A Closer Look into Conducting Safety Research on Single-Unit Trucks


By Jim Ritter

Although we may be best known for conducting thorough accident investigations that lead to recommendations for safer travel, our safety studies provide a proactive means to tackle transportation safety problems. Our latest safety study on single-unit trucks, Characteristics of Single-Unit Truck Accidents Resulting in Injuries and Deaths, demonstrates the exhaustive work necessary to understand the challenging safety issues in this segment of transportation.

Transportation safety research is daunting work. Unlike accident investigations where the proverbial “smoking gun” might be found in a flight data recorder, a faulty engine component, or a cell phone record, clues that lead to a successful study often are buried deep in megabytes of data that must be painstakingly analyzed. But thorough research doesn’t rely solely on databases. Case reviews and the latest technologies, such as geographic information systems, provide crucial information that help to answer research hypotheses. By assembling a team with diverse specialties, we devised a robust research plan to accomplish our study goals.

For this safety study on single-unit trucks, our team consisted of epidemiologists, a geographer, and engineers with different areas of expertise. In addition, we collaborated with public research universities, another federal agency, and state agencies that also have an interest in improving safety.

Key sources of data on injury severity and hospital treatment were state records linking police and hospital reports. Transportation research analysts analyzed several national databases with thousands of accident records that spanned five years. As with any investigation, there are obstacles to overcome. For instance, to improve the quality and accuracy of the data, analysts had to develop and use a software program to decode vehicle identification numbers. Staff skilled in geographic information systems used the latest technologies to map single-unit truck accidents according to various accident criteria. The use of these exciting technologies for this study enables us to present complex spatial information in simple graphics.

To further understand what happens during single-unit truck accidents, highway safety experts conducted case reviews. Specialists in the fields of vehicle dynamics, accident reconstruction, vehicle operations, and biomechanics reviewed single-unit truck accidents, the injuries sustained, and what countermeasures may have prevented the accidents and minimized the injuries.

Several public research universities and federal and state agencies recognized the importance of our single-unit truck safety study and provided invaluable assistance. We are grateful for the contributions of the Delaware Department of Health and Social Services, Maryland CODES at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, Minnesota Department of Health, Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, and the University of Utah CODES Project. We also appreciate the contributions of staff at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, who helped make this study possible and provided extensive technical advice. We are pleased to have collaborated with these entities to produce this study that will benefit the traveling public.

On June 4th, the results of our study on single-unit trucks will be presented to Board Members at a public meeting. Whether you attend the free meeting, watch live via webcast, or read the full report after it is released, you’ll see how the thorough research that we completed has come together to make recommendations for reducing single-unit truck accidents.

Jim Ritter is deputy director of the NTSB’s Office of Research and Engineering.

Twelve Accidents in Twelve Days: NTSB Investigators on the Scene

By Debbie Hersman

In just under two weeks there have been four major accident launches. On Friday, May 17, the NTSB launched a go-team to Bridgeport, Conn., to investigate a derailment and collision involving two Metro North passenger trains. The following Friday evening, a bridge collapsed over the Skagit River in Mt. Vernon, Washington; the NTSB was on scene that evening and the rest of the go-team arrived the next morning. Then, early in the morning on May 25, two freight trains collided under a highway overpass in Chaffee, Mo., causing the trains to derail and the overpass to partially collapse. Another go-team launched and arrived in Missouri that afternoon. Next, on May 28 a train struck a truck at a railroad grade crossing near Baltimore, Maryland; and yes, another go-team launched.

Skagit River bridge collapse in Mt. Vernon, Wash.
Skagit River bridge collapse in Mt. Vernon, Wash.

