NTSB Reminds School Bus Drivers to be Focused and Medically Fit for Duty

By Thomas E. Zoeller, Managing Director

“Raise your hand if you don’t use caution when operating your vehicle.”

Are you raising your hand?

Probably not.

Photo of NTSB Medical Officer Dr. Mary Pat McKay presenting
NTSB Medical Officer Dr. Mary Pat McKay speaking to Loudoun County, Virginia, school bus drivers.

And neither did any of the nearly 700 Loudoun County, Virginia, school bus drivers earlier this week when NTSB Medical Officer Dr. Mary Pat McKay asked this of them.

The point she was making was that most drivers believe they are fit to drive and capable of multi-tasking while driving if need be. But Dr. McKay’s message to bus drivers, who carry a most precious cargo, was that, while we think we may be ready to hit the roads, we may not always be at our best.

She then went on to explain that the labels on over-the-counter and prescription medications too often go unread. Consider, for example, one such warning on the box of an allergy medicine: “Use caution when operating machinery or driving a motor vehicle.”

At the county’s annual back-to-school training event for bus drivers and attendants, Dr. McKay and NTSB Safety Advocates Nicholas Worrell and Stephanie Shaw emphasized the importance of staying medically fit for duty and also reminded them about the dangers of driving distracted.

Dr. McKay presented results from an NTSB study on fatally injured pilots, which showed a significant increase in positive toxicology findings for potentially impairing medications. One big surprise was the increasing use of sedating over-the-counter medicines, such as cold remedies, allergy treatments, and sleep aids.

Each bus driver must ensure he or she is medically fit for work each day; this means being awake and alert and ready to perform in as safe a manner as possible, she said. This also means ensuring that a temporary illness or new medical condition—as well as the treatment of such conditions—will not impair the driver’s perception, judgment, or response time. Dr. McKay urged the drivers to discuss their important job duties with their healthcare providers, ask about the risks any new medications might pose to safe driving, and carefully read the warnings on ALL medications, regardless of whether they are prescribed or over the counter. She emphasized the importance of looking for warnings about effects like sleepiness, drowsiness, or difficulty with coordination.

NTSB Safety Advocate Nicholas Worrell speaking to the Loudoun County, Virginia, school bus drivers.
NTSB Safety Advocate Nicholas Worrell speaking to the Loudoun County, Virginia, school bus drivers.

Most of these medications are not safe to take when driving a school bus, or any vehicle, for that matter—and there is often an alternative with fewer side effects.

Bus drivers also must ensure they remain focused and avoid the temptation of distraction. Advocates Worrell and Shaw discussed specific highway and school bus accidents caused by distracted drivers.

“Distraction does not just include portable electronic devices, and it does not go away just because you have a hands-free headset,” Worrell said. Distraction takes many forms: cognitive (your eyes are on the road but not your thoughts); manual (physically engaged in something other than driving); visual (looking elsewhere instead of where you need to be looking); and auditory (when sounds distract).

School bus drivers bear a heavy responsibility and might experience any one of these types of distractions on any given day: thinking about the next stop prior to getting there, looking too long in the rearview mirror as they monitor kids for trouble, loud talking and noises, trying to discipline kids while driving. These are all potential distractions challenging school bus drivers.

Despite all the challenges school bus drivers face, it’s important to note that school buses are still the safest vehicles on the roads. That’s just one of the reminders the NTSB will be bringing to Loudoun County parents and the general public next week when it hosts a press event and safety demonstrations in coordination with Loudoun County Public Schools, Youth of Virginia Speak Out, Safe Kids Fairfax County, Virginia Safe Routes to School, and the Loudon County Sheriff’s Office. Students who walk, bicycle, drive, or are driven to school also need to know how to do so as safely as possible.

The NTSB message to school bus drivers is to go to work fit for duty, to operate with caution all the time, and to stay focused on the driving task.

The same message can save lives in the family car.

The issues of distracted driving and medical fitness for duty are on the NTSB’s 2015 Most Wanted List of safety improvements. For more information, visit Disconnect from Deadly Distractions and Require Medical Fitness for Duty.

Three Minutes Could Save Your Life

By Robert L. Sumwalt

Picture of Member Robert Sumwalt reviewing the passanger safety briefing card before a commercial flight.Think fast! You’re sitting on board an airline flight. In the event of a water landing, could the seat cushion you’re sitting on be used as a flotation device? The answer, surprisingly, is, it depends.

