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.

Sun ‘n Fun: Talking General Aviation Safety One-on-One

By: Jeff Kennedy

NTSB Staff at Sun 'n' Fun
NTSB staff Christy Spangler (far left), Dan Boggs, Jeff Kennedy, Jim, Silliman, and Scott Dunham at Sun ‘n Fun.

Aviation enthusiasts and pilots have gathered every year since 1974 for the annual Sun n Fun International Fly-in and Expo. This extraordinary experience features many events of interest to the general aviation community and is attended by thousands of people.

Last week the National Transportation Safety Board again brought its message of safe flying and accident prevention to the general aviation community and Sun ‘n Fun attendees.

Aviation safety investigators discussed a variety of safety issues one-on-one with the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of visitors to the NTSB exhibit booth during the six-day expo. The booth featured video vignettes of aviation accident investigations, safety alerts, brochures on general aviation safety, the 2016 Most Wanted List, and the new brochure, “A Guide to NTSB Aviation Information Resources.” NTSB employees at the booth helped visitors access the NTSB’s online investigative products including NTSB reports, accident dockets, and animations.

In advance of this year’s annual fly-ins, the NTSB issued a new Safety Alert (SA-053), Arriving at a Fly-in Event, Keep Your Focus on Safety. This safety alert was intended to directly engage general aviation pilots who fly-in to events such as Sun‘n Fun and the Experimental Aircraft Association’s (EAA) AirVenture, the largest convergence of pilots in the U.S. The NTSB believed the safety alert was merited as the agency has seen several crashes at fly-ins as pilots are exposed to the unique challenges associated with these events, including high-density traffic, special flight and communication procedures, a rapidly changing environment, and changes to air traffic control separation standards.

NTSB Board Member Earl Weener and air safety investigators also gave presentations on pilot reports, amateur‐built aircraft construction errors, flying into large airshows, and inflight loss of control prevention (an issue on the 2016 Most Wanted List). The hour-long presentations, which included Q&A sessions, were held at the Sun n Fun FAA Safety Center and at the Central Florida Aerospace Academy, a charter high school.

The considerable gathering of aviators at events like Sun ‘n Fun and the upcoming Air Venture present an excellent opportunity for the NTSB to engage pilots and convey important safety information.   Training, technology, and situational awareness are all factors that can improve safety in general aviation. Safety is the NTSB’s focus – and should be a focus for all in aviation.

Don’t be that Driver! – Drive Safely Through Work Zones

By Pete Kotowski

National Work Zone Awareness Week posterSpring marks the start of road construction season. It is a time when motorists face lane closures, speed reductions, and road workers and equipment operating close to moving traffic. If drivers are inattentive road work can result in crashes that kill or injure road workers and motorists.

National Work Zone Awareness Week is April 11-15 —a time to recognize the hazards of traveling in and around work zones. The NTSB has a long history of promoting work zone safety. I recall the agency conducting a safety study in 1988, involving the investigation of more than 40 work zone accidents. In 1992, we completed the study, Highway Work Zone Safety, which contained safety recommendations to the Federal Highway Administration to address commercial motor vehicles traveling in work zones. We also issued recommendations to enhance speed compliance and traffic control within work zones following the investigation of a 1990 crash in West Virginia.

The number of deaths occurring in highway work zones has been declining. Work zone crashes and fatal work zone crashes have decreased in recent years because of improvements in advanced warning technologies, better traffic control devices, lighting enhancements and improved monitoring of work zone traffic. But more work remains to be done, particularly in regards to commercial vehicles traveling within work zones and so the NTSB continues its efforts to make work zones safer. While commercial vehicles account for only 4.5 percent of all registered vehicles in the United States, they are involved in 11.2 percent of all fatal accidents and 28 percent of all fatal work zone crashes.

I led an investigation of a 2014 work zone crash in Cranbury, New Jersey, involving a commercial motor vehicle (which the media dubbed “the Tracy Morgan” crash). Our investigation found that the commercial vehicle was speeding in a nighttime work zone when it encountered slow-moving traffic in advance of a lane closure. The fatigued driver failed to perceive the slowing traffic until it was too late to do anything. The commercial vehicle struck the rear of a limo van, and this impact began a chain-reaction collision involving four other vehicles. One of the limo van occupants died, and nine other people were injured in the crash.