And, while go-teams were launching all over the country, other investigators were responding to additional accidents. On May 20, there was a fish processing vessel fire near Seattle and a marine safety investigator traveled to Washington to work with the U.S. Coast Guard. Similarly, two marine safety investigators traveled to Freeport, Bahamas, to join the Bahamian authorities and the Coast Guard in the investigation of the May 27 Grandeur of the Seas cruise-ship fire. On May 28, a Metro North passenger train struck and killed a track foreman in West Haven, Conn.; NTSB sent an investigator to West Haven this morning.

During this same period, NTSB regional aviation safety investigators responded to fatal accidents in Auburn, Ca. (May 18); Garoga, N.Y. (May 24); Cross Timbers, Mo. (May 25); Macon, Ga. (May 27); and Flagstaff, Ariz. (May 28).

Investigator Ted Turpin documenting damage at the scene of the rail grade crossing collision in White Marsh, Md.
Investigator Ted Turpin documenting damage at the scene of the rail grade crossing collision in White Marsh, Md.

The total: 12 accidents in 12 days. There’s a lot going on and our dedicated professionals are up to the challenge. In each of these investigations, the goal is simple: find out what happened and why so that we can develop safety recommendations to prevent future accidents and needless loss of life and injuries.

This Memorial Day, Let’s Also Remember Not to Drive Impaired


By Mark Rosekind

 Last week, the NTSB issued ten new safety recommendations focused on alcohol-impaired driving that will prevent crashes, reduce injuries, and save lives. This set of targeted interventions calls for stronger laws, swifter enforcement, and expanded use of technology. Some may take months or years to implement, while others will help in the near term to reduce the 10,000 lives lost and 173,000 injuries that occur every year related to alcohol-impaired driving.  But there is something that every American can do right now to reduce alcohol-impaired driving: plan ahead and use other transportation options when you drink.

 The science is clear – impairment begins with the first drink.  By the time a person reaches a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of .05, the risk of a crash is 38 percent higher than for a sober driver. Crash risk doubles at a .08 BAC level.  So, have a plan to separate drinking from driving.

 For example, there are a variety of alternative transportation programs available to drive people home after drinking.  A number of cities have special ride programs around key holidays like Halloween, New Year’s Eve, and St. Patrick’s Day.  Here in the Washington, D.C., area, there is the SoberRide program. Isanti County, Minnesota, offers the SAFE CAB program, and in my hometown of San Francisco, a similar program called Safe and Sober Free Cab Ride Home is funded by a local law firm.  Public transit may also be an option.

 Then there are programs like the Ensign John R. Elliott HERO Campaign for Designated Drivers, which highlight the community values of becoming or using a designated driver. Ensign Elliott graduated from the Naval Academy in 2000.  On July 22 of that year, while on his way home to celebrate his mom’s birthday, he was killed by a drunk driver. That driver had already been arrested for a DWI earlier in the evening, but he was released and got back in his car drunk, eventually killing himself and Elliott. Prompted by this tragedy and to honor Ensign Elliott, his family started the HERO Campaign to end drunk driving tragedies nationwide by promoting the use of safe and sober designated drivers.

On Monday, we will pause to honor and remember the men and women who gave their lives while serving in the U.S. Armed Forces. Over this Memorial Day weekend many will gather with family and friends, enjoying a barbeque and having a few drinks.  This weekend be a HERO and use or be a safe and sober designated driver, use an alternative transportation plan, and most importantly, if you’re drinking, don’t drive.

National Maritime Day


By Tracy Murrell

National Maritime Day was created by Congress in 1933 to recognize the maritime industry and specifically the merchant mariner.  The day of observation is May 22 which marks the date in 1819 that the steamship SS Savannah got underway from Savannah, Georgia beginning what would become the first ever transoceanic voyage using steam power.  Although she did need the help of her sails for much of the voyage, the trip was symbolic both for the maritime industry as well as the United Stated in that she displayed the innovation and technological leadership needed to embark on such an endeavor. 

