It's been an exciting couple of days to be Secretary of Transportation. Tuesday night, I had the opportunity to be in the Capitol for the 2012 State of the Union, and yesterday, I had the good fortune to sit on a panel with five of our nation's previous Secretaries of Transportation.
Every day, in the corridors of DOT, I see the portraits of Alan Boyd (1967-69), James Burnley (1987-89), Samuel Skinner (1989-91), Andrew Card (1992-93, and Rodney Slater (1997-2001), so it was great to share the stage with them in person yesterday at the annual meeting of the Transportation Research Board.
Each of us shared stories of crises and successes, and I hope the TRB meeting-goers who attended found the discussion as fascinating as I did.
I was particularly struck by the wit of our nation's first Secretary of Transportation, Alan Boyd, who was appointed by President Lyndon Johnson when the Department was created and had many tales to tell of the colorful characters who populated DOT in its early days.
But he also shared with us one of DOT's greatest successes: getting automakers to include seat belts as standard equipment on America's cars. As he said, "In 1966, 55,000 people died in motor vehicle crashes. Then we added the seat belts. And in 2010 that number was down to 45,000, even though Americans drove five times the number of miles in 2010."
That's quite a safety legacy. And I hope our current campaign to end distracted driving will have a similar impact.
Serving as a Cabinet Secretary is a fantastic experience, but as full of pomp and ritual as this job can be--and the excitement of the State of the Union is a good example--it is also filled with wonderful people. For example, Samuel Skinner, who served in the administration of President George H.W. Bush, talked about working with the families of those who died in the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.
And he reminded us that, "You don't get involved in something like this without getting personally involved."
That's exactly how I feel about working with the families of those who have lost their lives to crashes caused by someone texting or talking on a cell phone while driving. So I appreciate Sam's kind praise of our work so far on the challenge of driver distraction.
Several of today's panelists talked about the importance of trying to pass a long-term surface transportation bill through Congress, and they offered words of encouragement about our current struggle to pass such a bill and put Americans back to work rebuilding America.
Rodney Slater, who persevered through a similar legislative effort during the Clinton Administration emphasized the role of a strong transportation system in America's economy: "Transportation is the business that helps business do business."
And that's exactly right. Without an effective transportation system that can move goods and people safely and efficiently, our economy simply can't go anywhere.
That's exactly what the President called for in his State of Union address this week--a bill that takes the money we save by drawing down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and puts half of it toward putting Americans to work rebuilding our nation's infrastructure. Between the President's leadership, the leadership in the Senate and the House, I hope this year we can work with Congress to pass a transportation bill.
I want to send my thanks to everyone at TRB for arranging this terrific discussion, and a very warm "Thank you" to my esteemed predecessors for joining me yesterday.