Progress toward Zero Substance-Impaired Driving Deaths on America’s Roadways

CheckpointBy Mark R. Rosekind

The NTSB’s release last week of three recommendations on substance-impaired driving represent a renewed commitment in the agency’s continuing effort to eliminate deaths and injuries from substance-impairment, the biggest killer on America’s roads. The recommendations focus on gathering needed data in three areas: improved alcohol testing, better drug testing and identifying the “place of last drink.” The Board will also consider technology-based recommendations on this issue at its December 11th meeting. These are part of the increased attention by the NTSB on activities to get drunk and drugged drivers off our highways.

While substance-impaired driving has been a concern of the Board for more than 40 years, with special safety studies and many accident reports generating more than 100 safety recommendations on the subject, the Board had not produced a new safety recommendation on substance-impaired driving in more than 10 years.

From the agency’s perspective, getting tougher on substance-impaired driving involves a strategic and data-driven approach that began early this year with gathering and updating the information the NTSB needs to make meaningful recommendations. Our forum, “Reaching Zero: Actions to Eliminate Substance-Impaired Driving,” in May and a special investigation report on wrong-way driving crashes to be released after the December Board Meeting are key milestones in making updated and new recommendations that are the most effective they can be. The Board’s work will progress next year with a full substance impaired driving report acknowledging the 25th anniversary of the Carrollton, Kentucky, bus crash, the worst drunk-driving accident in the nation’s history.

All of this work is underpinned by placing substance-impaired driving on the NTSB’s 2013 Most Wanted List, representing the agency’s advocacy priorities to call attention to and support the most critical changes needed for reducing transportation accidents and save lives. It is so important that substance-impaired driving is one of only four issues from previous years that we selected to remain on List.

Last week’s recommendations are a key benchmark in the steps leading toward the goal of zero substance-impaired driving deaths. Although over 10,000 lives are lost each year in related accidents, some states provide inadequate data on the national calculation. And while there is compelling evidence that illegal drugs and over-the-counter and prescription medications are playing a greater role in roadway crashes, there are no standards or testing criteria for these substances. To address these shortcomings, the NTSB recommends that states develop better blood alcohol concentration testing and reporting guidelines; agree on a common standard of practice for drug toxicology testing; and increase their collection, documentation and reporting of test results.

Lastly, the collection of place of last drink (POLD) data could focus training and enforcement actions on establishments that are serving under-age or intoxicated patrons. With POLD information, strategies that target offending businesses can be implemented most effectively.

Progress on eliminating substance-impaired driving involves a comprehensive and incremental approach that relies on better data to improve enforcement and save lives. On the night of May 14, 1988, a drunk driver with a .24 percent blood alcohol concentration killed 24 youths and 3 adults and injured 34 others on their way home from a church outing. The drunk driver, in a pick-up truck, was traveling in the wrong direction on Interstate 71 in Carrollton, Kentucky. Today, as we approach the 25th anniversary of this horrible event, the sad fact is this tragedy of lives destroyed by substance-impaired driving is repeated daily on an even greater scale. We know so much more now on how to address this problem and are making progress toward more effective measures that will one day eliminate this scourge from our country’s roadways.

Mark Rosekind, Ph.D., is a Member of the National Transportation Safety Board. He is a frequent contributor to the NTSB blog.

How Data on Successful Flights can Solve Accidents

By John DeLisi

The giant Boeing 777 was coming to the end of a routine flight from Asia and on a nearly perfect descent into Heathrow when the pilot goosed the throttle for a little bit of power on final approach.

That’s when both engines quit.

The British Airways crew worked feverishly to stretch out the airplane’s glide to make it over a busy highway and just over the airport fence. The airplane crashed into a grassy field just 1,000 feet short of runway 27L and did a complete 180-degree turn. Miraculously, there were no fatalities on that January 2008 flight.

The UK Air Accidents Investigation Branch took the lead on the investigation. The NTSB was the accredited representative and Boeing was a technical adviser. Everyone went to the airplane, which is what accident investigators do. But nothing jumped out. There was no smoking gun. The flight data recorder showed a normal flight, up until the engines stopped providing power. The engines checked out mechanically.

It was only after investigators started crunching data did we find out what really happened. Unlike in the United States, European crash investigators have long had access to data on successful prior flights, allowing them to compare the accident flight with many others.

This is what we hope to be able to do with the NTSB’s agreement to share information with the Aviation Safety Information Analysis and Sharing (ASIAS) Executive Board. Under ASIAS, airlines and unions already voluntarily share safety information with FAA to identify trends.

