Bike to Work Day

By Bella Dinh-Zarr, PhD, MPH

NTSB-cyclistsHappy Bike to Work Day!  Bike to Work Day (#BTWD2016) is celebrated every year in May in cities throughout the United States and Canada to promote bicycles as a commuting option.

I ride my bike to work almost every day—rain or shine. Although I have many forms of transportation available to me, I choose to travel by bicycle, not because it’s always the fastest way to get to work, but it is, by far, the most enjoyable. Sometimes I ride to a public transit station, other times I ride straight to the office, but I always feel lucky that I have this transportation option to get to my job at the National Transportation Safety Board.   Some of my colleagues have been riding their bikes to work for years (you can see a few of them in this photo). They are ship, airplane, train, highway, and pipeline accident investigators. They are medical, communications, engineering, legal, and administrative professionals. While we all appreciate the different types of transportation, we also share a personal appreciation for bicycles as an important mode of travel.

At the NTSB, our mission is to independently investigate accidents and to use the key findings from those investigations to help make our country’s transportation system as safe as possible—in all modes of transportation. And, as with all modes of transportation, traveling by bicycle has its risks. In the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 900 bicyclists die and 400,000 go to an emergency department every year.

We can design communities that are safer for both bicyclists and pedestrians, as we learned recently at the NTSB Pedestrian Safety Forum. We also can work to ensure that bicyclists are visible and that they always wear a helmet, which reduces the risk of head and brain injury by 63 percent to 88 percent for all ages, according to a systematic review of scientific literature. And we can all do our best to obey traffic laws and pay more attention to everyone who is sharing the road with us. The next time you see a person on a bicycle—whether you are in a car, walking, taking the bus, or riding a bike yourself—say hello or wave. It may be me or one of the good men and women at the NTSB who are working hard to keep our nation’s transportation system safe!

T.E. Lawrence, Hugh Cairns, and Your Motorcycle Helmet

By Jeff Marcus

T.E. Lawrence on his motorcycle. By, Public Domain, World War I, a young British officer named T.E. Lawrence helped to lead the 1916-1918 Arab Revolt against Ottoman Turkish rule, playing a critical role in defeating the forces of the Ottoman Empire. His exploits are immortalized in the film Lawrence of Arabia, starring Peter O’Toole.

His role in the war is fairly well known. What is less known is how Lawrence influenced motorcycle safety.

Lawrence was an avid rider, at a time when very few motorcyclists wore a helmet – a protection invented in 1914 but very rarely used.

On May 13, 1935, he was riding his Brough Superior SS100 on a narrow road near his cottage near Wareham, England when he entered a dip in the road. This dip obstructed his view of two boys on bicycles, which he swerved to miss. He lost control of his motorcycle and was thrown over the handlebars.

Like most motorcyclists of his day, Lawrence, age 46, was not wearing a helmet. He suffered serious head injuries and never regained consciousness. Six days later, he died.

One of the doctors treating Lawrence was a young neurosurgeon named Hugh Cairns. After Lawrence’s death, Cairns conducted an autopsy and discovered that Lawrence had suffered “severe lacerations and damage to the brain” when his unprotected head struck the ground. Had Lawrence survived, brain damage would probably have left him blind and unable to speak.

Cairns’s diary later revealed that it was Lawrence’s death that sparked in him a curiosity to study head trauma caused by motorcycle crashes. His efforts in this area would ultimately spur him to pioneer helmet safety research.

Cairns speculated that thousands of motorcycle deaths in Britain could be avoided if riders’ heads were protected. And, in October 1941, the British Medical Journal (BMJ) published the results of his first study, titled “Head Injuries in Motor-cyclists – the importance of the crash helmet.” The study showed that, in the 21 months prior to the start of World War II, 1,884 motorcyclists died on British roads. In the 21 months following September 1939 (when England entered World War II), Cairns found that 2,279 riders died, an increase of 21 percent – despite the fact that gasoline rationing at the time had likely reduced the number of overall vehicles on the roads.

