Rail Tank Car Safety Improvements, Up Close and Personal

By Christopher A. Hart

Chairman Christopher Hart touring the Greenbrier rail tank car facility at the Hockley & Greens Port facilityThe North American energy boom has resulted in placing rail tank cars into service as ad-hoc pipelines; it’s the ad-hoc part that is troubling. Several recent high-profile derailments and hazmat releases have resulted in pressure to make transportation of flammable liquids by rail tank cars safer.

In January, the NTSB placed Improve Rail Tank Car Safety on our Most Wanted List of transportation safety improvements. We recently issued four urgent recommendations calling for an aggressive schedule of replacing or retrofitting the current rail car fleet with better thermal protection against heat from fires and installing appropriately sized  pressure relief devices. And earlier this week, I testified before Congress on the issue of rail safety, including rail tank car safety.

Today, a team of NTSB investigators and I visited The Greenbrier Companies, where they manufacture, repair, and refurbish rail tank cars. They gave us a first-hand look at the intricacies of making and servicing rail tank cars at the Hockley & Greens Port facility.

What I learned today only underscored my confidence that the necessary retrofits can be completed in much less than the ten years that has been proposed by some in the industry. We saw how the existing tank car fleet can be retrofitted with puncture resistance and thermal protection systems, and valve protection to significantly reduce the possibility of releases in accidents of highly flammable materials such as crude oil and ethanol. We also saw significantly improved tank cars that exceed current federal and industry standards for puncture resistance and thermal protection. Retrofitting the fleet can be done in less than a decade.

We know that preventing tragedies will require a systems approach that keeps trains from derailing, especially in sensitive areas, preserves tank car integrity if a derailment occurs, and prepares our emergency responders for such events.

Our visit has given us deeper insight about how the industry is preparing to meet the crashworthiness challenge. What I learned today gave me a better understanding of how this work can be done safely and quickly.

NTSB Employees Volunteer to Make a Difference

By Christopher A. Hart

2015 National Volunteer Week logoThis week, we celebrate National Volunteer Week, and recognize the great work done by many on behalf of their neighbors and fellow citizens.

Here at the NTSB, I get to see how passionately our staff dedicates their time at work to support the agency’s mission of saving lives, by learning the lessons from accidents and recommending ways to prevent recurrences. But I am even more excited to see the incredible efforts that so many of our staff undertakes, when they are not at work, on behalf of so many others.

From our houses of worship, to various community service projects in the communities in which we live, NTSB staff live and practice the values of volunteerism. I hear countless stories from so many about the work they do on behalf of their children, schools, and activities. From leading scout troops, to mentoring, to coaching, NTSB staff is just as busy outside of the office as they are inside.

As a science and technology based agency, a number of staff have been participating in various science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) programs. And that, sharing and helping to educate, doesn’t stop at the classroom.   A number of our staff is engaged in adult education, including teaching English as a second language. And the spirit of volunteerism extends to the sick, elderly and at-risk community.

On top of all of that, our staff donates generously to the Combine Federal Campaign. As we’ve seen through the many CFC programs and activities that the different offices support during the annual campaign, there is no shortage to the extensive volunteerism that exists among our NTSB family.

Winston Churchill said that “we make a living by what we do, but we make a life by what we give.” So, I extend a special thank you to the NTSB staff that I have the honor of working with and also to the countless others who give of their time and talents to improve the lives of families, friends, neighbors and fellow citizens across the nation.

Deadly Addictions

NTSB Board Member Robert Sumwalt moderates roundtable on “Disconnect from Deadly Distractions,” held at the NTSB Boardroom and Conference Center.
NTSB Board Member Robert Sumwalt moderates roundtable on “Disconnect from Deadly Distractions,” held at the NTSB Boardroom and Conference Center.