During the 777 investigation, British Airways provided data on about 1,000 previous Beijing-Heathrow flights flown by 777s. The data showed that the accident flight flew at a slightly higher altitude during slightly colder-than-normal temperatures. But what really stuck out was that the accident flight descended largely with its engines in idle – unlike most of the other flights.

Investigators starting focusing on how the engines behaved during long periods of idle in cold temperatures. And they found that an icy slush can build up on the fuel/oil heat exchanger, blocking fuel when the throttles are then increased. That finding led to new procedures and then a new design fix.

This accident probably could not have been solved just by looking at the wreckage and the flight data. Because the icy slush – the evidence — had melted long before investigators could find it. It was solved using data.

This is why the NTSB’s recent agreement is so important. Now we may be able to compare an accident flight with what occurred during similar, successful flights. This data gives us an important new tool for solving accidents that might not be readily solved just by looking at the accident wreckage and flight data.

Thanksgiving: Too Many Empty Seats at the Table

By Debbie Hersman

This past weekend, America’s roadways were clogged with Thanksgiving travelers. But there were also hundreds of empty places at Thanksgiving tables across the country this year compared to last. That’s because each year more than 400 people die in motor vehicle crashes over the long holiday weekend.

That’s just one weekend. Add all the other days of the year and the number of annual highway fatalities totals about 32,000.

Thirty-two thousand lives ended. That’s more fatalities on our roads in one year than have perished in airline crashes since the beginning of U.S. scheduled aviation nearly a century ago.

When an airliner crashes it is page 1 news followed by tremendous public demand to find out what happened and fix it immediately so it won’t happen again.

That’s understandable. The U.S. airlines carry millions of passengers every year. But, why is it acceptable to lose 32,000 people each year on our roads? Where is the outrage? Where is the call to implement safety measures to prevent the same crashes from happening again and again?

Yes, there are a host of hard-working highway safety advocates whose efforts save lives, but why do we tolerate losing the equivalent of the student population of a large state university each year? Is there “cultural novocaine” that numbs Americans to this senseless loss of life?

It’s time for the novocaine to wear off. It’s time for Americans to address our nation’s fourth-leading cause of death. Fatalities from motor vehicle crashes are only behind heart disease, cancer and stroke.

Sadly, car crashes are the number one killer of our teens. As a mother — and as one of the nation’s top transportation safety advocates — I believe we can do better.

We must do better.

With heart disease, cancer and stroke, we know there are ways to help ensure a longer and healthier life, including lifestyle choices and proper medical care. And, there’s a lot — quite a lot — that can be done to improve highway safety. Last week, the National Transportation Safety Board issued its 2013 Most Wanted List of transportation safety improvements. The majority of the items on the list address the nation’s fourth-leading cause of death.

Here’s the Most Wanted List item where the biggest difference can be made to save lives: Eliminate substance-impaired driving.

A generation ago, the NTSB investigated the nation’s deadliest substance-impaired crash. In Carrollton, Ky., an impaired driver struck a bus carrying a church youth group on its way home from an amusement park. That crash killed 24 teens and three adults and injured dozens more. Since that 1988 crash, more than 300,000 people have perished at the hands of substance-impaired drivers.

That’s a lot of empty seats at Thanksgiving tables.

Much more must be done to stem the losses from substance-impaired driving — including the use of ignition interlock technology and high-visibility enforcement.

Our new Most Wanted List also addresses a growing concern — distraction. NTSB investigations involving distraction go back years. In a 2002 crash in Largo, Md., a young driver talking on her cell-phone veered off the Capital Beltway, crossed the median, flipped over and landed on a minivan. That conversation ended in five fatalities.

Distractions that compete for a driver’s attention are only going to grow. Today, drivers can check Facebook, book dinner reservations and buy movie tickets, all while behind the wheel. That’s downright dangerous. I don’t know about you, but I certainly don’t want to be on the road next to someone updating a Facebook page while driving.

Last December, the NTSB issued its strongest recommendation yet on distraction: a nationwide ban on the non-emergency use of portable electronic devices while driving. Some said our recommendation was extreme. You bet it was. Sometime it takes extreme measures to change cultural norms.

Technology, another issue on the new Most Wanted List, offers considerable promise for improving highway safety. For example, side-curtain air bags and electronic stability control have already shown tremendous vehicle-safety benefits. And, in the future, forward-collision warning systems can help prevent accidents due to running off the road or rear-ending a vehicle, whether the cause is an impaired, distracted or fatigued driver.

With all those fatalities, shouldn’t these safety technologies be standard on every vehicle?