Because helmet use was so rare, Cairns could only study a few motorcycle accident survivors who had worn helmets when they crashed. All of them survived. His research convinced the British Army that wearing helmets could save lives.

In November 1941, the British army mandated that soldiers wear helmets when they traveled by motorcycle, and Cairns embarked on a study of the new policy’s effect. In his 1943 BMJ paper, titled “Head Injuries in Motor-cyclists, with Special Reference to Crash Helmets,” Cairns found that motorcycle fatalities in the Army had fallen from approximately 200 a month to 50 a month, a reduction of 75 percent.

In a 1946 study in the BMJ, titled “Crash Helmets,” Cairns compared Army dispatch riders wearing helmets to civilian riders, who were still generally bareheaded. He concluded: “From these experiments there can be little doubt that adoption of a crash helmet as standard wear by all civilian motorcyclists would result in considerable saving of life.”

Hugh Cairns died of cancer in 1952, so he did not live to see the lifesaving changes that his research helped to bring about. In 1973, the British Parliament passed a law mandating that motorcycle riders use helmets, and, in 2013, the number of motorcycle riders who died on British roads was 331. This was a fraction of the annualized toll on British roads prior to Cairns’ research, despite a huge rise in traffic volume from the World War II era to today.

Years before the NTSB or similar organizations existed, Cairns was already showing how the study of accidents can improve transportation safety. It took the death of Lawrence of Arabia, the career of a dogged and brilliant researcher, and countless subsequent actions to demonstrate the value of a helmet.

This is one story from history we can – and should – all learn from, especially during this month of May, Motorcycle Safety Awareness Month.

Jeffrey Marcus is a Transportation Safety Specialist in the Office of Safety Recommendations & Communications

An Apology

I made a statement in an NTSB board meeting this week that offended many. Through this message, I hope to convey my sincerest apologies.

The board meeting was to deliberate on the January 12, 2015, accident involving Washington, DC’s Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) subway system. That accident claimed one life and sent many others to local hospitals.

In my remarks, I noted that the NTSB’s investigation of this tragedy found similarities to a WMATA accident that occurred 33 years earlier. Most surprising to me was that WMATA also failed to do a debriefing after the 2015 accident – something I felt was a lost learning opportunity for them. I then stated: “To me, these things show that WMATA has had a severe learning disability. Quite simply, they haven’t been willing to learn from prior events.” I then quoted Peter Senge, author of a book on organizational learning: “Learning disabilities are tragic in children, but they are fatal in organizations.”

While I don’t mind taking organizations such as WMATA to task for their failings and oversights, I never intended to offend anyone with learning disabilities or their families. Looking back on it, it’s now clear to me how my words were offensive. I therefore want to offer my sincerest apology.

Although I was quoting from a book, the words came out of my mouth and I take full responsibility for what I said. The emphasis of the statement was intended to be on the fact that WMATA failed to learn. However, tying that point to children with learning disabilities was wholly insensitive on my part. Clearly, I could have made the point without referring to learning disabilities at all.

As much as I regret the offense I caused to many, I also regret that my comments may reflect poorly on the agency that I represent.

As a government official who often makes public comments, I try to carefully choose my words; this time I failed. I endeavor not to make the same mistake I asserted WMATA was guilty of – failing to learn. I pledge to use this as a powerful learning opportunity.

Robert L. Sumwalt

NTSB Member

Inspired by Tragedy to Make a Difference: One Millennial’s Story

Five years ago, the NTSB held its first event focused exclusively on teen driver safety. The goal was to save lives by empowering young people to develop and lead traffic safety education projects, support law enforcement efforts, and advocate for effective legislation to protect teen drivers. Ultimately, we want to help develop youth leaders to be ambassadors for safety.

