Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, and thank you, Wendy, for your very kind words of introduction. It is, indeed, a privilege to be with you this morning to commemorate such an important milestone - - the 21st Anniversary of the lifesaving 21 Minimum Drinking Age Act - - legislation which has proven to be tremendously effective through the last 21 years!
I certainly want to commend Wendy, and Mothers Against Drunk Driving for your steadfast dedication to preventing underage drinking and promoting teen driving safety. For many years I have had great respect for this organization, since we first worked together during my tenure as Secretary of Transportation.
And thanks to the Chrysler Group, for your generosity in donating 21 Minivans to help increase awareness of these critical safety issues. I know that MADD will put these vans to good use as they launch an important grassroots initiative. And those of us in politics certainly understand the importance of grassroots and message—so, I'd say this is a fantastic use of these tools!
Indeed, Senator Frank Lautenberg, was instrumental in getting Age 21 passed, and Senator Dick Lugar. It seems like just yesterday when we stood together on the steps of the Capitol in support of this legislation.
We, at the Department of Transportation, were deeply troubled by the statistics of teens driving across state borders, "blood borders," into a neighbor state with a lower drinking age, and then driving back under the influence of alcohol. I was convinced that we needed to seriously eliminate the differences between state laws and was confident that raising the drinking age to 21 across our nation would save many, many lives and prevent disabling, crippling injuries.
As President Reagan said at the signing ceremony in 1984, "We know that drinking, plus driving, spells death and disaster. And I know there's one ... simple measure that will save thousands of young lives ... if we raise the drinking age." And it has! More than 21,000 lives have been saved by the Age 21 drinking law. The numbers represent real people—tragedies averted—family members and friends who did not have to suffer the loss of a loved one in an alcohol-related automobile accident. My own family experienced the tragedy, when my uncle, just out of college and about to be married, was hit head-on and killed by a drunk driver.
Ladies and gentlemen, I am also proud that we are approaching the 21st anniversary of another revolution in highway safety. During the same week that President Reagan signed the Age 21 Law, the Department of Transportation enacted Rule 208, with the goal of saving as many lives as possible as quickly as possible. This successfully resolved a 17-year dispute that spanned 4 administrations. Rule 208 resulted in the production of air bags and the passage of state safety belt laws. It recognized the role of the states in automotive safety. No state in July 1984 had passed a safety belt law. In fact, usage was only 13 percent and air bags were virtually non-existent. I had to look all over town to even find a car with an air bag to place on the White House lawn for the President and Cabinet to examine. And consumer acceptance was low. Many people thought air bags would go off crossing the railroad tracks. Today, 49 states have belt laws and national belt use is at a record 80 percent and climbing. And more than 154 million of the 221 million cars and light trucks on American roads have driver-side air bags, and another million new vehicles with airbags are being sold each month.
This safety trifecta—the 21 Drinking Age, state safety belt laws, and air bags—totally changed the climate of highway safety in America and saved many, many lives. My hat's off to the remarkable team I had at the Transportation Department—Jim Burnley, Diane Steed, Phil Haseltine, Erika Jones, Jenna Dorn, Bob Davis, Barry Felrice—and many others like Chuck Hurley, the new President and CEO of MADD. Chuck has been a great leader on these issues and it's a joy to continue working with him.
I am so proud of our record—but we have to keep working. We need more progress in safety belt usage. MADD has voiced strong support for primary belt laws, allowing a law enforcement officer to write a citation when observing an unbelted driver or passenger. Secondary enforcement allows a citation only after stopping a vehicle for some other reason. Currently, only 21 states, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia have primary safety belt laws. According to NHTSA, safety belt usage is much higher, on average, in states with primary enforcement laws. My home state of North Carolina was one of the first to enact primary belt laws in 1985, and our usage rate last year was an impressive 86 percent.
86 percent is good, but it can be better! I recently met with my fellow North Carolinian, Dr. Jeff Runge, the Administrator for NHTSA. We share with MADD a passion for highway safety. According to Dr. Runge, "If safety belt use were to increase from the 2004 national average of 80 percent, to 90 percent, nearly 2,700 lives would be saved each year." When the Senate considers the Surface Transportation bill, I intend to take to the Senate floor to urge my fellow Senators to give states incentives to enact primary seatbelt laws and to achieve at least a 90 percent seat belt usage rate.
Folks, we have plenty of work yet to do, so let's get going. I am proud to stand shoulder to shoulder with each of you and I look forward to continuing our work together.