Each year, too many people get those phone calls and notifications that no one ever wants to receive. If we don’t act now, next year, there will be at least 32,000 more empty seats at Thanksgiving tables. There’s even more cause for concern since U.S. highway fatality estimates are up 9 percent for the first half of this year compared with last year.

One of those empty seats could be at your table. Is that when you’ll start to care about highway safety?

Drugged Driving: A Growing and Often Overlooked Problem

By Mark Rosekind

Drugs that may impair safe driving were found in one out of every seven weekend nighttime drivers in California according to a survey released this week by the California Office of Traffic Safety. It showed that nearly double the number of drivers tested positive for drugs (14 percent) than alcohol (7.3 percent). The results also indicate that many of those drivers who tested positive for alcohol also tested positive for drugs.

Operating a vehicle while drug-impaired is a serious, growing, and often under-reported problem – so deadly that the NTSB has again placed substance impaired driving on its annual Most Wanted List highlighting the most critical changes needed to reduce transportation accidents and save lives. It was released on November 14th.

Over 90 percent of all transportation-related deaths in America occur on our highways where more people die than in any other mode of transportation. The substance-impaired driver is a big contributor to this grim statistic. Alcohol-intoxicated driving causes more than 10,000 deaths every year. But according to the 2009 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, one-third of drivers fatally injured in 2009 that were tested for drugs and for whom results were known, tested positive. From 2005-2009, the proportion of fatally injured drivers who tested positive for illicit drugs rose from 13 to 18 percent. The California Office of Highway Safety’s data confirms that the fight against substance impaired driving remains a deadly challenge.

The loss of just one life due to substance impairment is one life too many. In 2002, a 27 year-old child-care bus driver used marijuana shortly before assuming his responsibilities to drive six children to school in Memphis, Tennessee. A witness reported that the child-care van drifted off the highway at full speed, overrode the guardrail, and collided with a light pole. Four of the children were killed, two were seriously injured, and the driver also died. At the time of the crash, he was under the influence of the drug, contributing to the cause of this needless tragedy.

Marijuana affects the central nervous system, decreasing dynamic visual acuity, reducing eye-hand and hand-hand coordination, increasing reaction times, causing incorrect reactions, resulting in incorrect estimates of time and distance, and increasing brake time. Any one of these would reduce a person’s ability to drive safely.

California’s federally funded survey is the first of its kind ever undertaken by a state to supply the critical information needed to develop action plans for addressing the problem. Eliminating substance-impaired driving requires a comprehensive solution, starting with basic concepts for changing behavior and fostering deterrence. It includes such measures as high visibility enforcement, license revocation, fines, and jail. But in cases where the impaired driver has a substance-abuse problem, neither fines nor incarceration addresses the root cause of recidivism. Successful programs should include assessment for substance abuse and treatment when warranted. Alternatives to jail, such as home detention with electronic monitoring or intensive supervision probation, allow offenders to maintain employment and obtain treatment while still holding them accountable for the underlying crime. Technology also holds great promise to test drivers quickly and effectively for drugs.

The key is to establish and use a comprehensive set of tools and tailor programs to the specific offender’s situation. With more information like the California Office of Traffic Safety’s survey and an effective menu of strategies, together we can work toward the goal of zero highway deaths due to substance impaired driving.

A Texas Celebration that Ended in Tragedy

Photo By: James Durbin, AP
By Debbie Hersman
Yesterday afternoon in Midland, Texas, veterans were being honored with a parade, a banquet and a special “Hunt for Heroes.” During the parade, a Union Pacific freight train struck one of two flatbed semi-trailers serving as a parade float for the veterans at a grade-crossing. The float carried wounded veterans, their spouses and escorts. Officials in Midland reported four fatalities and numerous injuries.

At the same time we joined the rest of the nation in beginning to grieve for these heroes and their families, we also initiated a go-team launch to investigate the accident. Along with rail and highway safety investigators, Board Member Mark Rosekind is accompanying the team and will serve as spokesperson during the on-scene phase of the investigation. Over the coming days, our team will be working with local officials, the Federal Railroad Administration, Union Pacific and others to identify what happened and why.

Railroad grade crossings are ubiquitous across the American landscape — there are more than 219,000 U.S. grade crossings. Last year, 266 people died at highway grade crossings; that’s 266 too many. We know that at the core of our investigations are lives lived and lives lost. Our Midland investigation will search for the reasons for this crash so that we can help improve grade-crossing safety and prevent senseless tragedies like the one that occurred yesterday on Garfield Street.