At that first event, our NTSB safety advocates met an outgoing, driven young man named Rick who described to them why he became a youth ambassador for safety. As the NTSB does its part to celebrate Global Youth Traffic Safety Month, we wanted to share his story with you – in his own words:

I’m a Millennial, and I wear this as a badge of honor. There are hundreds of books, thousands of articles, and millions of opinions on how to best work with my unique generation. In ways, we’ve stumped our bosses because we aren’t motivated by traditional workplace incentives; instead, Millennials are driven by passion. We want to see the value in what we do. We want to know that our work is building to a better world.

As I catch up with friends from college, we spend a lot of time talking about our careers. Many are in the private sector, building apartment complexes or managing stock options; others are in education, working on Master’s degrees, or attending medical conferences. I talk about my deep love for transportation safety. “Rick, what exactly do you do?” is a common question (that some of my friends and even my mother are still trying to figure out). My answer is simple: I have the best job in the world. As the director of Strategic Partnerships for Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD), I work to build SADD’s capacity at all levels in order to fulfill our mission and build meaningful, lasting relationships.

SADD was founded 35 years ago in the wake of a series of alcohol-related crashes that claimed several teen lives. The young people in Wayland, Massachusetts, rallied together to unite their voices and say “enough is enough!” They realized that if they were going to change the statistics, they themselves needed to speak up and act. Now, three-and-a-half decades later, SADD is a youth health and safety organization with thousands of chapters in middle schools and high schools across the country.

I joined SADD in high school. My chapter was a safe space, where teens could be teens with others that shared a central set of values. To this day, I cherish these friendships. My junior year, however, our mission became very real as I lost a close friend in a horrific crash. Nick’s death changed my school, my community, and me. The tears we shed were completely preventable. Nick should have been in our Homecoming group. He should have been in school bartering with the lunch ladies, and he should have been six spots behind me at graduation. In that moment, the story of SADD became my story. I wanted no other parent, school, or teen to feel the loss we felt.

In my freshman year of college, I was humbled to be selected as the SADD National Student of the Year. For the first time, I saw SADD turn from a passion into a real career option. I was fortunate enough to attend the NTSB Youth Open House representing SADD, where I networked with other youth leaders and professionals from across the country. In the room were dozens of committed professionals who found their way to transportation safety through a variety of paths. Yet, all shared a common thread: they loved what they did, maybe not every day, but their passion was rooted in a deep understanding of the problems they were solving.

The traffic safety field is small enough to form meaningful acquaintances that blossom into life-long friendships, but it is large enough to always look toward the next frontier. I found a space that truly values me as a young professional and supports me in my personal and professional growth.

In December 2015, the NTSB joined with SADD to launch a symposium event that expanded the definition of impaired driving. As I left the NTSB boardroom that day, I smiled. I realized that I was leaving the room where I decided to start my career. It all started with the NTSB Open House just a few years prior.

I’ve taken my passion and turned it into a career. Now, as I work with youth leaders across the country, as the Director of Strategic Partnerships at SADD, I always make sure I mention how much I love my job. Why? Because you never know when the next great engineer, highway safety specialist, grant writer, public information officer, or advocate could be standing in front of you. You never know which SADD student could invent the next generation air bag, create the next highway safety slogan, or advocate for the next life-changing legislation. That’s what motivates me. What motivates you?

What’s Changed About Distracted Driving? We Hope, At Least, You

By Robert L. Sumwalt

We’ve all seen it happen. . . We’re driving toward our destination, eyes on the road, when we notice a car in the lane next to ours start to drift slowly toward us. We adjust our own vehicle, then gradually slow down to allow for the erratic driver’s apparent need for access to both lanes. Then, through the other car’s rear window, we find out why it was unable to maintain its own lane: its driver was chatting away or attempting to text, rather than focusing on the task of driving.

But how many of us have used such a close call to adjust our own behavior toward distractions in the car? Are we doing enough to spread the word about the danger distractions pose? And how can we do it more effectively?