As a frequent air traveler and former airline pilot of 24 years, I always pick up the passenger safety information briefing card from the seatback pocket as soon as I buckle myself in for a flight. I suspect some may look at me a bit funny—after all, what kind of weirdo actually reads those things, anyway?

The truth is, when I was in college, I had to get out of a burning airplane—and rather quickly, at that! One thing I vividly remember is coming to the horrible realization that a burning airplane has the great potential to explode. Needless to say, that thought motivated me to get out

I jumped from my seat and headed to the over-wing emergency exit. However, in the heat of the moment (and I do mean heat), I couldn’t recall how to open the very thing that was separating me from life or death.

So, ever since then, whenever I ride on a plane, train, or bus, I make a habit of reviewing the potentially lifesaving information.

Where is the closest exit? Where is the alternate exit? How will I open it? If the oxygen mask drops, how will I activate the flow of oxygen? And, back to the original question: since about half of my takeoffs and landings are from an airport surrounded by water, what will I use for a flotation device?

While riding often on one major U.S. airline, I noticed that some passenger safety information briefing cards showed using the seat bottom cushion as a flotation device, but others did not—even though it was the same airline and the same type of aircraft.

Curious about the difference, I asked the airline’s safety officials. The answer, as it turns out, was quite surprising. Some newer seat cushions are thinner and aren’t designed to float, and therefore, can’t be used as flotation devices. Life vests are provided in those cases. The flight attendant safety briefing and passenger safety information briefing card contain the relevant information for that particular aircraft.

That’s precisely the point. No matter how experienced a traveler you may be, no matter how often you’ve ridden on a particular aircraft type, no matter how many frequent flier miles you have logged with a particular airline, things may have changed. And, can you be sure that, in the heat of the moment, you will act properly? That’s why I make it a point of reviewing these important procedures—even if it may raise some eyebrows from my seatmates.

In 2000, the NTSB conducted a safety study on the evacuation of commercial airplanes. The results weren’t surprising, but nevertheless, were disappointing. The study found that a majority of airline passengers watched less than 75% of preflight safety briefings, and 68% of them never bothered to read passenger safety information briefing cards.

The next time a flight attendant asks for your attention as your plane backs away from the gate, put down your magazine, remove your ear buds, and listen. And, look over the passenger briefing card. Those three minutes might just save your life.

Robert L. Sumwalt has been a Member of the NTSB since 2006. He is a frequent contributor to the blog.

What’s the Safest Way for Students to Get to and From School? By School Bus

By Chairman Christopher A. Hart

Drawing of school bus listing safety features. Courtesy Utah Department of Public SafetyOver the next few weeks, nearly 50 million children will head back to school; more than 20 million of those students, including my daughter, will ride on a school bus.

When I talk about how to safely transport children to and from school, and more specifically about school bus safety, one of the first questions I am asked is “Why aren’t school buses required to have seat belts?” The answer isn’t simple, but I’ll explore it below.

First, let me convey something that is simple: school buses, with or without seat belts, are the safest way to go to and from school! Your child is safer riding in a school bus, even without seat belts, than any other way to get to school, including your own car.

Every year, more than 30,000 people are killed on the nation’s roadways. In fact, motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for school-age children. Each year approximately 800 school-age children are killed in motor vehicle crashes during normal school travel hours (September 1 through June 15, Monday through Friday, 6:00 a.m. to 8:59 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. to 4:59 p.m.) The numbers are worst for teenagers driving themselves to and from school, who are at the highest risk of injury or fatality. The risk for teen drivers is about eight times higher than the risk for teens driven by adults.

Which children are safest? The ones on the school buses. Of those 800 school-age children killed in motor vehicle crashes per year, only 20 – or 2 percent – were school-bus related. Five were passengers on a school bus, and 15 were pedestrians approaching or leaving the bus. The other 98 percent were children riding bicycles or motorcycles, or riding in or struck by passenger vehicles. School buses have the lowest injury and fatality rates of all motor vehicles.

I understand why I am so often asked the question about school buses and seat belts. It’s natural for us, as parents, to question what appears to be a glaring safety gap. We are taught from the moment we bring our children home from the hospital that we need to have them properly restrained in a child safety seat, and a booster seat as they grow older, and we constantly hear the message that all of us need to be buckled up on every trip.