By Robert Sumwalt

At the NTSB’s March 31 Roundtable — Disconnect from Deadly Distractions — an interesting discussion emerged about the “addictive” nature of staying connected through our personal electronic devices (PEDs). “There is nothing more interesting to the human brain than other people,” stated Dr. Paul Atchley. He explained that dopamine is one of the brain’s reward chemicals that produces positive feelings and sensations. “There is nothing more rewarding than the opportunity to talk to someone else,” said Dr. Atchley. Because connecting with others produces a release of dopamine into the brain’s midsection, it is very difficult for us to ignore the urge to connect with others.

Andrea Brands of AT&T followed-up on that point by mentioning a survey the company conducted last year through Dr. David Greenfield, founder of The Center for Internet and Technology Addiction. They found that 74% of the 1004 people surveyed admitted to engaging in texting or checking social media while driving. A large percentage of the survey respondents rationalized that behavior even though they knew it was dangerous — a true sign of addictive behavior, said Ms. Brands.

Dr. Greenfield stated in a November 2014 interview, “We compulsively check our phones because every time we get an update through text, email or social media, we experience an elevation of dopamine, which is a neurochemical in the brain that makes us feel happy. If that desire for a dopamine fix leads us to check our phones while we’re driving, a simple text can turn deadly.”

Whether we call it addictive, compulsive, or just a habit, the fact remains that using a PED while operating any vehicle is dangerous business. It can be deadly.

Nowhere was this fact more apparent than in the NTSB’s investigation of the August 5, 2010, multi-vehicle crash near Gray Summit, Missouri. In this accident, a 19-year-old pickup truck driver slammed into the back of a stopped tractor trailer, setting up a chain reaction crash involving two school buses following behind. In the thirteen minutes immediately before the crash, the 19-year-old driver sent and received 11 text messages on his phone. The tragic result of his choice to drive distracted was the loss not only of his own life, but also the life of a 15-year-old student aboard one of the buses.

The NTSB is very concerned with distractions in all modes of transportation. Please, give yourself the permission to disconnect from deadly distractions. Break the addiction, and save lives.

What is a public health scientist doing at the NTSB?

By Dr. Bella Dinh-Zarr, Vice Chairman

This week is National Public Health Week.  I can’t think of a better time to introduce myself and answer the question, “What is a public health scientist doing at the National Transportation Safety Board?”

Dr. Dinh-Zarr being sworn in as the newest Member of the BoardI am the new Member and Vice Chairman of the NTSB and I am convinced that safe transportation is vital to the health and well-being of our communities.

A little over two weeks ago, I was honored to take my oath of office as the newest Member of the NTSB. Ever since I was a child growing up on the Gulf Coast, I have loved transportation. From working at the Railroad Museum as a kid to watching the ships near Galveston Island, to taking airplanes to faraway places, to using mass transit to get to work – transportation is of utmost importance to me, personally and professionally.   As I studied public health in school, specifically motor vehicle injury prevention, I saw that deaths and injuries were an unwanted (and preventable) by-product of mobility. But I also knew that we could do something about it. In fact, a seat belt has saved my life twice – once when a drunk driver hit my family’s station wagon when I was a child and again, when a distracted driver hit my car when I was a graduate student.  At the NTSB, experts investigate crashes in detail and we use the information to advance transportation in all modes.  We also highlight key issues through the Most Wanted List. As in public health, we ensure that all aspects are considered carefully as an avenue for the prevention of crashes: the person, the machine, and the environment.

President Obama proclaimed April 6-12, 2015, as National Public Health Week, and it is celebrated throughout the U.S. every year in recognition of the importance of public health to our nation and the world.

We often think of public health in terms of preventing the spread of infectious diseases, such as Ebola, or reducing chronic diseases, such as diabetes. Injury prevention is an important, and sometimes overlooked, aspect of public health. Injuries have been a leading cause of death and disability throughout history and, in fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, unintentional injuries are the fourth leading cause of death in our country! The NTSB contributes to public health by advancing transportation safety in order to prevent deaths and injuries.

The theme of this year’s National Public Health Week is the Healthiest Nation in One Generation and today’s focus is “Building Broader Communities,” which focuses on partnerships and collaboration to accomplish that. Two vital partnerships I have valued over the years in my injury prevention work is the American Public Health Association, the leaders of National Public Health Week, and the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, which has very useful state-by-state data on many areas, such as seat belt use and impaired driving. I encourage you to be a part of National Public Health Week and help make yourself and our nation even healthier and safer.