To kick off Distracted Driving Awareness Month last year, I had the privilege of hosting a roundtable discussion of national leaders in distraction research, transportation industry executives, and safety advocates. It was an unprecedented exchange of diverse viewpoints, but a few key takeaways emerged:

  • Eyes, hands, and mind on the road! Despite different methodologies, there is basic scientific agreement that cognitive distraction can degrade driving performance. Everybody understands that looking away or fiddling with gadgets increases risk – the problem is getting people to understand that even hands-free devices add driving risk too.
  • It’s worse than we thought – about four times worse. When we look at studies of distraction among teen drivers, we’re finding out that the national statistics attempting to show the prevalence of distraction is actually underreporting it by a factor of four.
  • (Temporarily) exiling digital natives. We need to train our children to make safe decisions, and to learn self-control so that the underlying behavior itself is changed. Technology can solve many problems with distraction, but consistently safe behavior remains critical.
  • Can safety sell in the state house? Many state legislators admit that voting to ban the use of personal electronic devices in private vehicles is such a political hot potato that they won’t do it, even when they recognize the associated safety risk.

As National Distracted Driving Awareness Month comes to an end this week, we have to ask ourselves – has anything changed?

Incredibly, four states still permit texting and driving. Only 14 states and DC have laws prohibiting handheld cell phones while driving. The political will to pass effective laws banning distracting technologies from our vehicles is still lacking, evidenced by the fact that no state has yet taken the step to prohibit all PED use while driving.

And, remember that car with the distracted driver creeping into your lane? Because they know the law does not punish their distracted driving with a penalty, they might continue their dangerous behavior until they – or you – pay a much higher price.

Legislators may not have the resolve to end distracted driving, but you can chose to end distracted driving.  Make the personal choice: don’t be a distracted driver, and don’t tolerate distracted driving by your children or friends.

This blog also appears on the National Safety Council (NSC) website.  NSC has received permission from the NTSB to reproduce it on the website.

Global Youth Traffic Safety Month – A Focus on Saving Teen Lives

By Stephanie Shaw

Global Youth Traffic Safety Month bannerMay is Global Youth Traffic Safety Month, a time where communities come together to bring more awareness to safety issues impacting teens on the road. GYTSM, which began as National Youth Traffic Safety Month, was expanded to support the United Nations’ 2007 Global Road Safety Week, because teen driving crashes are a worldwide safety problem, requiring global solutions.

Motor vehicle crashes continue to be the leading cause of death in the United States for 15- to 20-year olds. Nearly 1,700 young drivers died and 177,000 more were injured in motor vehicles crashes in 2013.

And, if that data weren’t dramatic enough, consider this: while drivers age 16–24 make up only 6 percent of the total number of licensed drivers, they are involved in 9 percent of all fatal crashes and 13 percent of all crashes.

Clearly, all of us – government, youth organizations, communities, parents, and individual citizens – must work harder to protect our youth. And GYTSM is the perfect time to refocus our efforts!

Doing our part, the NTSB will join the National Organizations for Youth Safety; Students Against Destructive Decisions; the Family, Career and Community Leaders of America; and students at Freedom High School in Virginia to bring the message of teen safe driving to their school and community. We will share best practices and lessons learned from the crashes we have seen. We will be using a live satellite feed and a Twitter chat to interact with students across the country to learn how they are promoting safe driving behaviors. The event will also feature special guest speaker Fletcher Cleaves, who was paralyzed in a distracted driving accident.

If you have a teen driver in your family, are close to teen drivers in your community, or simply want to know how to help prevent teen driver crashes, we encourage you to join us May 2 at 1:00 p.m. EST via Twitter @NTSB or follow the conversation by searching the hashtags #1goodchoice and #TrafficSafeYouth.

Young drivers are facing a public health crisis – death and injury in motor vehicle crashes. Parents and communities must work together to educate young drivers about good driving habits and increase their awareness about the dangers on the roadways.