On this day, I’m sure every mariner takes time to reflect on their personal adventures at sea while remembering those who have lost their lives in this dynamic and often dangerous environment. During World War II mariners played a key role in the Allied victory. But victory took a heavy toll on mariners. Hundreds of merchant ships were sunk by enemy action and one in 30 mariners did not return home.

 For me, this day reminds me of the first ship I ever sailed on, also a steam ship, called the USTS Texas Clipper. I joined this ship the day after graduating high school to embark on an adventure that ultimately developed my love for the sea as well as a healthy respect for the often unpredictable situations merchant mariners’ experience. 

At the NTSB I am privileged to work with a group of merchant mariners whose sole focus is safety at sea.  Throughout my career I have learned the importance of sharing information transparently, especially when it comes to safety and that is exactly what the NTSB does.  We see the unfortunate and tragic results of mariners being involved in preventable accidents but take pride in our ability to understand what happened and share important lessons through safety alerts, brief accident reports and more detailed full investigative reports.   In most cases, there is something in them that every mariner can relate to and learn from to apply positive changes in their daily routines onboard. 

Today, let’s take time to honor the men and women have served and continue to serve in the US Merchant Marine.

Sail safe.

Tracy Murrell is the Director of the NTSB’s Office of Marine Safety.

Impact: After the Crash

IMPACT-new-design-980x525By Don Karol

     I wasn’t there, but it felt like I was. It wasn’t my family or friends who were killed and injured 25 years ago in a bus crash in Carroll County, Ky., but recently attending the premiere of “Impact: After the Crash,” a documentary about the deadliest drunk driving crash in U.S. history, made me feel like I had lost family of my own.

      Representing the NTSB, I sat in a packed auditorium in Hardin County, Ky.  Beside me were crash survivors, victims’ families and members of the community that were devastated by the events of a quarter-century ago. First Lady of Kentucky Jane Beshear gave inspirational opening remarks recognizing the victims, survivors and significance of the event and spoke about how we must never forget, and continue to learn from, the tragedy.

      The 82-minute documentary took survivors and the audience back to that fateful night in 1988.  On the evening of May 14th, a school bus carrying 67 people — nearly all of them children — was returning to Radcliff, Ky., from a church youth group field trip to an amusement park.  While they were driving through Carroll County, a drunk driver on the wrong side of the road crashed into the bus head-on, killing 24 children, the bus driver and two adult chaperones. Thirty-four others were injured.

      During the viewing there didn’t seem to be a dry eye in the house.  The documentary told a powerful story of loss and healing through interviews with many of the crash survivors and victims’ family members, highlighting incredible stories of survival.  Karolyn Nunnalle told the emotional story of losing her 10-year-old daughter, Patty, and her fight for bus safety and drunk-driving prevention after the crash. Lee Williams, who lost his wife and two daughters in the crash, shared how he was able to find love afterward. Story after story of survival and recovery were intertwined with news footage and photos from 25 years ago. The film brought home how a really bad decision by one driver, who chose to get behind the wheel impaired, could impact so many lives even 25 years later. 

     I met the documentary producer, Harold Dennis, a year ago when he participated in the NTSB forum Reaching Zero: Actions Needed to Eliminate Substance Impaired Driving.  From the day I met him, I have been inspired by his remarkable recovery from the crash and his unbelievable courage.  Harold sustained severe lung damage and third degree burns over 20 percent of his body, including his face and torso. He lost his best friend, Andy Marks, who was sitting right next to him on the bus.  Despite this personal loss and his own disfigurements, in the years since the crash, Harold has made a huge success of his life:  he was a walk-on star of the University of Kentucky football team, and won the national Arete Award for Courage in amateur sports.  Yet, I believe the “Impact” film that Harold, his co-producers and directors created will be one of his life’s greatest accomplishments.  For it tells a story that will “Impact” lives.  It is difficult to believe that anyone would ever consider getting behind the wheel impaired after viewing this powerful film.

 Don Karol is the NTSB’s Director of the Office of Highway Safety