Cherry Blossoms and Tour Buses

cherryblossom

By Earl F. Weener

Nothing marks the beginning of spring in the nation’s capital like the National Cherry Blossom Festival. This week, events to celebrate the 101st anniversary of the gift of the trees will begin.  Over the next four weeks more than one million people are expected to visit Washington to take part in parades, parties, exhibits, performances and, of course, to see the cherry blossoms in full bloom. Many of those visitors will travel by motorcoach.

There has been a lot of attention lately on the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s crackdown on inadequate bus operations. One of the most recent actions revokes the operating license of Ming An, a carrier that sells cheap rides to cities in Virginia, Georgia and Florida.  FMCSA found that the company failed to conduct pre-employment drug and alcohol testing, allowed unqualified drivers to operate their vehicles, and did not conduct vehicle safety inspections, all of which federal regulations require.

While cost is often an important issue when choosing a motorcoach carrier, it should not be the only concern. There are plenty of low cost carriers that do not sacrifice the safety of their passengers in order to offer a low fare. Check the operators’ recent Federal safety rating. Look for operators with vehicles that offer enhanced occupant protection systems such as lap and shoulder seat belts. The US Department of Transportation maintains the SaferBus smartphone app to assist consumers with making a safe choice. 

For decades, the NTSB has been concerned with the operations of bus companies. The NTSB has investigated numerous accidents in which we found that an important step in improving bus safety is to ensure that professional motorcoach drivers are qualified. The NTSB recommends that bus operators should review a longer, more comprehensive driving history during the recruitment/hiring process and use video event recorder information to assess on-the-job performance. Bus operators require government authority, their drivers require professional driver’s licenses, and their customers pay for service. Accordingly, bus passengers deserve the highest level of safety.

For additional information on the NTSB’s accident investigations and recommendations to improve bus safety visit the Most Wanted List web page, Improve the Safety of Bus Operations.

Break the Pattern

By Earl Weener

NTSB Senior Air Safety Investigator Luke Schiada on scene
NTSB Senior Air Safety Investigator Luke Schiada with FAA Inspectors on scene of the Piper PA-31T Cheyenne accident investigation in Fort Lauderdale, FL.

This past weekend was an unfortunate one, as far as general aviation flying. Between Friday morning and Sunday night there were a total of 13 GA accidents around the country. Three were killed on Friday in a helicopter accident in Grand Lake, La.; the same day, three more died in a small plane in Ft. Lauderdale; and on Sunday, two people lost their lives and two more were injured when a business jet crashed into a neighborhood in South Bend, Indiana.

From hot a air balloon to a private jet, from Florida to Alaska, families around the country experienced a loss. In just three days, eight people were killed and several more were injured.

As a longtime private pilot and a zealot when it comes to GA safety, I often ask myself the same question our air safety investigators ask every time they launch to an accident site: WHY? This is the fundamental question driving the NTSB investigation for the 1500 GA accidents that occur each year.

Because if we understand why an accident occurs, those in the aviation community can then learn from the tragic mistakes of others and, in turn, better manage their own risks.

But here’s the rub: We already know WHY these accidents happen. So, the question now becomes why aren’t we learning?

From our experience in investigating more than 140,000 GA accidents over nearly a half century, we know the vast majority of them are the end result of just a handful of causes – loss of control due to flying with reduced visual references, such as IMC or dark night conditions; aerodynamic stalls/spins at low altitude; unaddressed or ignored mechanical issues; and poor planning and in-flight decision-making.

Just last week, in the interest of trying to address this new question, the NTSB convened a meeting in which nine investigators presented case studies on these types of accidents. From the studies and the findings, the NTSB issued five Safety Alerts to highlight the recurring safety hazards and provide airmen with strategies to mitigate risks. 

Here is an opportunity to break the pattern. If you fly or maintain GA planes, take a few moments to look these over. While the information may seem familiar, you might get an insight or a tip that could enhance flight safety. If you fly with others, consider the value of sharing these Safety Alerts with them.

With a vigilant approach to managing risks, the GA community can improve its safety record and have far fewer weekends like this last one.


Earl F. Weener, Ph.D., took the oath of office as a Member of the National Transportation Safety Board on June 30, 2010.

Member Weener is a licensed pilot who has dedicated his entire career to the field of aviation safety.

Stopping the Senseless Tragedies

By Debbie Hersman

Just in the past week, the nation has experienced tragic losses of life on our roadways in a string of crashes involving young people, leaving a total of 15 dead.  These crashes—in Ohio, Illinois, and Texas—have left parents without a son or daughter and siblings without a brother or sister. So many lives senselessly lost.  And a report released last month shows that tragedies involving our teens are increasing.