For more information on this event, contact Stephanie Shaw at

Your Car Is a Public Health Tool

By: Vice Chairman Dr. T. Bella Dinh-Zarr

We don’t often think of our cars as public health tools, but safety features in vehicles can protect us from injuries, much as vaccines protect us from certain diseases.  In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the U.S.’s public health agency, declared Motor Vehicle Safety one of the top ten public health achievements of the 20th Century, along with well-known successes such as immunizations, recognition of tobacco use as a health hazard, and fluoridation of drinking water.

In the last few decades of the 20th Century, motor vehicle deaths decreased from 50,000 per year to 30,000 deaths per year.  What changed?

Importantly, seat belts, child safety seats, and air bags came into use. Changes also were made to enable other parts of the vehicle to be more “forgiving” for occupants in a crash thanks to the installation of a wide range of technologies—shatter-resistant windshields, energy absorbent steering wheels, and head restraints—that reduced lacerations and blunt force trauma, especially to the head, neck, and torso areas.  Increased roof strength, as well as front and side protection also improved the crashworthiness of a vehicle in different types of scenarios, reducing the severity of injuries to drivers and passengers.

As we entered the 21st Century, in addition to crashworthiness technology, crash avoidance technologies were increasingly introduced. Many crashes occur simply because drivers are not paying attention or are otherwise distracted behind the wheel.

Since the mid-1990s, the NTSB has recognized the significant benefit of technology countermeasures to prevent and mitigate motor vehicle crashes. Last year, the NTSB released a new report focusing on forward collision avoidance systems (CAS), which typically consist of warning to drivers of an impending crash, and autonomous emergency braking that automatically applies brakes.

In 2012 alone, more than 1.7 million rear-end crashes occurred on our nation’s highways, resulting in more than 1,700 fatalities and 500,000 more injuries. As part of the study, the NTSB issued a Safety Alert entitled Addressing Deadly Rear-End Crashes for consumers and commercial fleet owners. Collision avoidance technologies—such as forward CAS, lane departure warning and blind spot detection—could help to mitigate or even prevent many such crashes; they are passive technology “vaccines” against the risk of motor vehicle crashes.

New car assessment programs (NCAPs) around the world, such as the U.S.-based NHTSA NCAP and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, are part of Global NCAP and work to test vehicle crashworthiness in order to determine the safety of cars for the consumer. As technologies are introduced into vehicles, it is important that we do all we can to educate consumers on their life-saving benefits and how to use them. In addition, education campaigns like help to bring awareness to consumers as well.

With the vision of a future with no motor vehicle crashes, deaths, and injuries, it’s important that we continue to improve crash prevention technologies, while also striving for advances in technologies to improve vehicle crashworthiness, especially as it relates to occupant protection.

Inflatable seat belts, smart air bags, and knee bolsters are advances in occupant protection that can reduce injury severity, especially as we age. As vehicle design changes to adapt to these new restraint technologies, we also face the challenge of how these changes affect the rear seat passenger.

Car frames may be made more rigid in order to be crashworthy for front seat passengers with more advanced restraint systems, but is there a trade-off for the rear seat passenger?  Are technologies in the rear seat keeping up with overall vehicle changes?  These questions and others will be addressed tomorrow, April 26, 2016, at the NTSB’s Rear Seat Safety in Passenger Vehicles Workshop. Tomorrow’s workshop will bring together leading experts to address this component of the NTSB’s Most Wanted List issue Strengthen Occupant Protection.

Prevention is the philosophy of public health and prevention of deaths and injuries is truly an important public health achievement.  Our cars represent incredible technologies that have made us more mobile.  Our challenge will be to continue to improve vehicle safety features so that we can continue to use this public health tool to prevent deaths and injuries on our roads.

This blog also appears on the MyCarDoesWhat website.  MyCarDoesWhat has received permission from the NTSB to reproduce it on the MyCarDoesWhat website. This permission does not constitute an endorsement of MyCarDoesWhat by the NTSB.


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