We live in a mobile world. There is nothing more relevant to our health, and the health of our nation, and indeed to public health, than having a safe way to get where we need to go. Going to school, to work, to recreation, whether by land, by air, by rail, or by sea – it’s your decision where you want to go, and how you get there – but it is our job at the NTSB to help ensure you get there in the safest way possible.  I feel very privileged to be a part of this mission and to work with the highly capable and dedicated people at the NTSB!

Distractions in Transportation: Roundtable of Experts and Advocates from all Transportation Modes Gather to Discuss Solutions

By Robert L. Sumwalt

Member Sumwalt speaking to panelists at the distraction roundtableToday begins distracted driving awareness month. To help kick off the month, yesterday, the NTSB hosted a multimodal roundtable called “Disconnect from Deadly Distractions.”

To view the round table session in its entirety, see the webcast.

Distractions come in all forms, ranging from rowdy kids in the back seat to using electronic devices to stay connected. We acknowledge the different forms of distraction, but decided to keep the roundtable focused on electronic distractions. And, while distracted driving awareness month deals primarily with driving distractions, we expanded the scope of the roundtable to include all modes of transportation. After all, the goal of the NTSB is to ensure safe transportation for all travelers, regardless of how they travel.

I was thrilled to facilitate the discussions. The real stars of the roundtable were the participants—a diverse group of about 40 safety experts, regulators, scientists, researchers, advocates, engineers, insurance representatives, industry, law enforcement, and victims of families. They came from the ranks of aviation, highway, marine, rail, and transit. They all shared their viewpoints about how best to disconnect from deadly distractions.

The specific objectives were to 1) raise awareness for the need to disconnect from deadly distractions by having a conversation that focuses on the multimodal aspects of distraction, 2) promote cultural change, 3) discuss how the various technologies can increase the potential for distractions, and 4) find solutions to reduce distraction.

Each week this month, I will blog about some element of deadly distractions. I look forward to hearing from you.

Meanwhile, I encourage you to disconnect from deadly distractions.

Public Helicopter Operations: Act Before an Accident

A helicopter pilot died disoriented and confused in Alaska on March 30, 2013.

He was no novice; in fact, he was flying a search-and-rescue mission for the Alaska Department of Public Safety (DPS). But when he set out – highly motivated to save the life of a stranded snowmobiler – he set in motion a chain of events that ended in three deaths: His own, the snowmobiler’s, and that of an Alaska State Trooper serving as an observer.

Picture of Alaska Department of Public Safety HelicopterThe pilot was qualified to fly search and rescue missions in visual meteorological conditions but not instrument meteorological conditions in the accident helicopter. Ultimately he found himself in instrument meteorological conditions, in a helicopter that was neither equipped nor certified for instrument flight rules. Minutes after picking up the stranded snowmobiler, he became spatially disoriented, lost control of the helicopter and crashed.

The pilot and the trooper who died in this crash died in the service of others. They routinely shouldered risk in the line of duty to enhance the safety of their fellow Alaskans. But risks that should have been weighed systematically and objectively were assessed subjectively and individually. The pilot’s training was not in line with the conditions of his mission. His flight observer was not a trained tactical flight officer who could have better assisted with aeronautical tasks. The Alaska DPS was not using formal flight-dispatch and flight-following procedures that included up-to-date weather information and assistance with risk-assessment decisions.

During the NTSB’s accident investigation, even before we issued our final report, the Alaska DPS responded to the lessons that were coming to light and implemented a number of safety improvements. All Alaska DPS pilots who fly the type of helicopter involved in this accident were required to receive training in how to safely escape from an inadvertent encounter with instrument meteorological conditions; formal risk assessments were required before any helicopter missions are initiated; and a formal tactical flight officer training program was developed. At the time the NTSB report was issued, flight-tracking equipment was installed in 34 of the 42 aircraft in the Alaska DPS fleet, with plans to soon have this equipment installed in the entire Alaska DPS aircraft fleet. Finally, organizations within the Alaska DPS were assigned responsibility for using this equipment to perform flight following for all Alaska DPS aircraft flying missions.