For the first time in years, the number of 16- and 17-year-old teen driver deaths increased. And in the last decade, more than 58,000 teenagers have died in car crashes. Each year, more than 30,000 people die in car crashes in the United States, and more than 20 percent of annual U.S. highway fatalities involve teen drivers. Preventing these tragedies is a priority at the NTSB.

Our mission is to save lives and prevent injuries. Sadly, in our investigations, we see the same accident circumstances, with the same heartbreaking results, again and again. Motor vehicles are the number one killer of young people. Teen drivers are more likely to have a significant crash in their first year of driving—in fact, four times more likely than an adult or an experienced driver.  The all-too-common cause is poor judgment. Speeding, reckless driving, driving while impaired, and, increasingly, driving while distracted, divert these young drivers from the task at hand—safe, responsible driving.

Decades of crash investigations have informed our opinion that young drivers should learn to drive in a controlled environment, one that gradually introduces them to increased responsibilities.  States should implement comprehensive teen driver safety programs that include learner’s permit and intermediate driver licensing stages, with restrictions on nighttime driving, limits on the number of teen passengers, and bans on the use of portable electronic devices. These ideas aren’t new, but they are common sense and require commitment on the part of not only the driver, but also the parents and the collective community.

Driving is the most dangerous thing we let our children do. These three accidents show that our work isn’t done. Young people need to  understand the great risks and consequences of driving habits, decisions and behaviors. Education, legislation, and enforcement are all necessary ingredients to ensure that we don’t experience another fatal week for teens on our roadways.

On Track for Rail Safety

by Robert Sumwalt

Today is the 2013 Railroad Day on the Hill, a day when rail industry workers from across the nation meet with members of Congress to discuss their key issues, one of which is the safety of the U.S. rail system. At the National Transportation Safety Board, one of our most important issues is Positive Train Control.

Trains are a part of daily life, whether transporting passengers or cargo. However, we do not have to accept train accidents, injuries, and deaths as a given, particularly those involving head-on train collisions. Such collisions are often due to human factors, such as fatigue, sleeping disorders, use of medications, and distractions. Because of these human performance deficiencies, the NTSB has advocated the implementation of a system that compensates for human error and that incorporates collision avoidance to prevent train collisions.

Continue reading On Track for Rail Safety

Worldwide Compassion

The earthBy Debbie Hersman

Here in the United States, major aviation accident victims and their families receive support and information from the NTSB and other agencies under the Aviation Disaster Family Assistance Act of 1996.

Since the law was enacted, several other countries passed similar legislation, but no worldwide guiding policy existed for implementing support for those impacted by large-scale aviation accidents. This took an important turn last week when the governing Council of the International Civil Aviation Organization, the aviation body of the United Nations, unanimously approved a policy document calling on its 191 member states to reaffirm their commitment to support aviation accident victims and their families (http://www.icao.int/Newsroom/Pages/ICAO-policy-document-puts-renewed-focus-on-care-of-aircraft-accident-victims-and-family-members.aspx).

I am particularly pleased with the ICAO announcement and recognize the leadership and hard work that enabled this important step to be taken. The NTSB, working with other international governmental and non-governmental interests, played an important role in the development of the policy and the revision of the supporting guidance document. Our Transportation Disaster Assistance program staff provided consultation during the process and continues to respond to requests from other countries about implementing and managing an effective family assistance program.

Thankfully, major aviation accidents are rare, but, when they do happen, victims and their families needs should be addressed in a compassionate manner – the new policy and guidance go a long way towards making that happen.

Sleepless America: The Deadly Cost of Fatigue in Transportation

By Mark Rosekind

When you step onto a bus, airplane, or train there is a sacred trust that the operators have taken all reasonable measures to ensure you arrive safely at your destination, every time. When you turn the ignition on in your own vehicle, you join this sacred trust, to ensure that you, your passengers, and those around you will arrive safely at your destinations, every time. Next week, America prepares to turn its clocks ahead and collectively as a nation we each lose an hour of sleep. In one night, this will generate a 300 million-hour national sleep debt and in the few days it takes our bodies to adjust, our nation will accumulate over a billion hours of lost sleep. In transportation, this lost sleep kills, injures, and costs billions of dollars.

National Sleep Awareness Week, March 3 through 10, highlights the tragedies that result from sleep loss and operating vehicles while fatigued. http://www.sleepfoundation.org/event/national-sleep-awareness-week-2013 Just three years ago 10 people died when a truck plowed into seven cars and caused a massive pile-up on Interstate 44 near Miami, Oklahoma. It was the worst highway accident in the state’s history. The driver suffered from a deadly combination of an altered work schedule, acute sleep loss, and sleep apnea. He never even touched the brakes.