The answer regarding school buses is that the regulators and manufacturers have pursued a holistic total protection approach, rather than just focusing on seat belts. To understand how this came to be, some history about school bus safety might be helpful.

Back in 1977, school buses were redesigned because they weren’t protecting students as well as they should. As for the protection that we normally associate with seat belts, regulations called for a design that was known as “compartmentalization” because seat belts were not widely worn in 1977. Compartmentalization requires closely spaced, energy-absorbing, high-backed, padded seats which absorb crash forces and provide the protection needed during a front or rear-impact crash. And, as the statistics show, compartmentalization works in those types of crashes. Experience has shown that seat belts are an important complement to compartmentalization in side impact and rollover crashes, but experience has also shown that side impact and rollover crashes are very rare.

Other new rules were passed as well. Some of these rules required a stronger roof to protect students in a rollover and a stronger structure to ensure safety during the most severe crashes. Others focused on the stop-arms, the bright (yellow) color, the exterior lights, and the rules for other motorists driving near the bus. The fact that students sit high above the ground in a school bus is also an added safety benefit.

Given the success of this holistic approach in school buses, we have not recommended seat belts, but we have pushed for continuing to explore more holistic remedies to protect the students. Taken together, school buses are now required to meet more federal regulations than any other vehicle on the road.

Remember, with or without seat belts, children and teenagers are safest riding to and from school in the school bus.

Have your child ride the school bus and know that they are going to and from school in the safest way possible.

Kudos to Fleet Owners for Installing Collision Avoidance Systems

By Jana Price

On July 22, UPS announced it would make collision avoidance systems (CAS) standard equipment on all new class 8 tractors it orders, including the more than 2,600 new tractors it will acquire in 2015. Class 8 vehicles are those with a gross vehicle weight rating over 33,000 pounds, such as most tractor-trailers and dump trucks—typically vehicles with three or more axles.Photo of UPS truck

In its announcement, UPS cited the NTSB’s Special Investigation Report, The Use of Forward Collision Avoidance Systems to Prevent and Mitigate Rear-End Crashes. In our report, we discussed how more than 80 percent of deaths and injuries from rear-end crashes might have been mitigated had vehicles been equipped with a collision avoidance system. A Safety Alert urging consumers and fleet owners to consider transitioning their fleets to vehicles equipped with collision warning and autonomous emergency braking (AEB) also accompanied the report’s release.

UPS’s decision to equip its fleet with CAS is part of a growing trend, as companies recognize the safety benefits associated with these systems. For example, Walmart, Conway, and Quickway Transportation have their entire fleet already equipped with CAS or are purchasing truck-tractors with the latest generation of forward CAS.

The NTSB has called for technological approaches to address rear-end collisions since 1995, and although some progress has been made, far too many rear-end crashes still occur. For example, 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 injured people. Many of these crashes could have been mitigated, or possibly even prevented, with forward CAS.

Forward CAS works by monitoring the environment—either via lidar (light detection and ranging), radar, camera, or a fusion of different technologies—for potential conflicts, such as a slow moving or stopped vehicle. When it detects a conflict, it alerts a driver through different warning cues. If the conflict persists, the system initiates AEB or provides additional braking force if the driver does not brake strongly enough.

The benefits of forward CAS are considerable for large trucks; however, according to one industry estimate, only 8–10 percent of truck-tractors in the United States in 2013 were equipped with these systems.

Based on the available research evidence and testing that support the benefits of forward CAS, we have recommended that passenger vehicle, truck-tractor, motorcoach, and single-unit truck manufacturers install forward CAS that include, at a minimum, a forward collision warning component, as standard equipment on all new vehicles. And once performance standards for autonomous emergency braking are complete, those systems should also be included as standard equipment.

Forward CAS systems are currently available as options on many cars and trucks. We applaud UPS and the other companies I mentioned for installing these live-saving systems. More carriers should follow suit.

Jana Price, PhD, is Chief of the Report Development Division in NTSB’s Office of Highway Safety.

From Tragedy to Turning Point

By Chairman Christopher A. Hart

NTSB Investigator Robert Accetta documents the damage to the motorcoach.
NTSB Investigator Robert Accetta documents the damage to the motorcoach.

