Debbie Hersman

March 2017

Q&A with the president and CEO of the National Safety Council

What led to your career/interest in transportation?

I grew up as the daughter of an Air Force test pilot/fighter pilot and soloed in a Piper Tomahawk before I got my driver’s license. In a sense, transportation was part of my life without me even being conscious of it. My first job out of college was working for West Virginia Rep. Bob Wise, who was a senior member of the House Transportation Committee.

My first experience with transportation safety policy was as a result of a train collision. The emergency exits on the train were not easy for passengers to use, nor were they accessible to emergency workers, and there weren’t enough of them. I worked on legislation that led to critical design changes to improve emergency access for all rail passenger cars. 

You previously served as a board member and then chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). What was a highlight of your work there?

At NTSB, I saw tragic events that were often the worst day of someone’s life. However, the real purpose of the independent agency was to spare others from a similar fate. Each investigation was a kind of puzzle, and solving it meant lives would be saved. During my 10 years at NTSB, I saw regulations and laws change, equipment modified and behaviors adapt as a result of NTSB’s recommendations.

I worked alongside dedicated public servants who brought curiosity, professionalism and empathy to painful work. They taught me the importance of asking the right questions and leaving no stone unturned when things don’t go as planned.

What eventually led you to the National Safety Council (NSC)?

Joining NSC was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. I had the chance to continue saving lives not just in transportation, but also in workplaces, homes and communities. Like NTSB, NSC is data driven, nonpartisan and advocates for safety. It was a natural next step for me.

Each one of us has the opportunity to leave this world a better place, and I’m fortunate that my work at NSC allows me to do just that. I love what I do, and even with difficult situations or long hours, my work fulfills me.

What are your top priorities as president & CEO of NSC?

This year, NSC announced our ‘moonshot’—we have a vision to eliminate preventable deaths in our lifetime. Currently, we lose nearly 140,000 people every year, or one person every four minutes, to things that many people call ‘accidents,’ like car crashes, fires, drowning and overdoses, but each one is preventable. The only acceptable number is zero.

NSC has a vision of keeping each other safe at work, at home and on the road. We accomplish this by partnering with organizations like AAMVA and its members who share our mission and are dedicated to saving lives. 

Two of NSC’s top five safety issues are distracted driving and teen driving safety. What steps is NSC taking to combat these issues?

Distraction continues to be a leading cause of crashes, and teens comprise our riskiest cohort of drivers. NSC focuses on education and legislation because we know they are two critical elements of behavior change. We observe Distracted Driving Awareness Month each April, and we oversee DriveitHOME.org, which is a one-stop shop for parents with teen drivers. We also advocate for total bans on cell phone use—including hands-free—for all drivers, and we support strengthening teen driver laws that put checks and balances on what teens are exposed to while they are learning to operate a motor vehicle.

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Ian Grossman (left), Debbie Hersman (center) and Jean Shiomoto (right) were in attendance at the Road to Zero launch event in October 2016.

NSC, along with AAMVA and the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), announced the Road to Zero initiative this past October. What are the main goals for this effort?

AAMVA is helping guide the Road to Zero initiative, which is focused on three things:

  1. Awarding $1 million per year in grants to nonprofit organizations focused on innovative approaches to eliminating highway fatalities.
  2. Developing a future scenario with dozens of stakeholders that articulates how the United States can get to ZERO fatalities in 30 years.
  3. Creating a roadmap for policymakers, which includes the most important actions to help us get to ZERO.