagement with groups such as the IRF Caribbean Congress. The NTSB hopes it can empower others to act.

Attendees at the IRF Caribbean Congress included transport ministers and their staff. They know, just as we do in the U.S., that a life lost or a life-long injury endured as a result of a transportation accident also has economic costs that go far beyond that person’s family. These events dramatically impact healthcare and education costs, some of which the state will never recover.

As a gadfly of transportation safety, it is our job to pester elected officials, industry, and other stakeholders to help save lives and prevent injuries. Napoleon Hill said that “without persistence, you will be defeated even before you start, but with persistence you will win.” And the IRF delegates back at their jobs as road safety advocates are highly motivated and persistent – so we will win and they will win.

Nicholas Worrell is the Chief, Safety Advocacy Division

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