On the evening of April 10, 2014, dozens of injured high-school students struggled to exit a burning motorcoach after it was struck head on by a truck-tractor pulling two trailers in Orland, California.

Their vision was impaired by thick smoke, and many hesitated to jump from the emergency windows that were more than 7 feet above ground.

These students had not received a pre-trip safety briefing explaining emergency egress or the importance of using seat belts. There were no printed safety cards for them to consult.

No emergency exit lighting guided them. The heavy emergency exit windows were a challenge to stay open long enough for students to escape through them.

To make matters worse, the motorcoach interior materials were not designed to resist such a major fire, so the fire and toxic fumes spread rapidly.

If these students had been passengers on an airline, they would not have experienced the same egress problems. The interior of their plane would have been built with fire-resistant materials capable of resisting a major fire. They would have been given a safety briefing and would have had access to printed safety instructions. They would have been guided by independently powered emergency exit lighting (floor lighting below the smoke) and special emergency exit signage.

Five students died as a result of the fire and the crash that had led to it. So did their three adult chaperones, their driver, and the driver of the truck-tractor that struck the motorcoach.

The National Transportation Safety Board was created to determine what causes crashes such as this one and then to make recommendations which, if acted on, will help prevent recurrences of those tragedies. On July 14, we met to discuss this crash and fire.

As a result of our investigation, we made recommendations to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA).

We also reiterated recommendations that we had previously made to NHTSA—some of which date back to 1999 and 2000—that have not yet been acted upon.

In large part, as a result of NTSB aviation accident investigations and recommendations, air travel has become exceptionally safe. But standards of occupant protection in other transportation modes, especially highway, have lagged behind.

Many of the recommendations we issued or reiterated as a result of this crash, if acted upon, will give motorcoach passengers a level of safety protection comparable to that of a passenger traveling by air.

We also addressed the absence of event recorders that can help us determine why a crash occurred.

In aviation, cockpit voice recorders and flight data recorders have been required for decades. The data yielded from these systems have helped the industry move toward safer operations.

But in highway transportation, event data recorders are still not required equipment on either truck-tractors or buses.

We know from witness statements and physical evidence that the truck-tractor was traveling southbound in the right lane on Interstate-5. It moved into the left lane, crossed a 58-foot-wide median, and emerged going the wrong way in the northbound lanes. There it struck a passenger car, sending it spinning off the highway to the east, and then it crashed into the motorcoach.

We were not able to determine why the truck crossed over the median. If the truck-tractor had been equipped with an event data recorder, we might have learned more about why it departed its lane and caused this crash.

In U.S. aviation today, years can sometimes pass between fatal crashes of scheduled commercial flights. Moreover, when such crashes are survivable, the vast majority of passengers are able to exit.

When Asiana Airlines flight 214 crashed in San Francisco on July 6, 2013, impact forces were catastrophic. Yet 99 percent of the 307 occupants survived. Ninety-eight percent of the passengers were able to self-evacuate.

The Orland crash was a tragedy, but it can also be a turning point. Standards of safety in highway vehicle fire-resistant design, emergency lighting, and emergency instructions can improve, if regulators take action.

We urge NHTSA and the FMCSA to move forward on our new recommendations, and for NHTSA to act on the recommendations that we reiterated. By doing so, many such crashes could be prevented in the future.

Training for Safety on the Seas

By Dr. T. Bella Dinh-Zarr

Vice Chairman Dinh-Zarr and Office of Marine Safety Director Tracy Murrell at the MITAGS Simulator.Earlier this summer, I was delighted to sail a cargo ship into the Port of Baltimore. Well, it was actually in the MITAGS Class A ship handling simulator, but it was thrilling and informative, nonetheless. The Maritime Institute of Technology & Graduate Studies (MITAGS) is a non-profit training center for mariners and a center for maritime research.

NTSB Office of Marine Safety Director Tracy Murrell assisted me as I safely sailed the cargo ship carrying a full load past the correct buoys, despite the (simulated) rough waters, a nearby vessel fire, and rain and snow. Although Executive Director Glen Paine, Training Director Eric Friend, and their colleagues enjoyed putting us to the test, they were also showing us the simulator’s high-fidelity graphics and realistic ship behavior. The simulator enables the MITAGS to conduct its hands-on training programs and ship and port modeling studies. With accurate navigational technology in front of me and screens several stories high depicting the outside waters and port, I felt like I was in an actual bridge of a ship. I also came away with an even greater appreciation for the complex tasks that pilots and ships officers must perform when responsible for the safe navigation of a vessel.

