Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month – The Honorable T. Bella Dinh-Zarr, Transportation Safety Advocate

As a public health scientist, T. Bella Dinh-Zarr has focused on promoting safe and sustainable transportation both within the United States and across the globe. Dinh-Zarr began her life’s journey in Vietnam. When she was only four years old, Dinh-Zarr and her family fled that country for the United States. They settled in Galveston, Texas, where a strong social support network helped them adjust to their new environment and the formidable challenges that came with it.

Dinh-Zarr has singled out a childhood friend named Marsha as an especially staunch champion during those early years in Galveston. It was Marsha who protected Dinh-Zarr from childish bullying at a time when the young Vietnamese immigrant had begun learning English.

While growing up in Galveston, Dinh-Zarr enjoyed studying not only new languages but also science and history. A notably formative experience for Dinh-Zarr during her high school years involved her work at the Galveston Railroad Museum. She credits that job with first stoking what has become her lifelong love of transportation. Dinh-Zarr’s employment at the museum also taught her yet more valuable lessons about both the ugliness of racism and the willingness of some people to unconditionally help her take a stand against bigots.

Specifically, Dinh-Zarr was handling ticket purchases one day for a family that had just shown up to visit the museum. The father, taking umbrage when Dinh-Zarr explained how he would need to pay adult ticket prices for any of his children who were older than 12, sneeringly implied that – unlike he and his family — she was not even an American. After Dinh-Zarr confirmed that she was indeed an American, the man verbally abused her with racial epithets and threatened to have her fired. This angry tirade continued until the man’s mortified wife finally pulled him away.

After the family left the museum, Dinh-Zarr reported the incident to her boss. The boss, Ms. Billie, did not fire or even reprimand Dinh-Zarr for what had happened. Ms. Billie instead voiced strong support for her young employee and planned to make that unflinching stance clear to the man if he ever showed up to try to get Dinh-Zarr terminated. (He never did return to make good on his threat.)  “We need to be like Ms. Billie, tough people who don’t tolerate racism, who are willing to stand up to bigots who harm and dehumanize our nation,” wrote Dinh-Zarr while recalling that incident in an op-ed piece appearing in the Galveston-based Daily News in April 2021. “We need everyone to be an ally.”

After graduating from high school, Dinh-Zarr attended Rice University in Houston. She majored in Spanish and also took numerous courses for pre-med requirements. Dinh-Zarr graduated from Rice University with a bachelor of arts degree, and then briefly attended medical school. She subsequently attended the University of Texas Health Center at Houston and, specializing in injury prevention, earned both her master of public health and doctorate at that institution.

In addition, Dinh-Zarr was awarded fellowships at both the Institute of Child Health in London and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Over the years, Dinh-Zarr’s extensive work experience has also included serving as a research associate at Texas A&M Transportation Institute in 1997-2000; a social scientist at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in 2001-02; and the national director of traffic safety policy for the American Automobile Association in 2002-06.

Dinh-Zarr was also employed by the FIA Foundation for the Automobile and Society for nearly a decade. She served as the FIA Foundation’s director of road safety and U.S. director of the “Make Roads Safe” initiative from 2006 to 2014, and then worked as that organization’s U.S. director and United Nations representative in 2014-15.

In 2015, Dinh-Zarr was nominated by President Barack Obama to serve on the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). Her nomination was unanimously confirmed by the U.S. Senate. During her time at NTSB, Dinh-Zarr served in key leadership roles as that federal government agency’s vice chair and acting chair.

NTSB, which was established in 1967 and has been a fully independent agency since 1975, is responsible for investigating various type of accidents that involve aircraft; motor vehicles; maritime transportation; pipelines; and railroads. In helping to conduct investigations and develop reports aimed at preventing repetitions of those accidents, Dinh-Zarr drew on her considerable background in evidence-based assessments of transportation safety.

“The NTSB is dedicated to improving safety in all modes of transportation,” Dinh-Zarr asserted during remarks to the agency’s employees in 2015. She also used that occasion highlight the importance of diversity within NTSB. She said, “As problem solvers, innovation and creativity are part of the NTSB’s culture, and for these qualities to flourish, we must tap into the agency’s rich blend of backgrounds, experiences, beliefs, and cultures. Employees from diverse backgrounds bring different perspectives to collaboration, continuous improvement, innovation and management, which makes our teams stronger and more effective.”

Dinh-Zarr highlighted similar themes when she addressed the staff of the Federal Trade Commission during Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month in 2018. “I myself am a Vietnamese-American immigrant, with ancestry from both China and Vietnam, as well as with Japanese-American relatives,” she said. “But for me, this month is about more than simply celebrating and recognizing the contributions of Asian Americans to our great nation. This month reminds me that equality and inclusion are important conditions not only for our own sakes, because they are key elements of fairness and justice, but also because having a diverse and inclusive workforce makes our agencies, our government, our communities, and our entire country stronger.”

In the time since she completed her tenure at NTSB in 2019, Dinh-Zarr has continued to be heavily engaged in large-scale efforts to promote greater transportation safety. These activities include serving on the advisory boards for the AIP Foundation, which seeks to significantly reduce road crash casualties throughout the world; and Uber Technologies, Inc. Dinh-Zarr also serves on the advisory committee for Vision Zero Network, a multi-national safety project likewise focused on addressing fatalities and serious injuries involving road traffic; and the U.S. advisory board for the FIA Foundation.

In addition, Dinh-Zarr was one of the founders of the .05 Saves Lives Coalition. This coalition assists in state-level efforts to enact laws lowering the legally allowed blood alcohol content (BAC) to .05 percent to help combat drunk driving. Dinh-Zarr remains extensively involved in the .05 Saves Lives Coalition as a volunteer.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Dinh-Zarr’s volunteer public health activities have also included helping to spearhead the efforts of American Protec (the U.S. arm of the AIP Foundation) to supply 60,000 disposable facemasks created by disabled workers to various communities at high risk. Working with physicians and AASHTO, American Protec has donated approximately one-third of those facemasks to the Oregon Department of Transportation and the New Mexico Department of Transportation specifically for rural transit providers serving vulnerable populations.

For more information on T. Bella Dinh-Zarr, please check out https://www.amherststemnetwork.com/post/the-honorable-t-bella-dinh-zarr-ph-d-mph-a-moving-story and https://www.enr.com/articles/41277-dinh-zarr-breaks-bounds-to-push-train-control-technology

Dr. Dinh-Zarr’s remarks during Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month in 2018 are available at https://www.ntsb.gov/news/speeches/T-Bella-Dinh-Zarr/Pages/dinh-zarr-20180510.aspx

Additional information on her work with AASHTO and others to distribute facemasks to rural transit providers can be found at https://aashtojournal.org/2020/12/23/disabled-workers-donate-60000-facemasks-to-transit-providers/

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