The hour we lose when clocks are set forward every spring offers our already sleep-deprived country a glimpse into the dangers of operating vehicles while fatigued. Perhaps the most basic requirement for safely operating any vehicle is to be awake, and though necessary, just being awake is not sufficient. Safe travel requires every vehicle operator to have obtained optimal sleep and be wide-awake and maximally alert, every time. There is a 17 percent increase in crashes on our roadways on the Monday following the time change. But fatigue safety risks are a life-threatening concern far beyond this annual clock change. Every year, an estimated one million roadway crashes and near-misses are likely fatigue-related, with thousands of people losing their lives and being injured. Fatigue-related tragedies are played out across every hour of the day throughout our nation’s transportation system.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has long been interested in fatigue and has identified it as a probable cause or contributing factor in accidents across all modes of transportation that have resulted in many lost lives and injuries. The NTSB has issued over 200 safety recommendations focused on fatigue across all transportation modes. These safety recommendations have addressed diverse areas such as hours of service regulations, scheduling policies, education and training, diagnosis and treatment of sleep disorders, research, and vehicle technologies. But after all this, are we safer?

The societal “wake up call” is just beginning to be answered. For example, a little over a year ago, the Federal Aviation Administration issued new hours of service rules for pilots and the Federal Motor Carrier Administration issued new rules for commercial truck drivers. While representing the most significant changes in over 70 years, and incorporating many science-based elements, the aviation rules do not cover all pilots, and the truck rules face court challenges and fall short on addressing sleep disorders, especially sleep apnea, one cause of the Oklahoma accident. These are important developments that represent real progress, and need to be embraced and applauded. But so much more needs to be done.

Airplanes, buses, trains, trucks, and ships are complex machines that require the full attention of the operator, maintenance personnel, and other individuals performing safety-critical functions, and our lives depend on it. The sad fact is that for all the information we have on the perils of fatigue, American society still characterizes pushing the sleep envelope as “hardworking,” “results-oriented,” and “dedicated” but when it comes to operating any kind of vehicle – fatigue can be deadly. Reducing fatigue risks in transportation is everyone’s ongoing responsibility: companies, the government, individual operators, and travel consumers. And when you are behind the wheel, every moment requires you to be wide-awake and alert.

This year when we all spring forward, lose an hour in some other part of your life. Get the sleep you need and then maintain that sleep amount throughout the year. Sleep as if your life and those around you depend on it.


Mark R. Rosekind, Ph.D. is a Member of the National Transportation Safety Board and an internationally recognized expert in the field of sleep and fatigue science.

America’s House – Fix it First

Pacific Coast HighwayBy Debbie Hersman

Our transportation infrastructure—roads, railways, waterways, and airports— is what makes the movement of people and goods possible; it drives our economy. In a way, our infrastructure is like a house – America’s house. It needs to be maintained for ourselves and generations to come. In his State of the Union address, President Obama proposed a “fix-it-first” approach to investing in our nation’s deteriorating infrastructure. And the NTSB believes that as these investment decisions are made, safety needs to have a seat at the table.

The “Fix it First” plan makes repairing and upgrading existing roads, bridges and public transportation systems a priority over spending on new projects. In 2006, 70,000 of the roughly 600,000 bridges nationwide were classified as “structurally deficient,” meaning that major deterioration, cracks or other flaws reduced its ability to support vehicles.

Back in 2006, the I35W bridge in Minneapolis was identified as a structurally deficient bridge. Before improvements could be made, that bridge collapsed on August 1, 2007, killing 13 people and injuring another 145. In our subsequent investigation of this tragedy, the NTSB identified three critical factors that contributed to this collapse: (1) a failure in the design firm’s quality control procedures to ensure that all calculations were performed correctly, (2) inadequate design review by Federal and State transportation officials, and (3) inadequate attention to a critical bridge component during inspections.

For information on NTSB’s accident investigations and recommendations to better invest in and allocate resources that will preserve the integrity of American’s transportation infrastructure, visit the NTSB Most Wanted List Preserve the Integrity of our Transportation Infrastructure webpage.

In “Fix It First, Expand It Second, Reward It Third: A New Strategy for America’s Highways,” a report by The Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution, authors Matthew Kahn and David Levinson argue that the roads and bridges that make up our nation’s highway infrastructure are in disrepair as a result of insufficient maintenance — a deficit that increases travel times, damages vehicles, and can lead to accidents that cause injuries or even fatalities. This report emphasizes that if we want to prevent future tragedies, such as the I35W bridge collapse, we need to make effective investments that put safety at the center.