Many of the recommendations that the NTSB made in the accident report related to sharing the lessons of the Talkeetna accident beyond the state of Alaska. Why? The Alaska DPS moved admirably and with great purpose after it experienced the accident. Yet the Talkeetna accident had many commonalities with crashes of Maryland State Police and New Mexico State Police helicopters in 2008 and 2009 respectively. And public helicopter operations accidents are by no means limited to law enforcement. We also investigated the 2010 collision of a California Department of Fish and Game helicopter with power lines.

As in the case of the Alaska DPS, in many cases, the states in which these accidents occurred have learned from their mistakes, and have raised the bar for safety in their public helicopter operations.

But states with public helicopter operations are not learning from each other. In the Talkeetna accident, we recommended that 44 additional states, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia familiarize their public helicopter operators with the lessons of all three accidents.

Substitute the name of your state for “Alaska” in the first line of this article. Then ask yourself what your state is doing to guarantee the safety of its public helicopter operations, with the most recent NTSB recommendations in mind.

If you work in public helicopter operations, the odds are that there are NTSB recommendations pending in your state. Have you heard about, or been involved in, favorable actions on those recommendations? If not, reach out to colleagues.

States feeling the budget pinch nevertheless find ways to make changes after lives are lost. But actions now may save lives instead.

Many of those who are involved in public helicopter operations put their lives on the line in the service of others. These NTSB recommendations are intended to prevent extra, unnecessary risk to the brave men and women who do so, and their passengers.

Earlier NTSB reports on public helicopter operations are also available at NTSB.gov.

AAA Teen Distracted Driving Study Shows Need for Cultural Shift

By Kelly Nantel

When teens crash cars, they are usually driving distracted.

That’s the conclusion of a new naturalistic study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. The study examined real-time video focusing on teen drivers involved in crashes. More than half – 58% – were distracted by tasks other than driving. Nearly nine of out of 10 crashes when the car ran off the road involved distraction, as did more than three of four rear-end crashes.

Distraction Roundtable flyerDr. Jurek Grabowski, Director of Research at the AAA Foundation, will be just one of many participants in NTSB’s “Disconnect from Deadly Distractions” roundtable on March 31 in Washington. The day-long series of discussions will focus on distractions in all modes of transportation.

The roundtable is structured to encourage a true dialog among attendees, where researchers, law enforcement, industry, safety advocacy groups, and regulators will be free to build on – and/or debate –findings from across modes and across disciplines.

In just a few years, the use of portable electronic devices, or PEDs, has grown explosively. Teen drivers – and all drivers – have suddenly had to contend with new distractions in transportation.

But the distractions that AAA noted in its most recent study were not limited to PEDs. Such activities as grooming and dancing also preceded several crashes.

And, as both the AAA Foundation and the NTSB have long noted, using a hands-free phone does not eliminate distraction. Even hands-free phones pose the risk of cognitive distraction. In “Roadhouse Blues” Jim Morrison sang “Keep your eyes on the road, your hands upon the wheel.” That’s good advice. But your mind must be on the driving task as well.

The same goes for operators of every kind of vehicle in transportation, from commercial motor vehicles to aircraft to ships and trains. The beauty of a multimodal discussion is that lessons learned in the cockpit or the pilothouse can be applied to the driver’s seat – or vice versa.

The NTSB-hosted roundtable discussion will cover 5 topical tracks:

  • The Science of Distraction;
  • Education, Legislation and Enforcement;
  • Technology and Engineering;
  • Policy and Regulation; and
  • Future Endeavors/Challenges.

In a culture that fosters a myth of multitasking, we will need a cultural shift to eliminate distraction in transportation. We hope that the conversation on March 31 will bring us a step closer to that shift. The roundtable is open to the public to attend and observe. Details on the event can be found at http://www.ntsb.gov/news/events/Pages/2015_Distraction_forum.aspx.

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