Mariners must be vigilant about safety at all times, and training is vital for mariners of all types—whether a seaman or an unlimited tonnage master or pilot—to prevent both personal injuries and environmental damage. The MITAGS develops and delivers maritime training and education programs to do just that.

In addition to using the simulator, we had the opportunity to hear about the many classes offered, such as limited license training, marine safety/emergency response training, and chief mate/master management programs—over 120 classes in all. The MITAGS is the primary training center for the International Organization of Masters, Mates, and Pilots, and companies use the resources at the center for research studies, as well. The MITAGS is located near Baltimore, and the associated Pacific Maritime Institute (PMI) is in Seattle.

Whether we travel by boat or ferry or we consume goods transported by cargo ships similar to the one I navigated in the simulator, marine safety has long been an important part of our nation’s health and welfare. Marine safety is a key aspect of the NTSB’s work to advance transportation safety, and I was happy to learn about how the MITAGS is contributing to safety through its training and research efforts.

Dr. T. Bella Dinh-Zarr is Vice Chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board.

Commercial Trucks Need Collision Warning and Braking Technology

graphic of commercial truck collistion warning By Christopher Hart

Last week, host Mark Willis of Road Dog Trucking News interviewed me about a recent NTSB report on collision avoidance systems (CAS). He wanted to share with his listeners the benefits of technology that not only warns a driver of an imminent crash into something ahead, but also stops the vehicle if the driver doesn’t.

The show’s call-in format gave me the opportunity to talk directly to truck drivers who would benefit from this technology—and to listen to them as well. (The host frequently reminded drivers not to call in while driving.) It was a conversation with an audience whose business is on the highway, hour after hour, week after week, and whose business is crucial to our country’s economy.

Without a doubt, commercial truck drivers are aware that heavy trucks require longer stopping distances. That is why collision mitigation can be so beneficial for commercial vehicles.

For trucks, a complete CAS includes collision warning, which warns drivers about an imminent obstacle ahead, and autonomous emergency braking (AEB) to stop the truck if the driver does not heed the warning.

image of the report cover
The NTSB released its special investigation report, titled “The Use of Forward Collision Avoidance Systems to Prevent and Mitigate Rear-End Crashes” in early June.

Some skeptical callers said that AEB would destabilize the vehicle by stopping it abruptly. That concern is why our June report recognized that AEB should be paired with electronic stability control (ESC), something that many commercial trucking fleets recognize. ESC would be essential, as it would prevent jack-knifing and loss of control during AEB applications.

Last month, following our report, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) issued a final ruling mandating ESC on every new truck tractor weighing 26,000 pounds or more within the next four years.

The commercial vehicle industry estimates that about 10 percent of new truck-tractors are already equipped with collision warning and AEB systems. Some companies are already transitioning their fleets to CAS-equipped truck-tractors, not only to improve safety and save lives, but also to save money (e.g., workers comp and numerous other costs resulting from a crash).

The NTSB has been pushing for crash mitigation technology for commercial vehicles for two decades. We issued our first recommendations on testing these technologies in 1995.

In 2001, we urged NHTSA to develop adaptive cruise control and collision warning system performance standards, and then to use those standards to mandate standard collision warning on all new commercial vehicles. NHTSA has yet to satisfy these recommendations, although its new ESC rule is a good and necessary first step.

The recommendations we released in our latest report would help bring CAS technology to members of the Road Dog audience. The NTSB called for truck-tractor and single-unit truck manufacturers to immediately install, at a minimum, the collision warning component of CAS. Further, we asked manufacturers to add AEB systems once NHTSA completes performance standards for those systems.

Along with our 2015 report, we issued a safety alert to fleet owners and consumers of passenger vehicles. This alert advises purchasers about the safety benefits of CAS, and urges them to request vehicles with AEB and collision warning. And if truckers don’t see CAS in their trucks, they should ask their companies for it because their lives and the lives of the traveling public could depend on it.


Christopher Hart is Chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board.


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