The NTSB made safety recommendations to mitigate commercial vehicle involvement in work zone crashes, calling for the implementation of traffic control strategies and devices to reduce crash events involving heavy commercial vehicles.  The recommendations also addressed fatigue management programs and occupant protection improvements. Promoting collision avoidance technologies and addressing fatigue and occupant protection safety are all issues on the NTSB’s Most Wanted List of transportation safety improvements.

Work zones are becoming safer because of the use of new technologies and more efficient traffic management. However, until we make more headway against the over-involvement of commercial vehicles in fatal work zone crashes, the road construction season will remain a dangerous time, requiring motorists to be especially attentive to the driving task.

Pete Kotowski is a Senior Accident Investigator in the NTSB’s Office of Highway Safety.

Recorders Improve Transportation Safety

By Dr. Bill Tuccio

A privately hired de Havilland DHC-3T “Otter” plane impacted mountainous terrain near Aleknagik, Alaska, August 9, 2010. The pilot and four passengers were killed, including Ted Stevens, U.S. Senator from Alaska. Four other passengers were injured.

Crash near Aleknagik, Alaska
Crash near Aleknagik, Alaska

The aircraft was not equipped with any electronic recording equipment, nor was it required to. NTSB investigators used information from sparse GPS position reports transmitted by satellite, engine instruments, and two surviving passengers who were seated in the rear of the aircraft to determine what happened in the accident. This limited information, however, did not reveal crucial details about the pilot’s actions (or lack of actions) in the final three minutes of the flight.

The NTSB determined the probable cause of the accident to be, “the pilot’s temporary unresponsiveness for reasons that could not be established from the available information.” Ultimately, the lack of a cockpit recorder system with the ability to capture audio, images, and parametric data hampered investigators’ ability to determine exactly what happened.

About two years after the NTSB concluded that investigation, an Alaska Department of Public Safety Eurocopter AS350 lost control and impacted terrain, near Talkeetna, Alaska, March 30, 2013. The pilot, an Alaska State Trooper, and a stranded snowmobiler were killed.

In this case the NTSB discovered exactly what happened. The NTSB determined the probable cause was, “the pilot’s decision to continue flight under visual flight rules into deteriorating weather conditions, which resulted in the pilot’s spatial disorientation and loss of control.” Significantly, investigators determined where the pilot’s attention was directed, his interaction with the helicopter controls and systems, and the status of cockpit instruments and system indicator lights. The investigation found that the pilot reset a key instrument at an inappropriate time – known as caging the attitude indicator. With these details known, the NTSB produced an animation of the accident flight.

Seen here, the DPS helicopter’s Appareo Systems Vision 1000 cockpit imaging and flight data monitoring device recovered from the March 30, 2013, crash of a Eurocopter AS350.
Seen here, the DPS helicopter’s Appareo Systems Vision 1000 cockpit imaging and flight data monitoring device recovered from the March 30, 2013, crash of a Eurocopter AS350.

In this case, a recorder—voluntarily installed and capable of recording cockpit audio, video, and parametric flight data—made all the difference. NTSB investigators were able to determine the details of what transpired in the cockpit.

Once again this year recorders are on the NTSB’s Most Wanted List of transportation safety improvements. We have been advocating for image recorders since 1999, and trying to follow the lineage of our repeated recommendations related to recorder technology is a complicated process. One of our most significant recommendations was issued to the Federal Aviation Administration in 2003—and it has yet to be implemented. Essentially, the NTSB asked the agency to require all turbine-powered, nonexperimental, nonrestricted-category aircraft manufactured prior to January 1, 2007, that are not equipped with a cockpit voice recorder, and, that are operating under Title 14, Code of Federal Regulations, Parts 91, 135, and 121, to be retrofitted with a crash-protected, image-recording system by January 1, 2007.

Operators shouldn’t wait for the FAA to act. (And, thankfully, the operator of that DPS helicopter didn’t wait to be told to install recorders.) With the reduced cost of micro-electronics and reduced size of components—including cameras—operators should look into the future and equip all modes of transportation with recorders. The data collected from these devices not only can inform investigators in the tragic—and hopefully unlikely—event of a crash, but can also be used by operators themselves to make critical changes to address safety problems—ideally, before the NTSB shows up at the scene.

Bill Tuccio is an aerospace engineer in the NTSB’s Vehicle Recorder Division, Office of Research & Engineering. He holds a PhD in Aviation.


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