Sobriety Checkpoints Take the Enforcement Message to the Streets

By Debbie Hersman

Sobriety checkpoint
Second Lt. Joseph Flynn of the Fairfax County Police Dept and Kenneth Bragg, and Jana Price from NTSB’s Office of Highway Safety.

“Good evening sir, we are doing a sobriety checkpoint this evening. May I see your license?’ asks the officer as the driver rolls down his window. It’s 2:00 a.m. on Sunday morning and I am observing a sobriety checkpoint on a well-traveled roadway in Fairfax County, Virginia. The officer and the driver exchange a few words before the officer hands the driver a piece of paper, and thanks him for his time. The driver pulls away with a pamphlet that explains that he has just participated in a sobriety checkpoint conducted by the Fairfax County Virginia Police Department. Printed on the pamphlet in bold letters is the FCPD checkpoint motto, Every week. Everywhere.

Fairfax County has chosen to do regular checkpoints for a good reason: well-implemented and publicized sobriety checkpoint programs have been shown to reduce alcohol-related fatal and injury crashes by about 20 percent. At a time when nearly 10,000 people in the United States are killed annually in crashes involving impaired drivers, we need to focus on solutions we know will work.

In May the NTSB released a report outlining steps that will move us toward the elimination of alcohol impaired driving. The NTSB report called for stronger laws, swifter enforcement, and improved technologies to address impaired driving. One of the recommendations in that report calls on states to conduct high-visibility enforcement efforts such as sobriety checkpoints, and to increase the success of their checkpoints by using flashlight-based sensors that can detect alcohol vapor in the vicinity of the driver. The noninvasive sensors have been shown to increase detection of impaired drivers during the brief checkpoint stops.

Sobriety checkpoints are effective because they increase drivers’ perception of the presence of law enforcement and heighten a driver’s awareness that they will be caught if they choose to drive impaired. They incorporate well-publicized media campaigns, enforcement efforts, and swift and certain penalties for drivers arrested for DWI. Research has shown that communities that conduct regular checkpoints dramatically reduce the proportions of drivers on their roads with impairing blood alcohol levels.

Today in the United States, on average, every hour one person is killed in a crash involving an alcohol-impaired driver and 20 more people are injured. In Fairfax County at the sobriety checkpoint this weekend, during the two hour period that it was conducted, two drivers were arrested for driving while intoxicated. Two possible tragedies were averted, and countless other drivers were made aware of Fairfax County’s commitment to keeping impaired drivers off the road.

The FAA Technical Center and the “Miracle” of Surviving Aviation Fires

By Mark Rosekind

Member Rosekind at FAA Technical Center“Many of the NTSB’s recommendations drive our research.” This is what FAA Technical Center Fire Safety Branch Manager Gus Sarkos said when asked how he sets his agenda for the Aviation Research Division at one of the nation’s premier aviation research, development, test, and evaluation facilities.

As part of my NTSB advocacy efforts on fire safety and its inclusion on this year’s Most Wanted List,  I recently visited the Technical Center. Its world-class laboratories, top-notch scientists, and leading engineers are at the forefront modernizing the U.S. air transportation system and making air travel safer than ever before.

Although there were three tragic deaths and scores of injuries resulting from the Asiana Airlines Flight 214 crash in San Francisco on July 6th, 99 percent of the people onboard survived and many are calling it a “miracle.” This miracle is due in part to the Technical Center’s decades of work in researching, developing, testing, and evaluating the flame-retardant materials on seats and in other parts of the cabin. Nearly all the passengers reached safety before the fire entered the plane and even when emergency responders arrived and were helping those too injured to move the fire was not yet severe.

These and other advancements have helped save lives before, as in the 2005 Toronto Air France crash where 309 people survived the post-accident fire. Such achievements underscore the importance of the Technical Center’s critical role in fire suppression and other areas of aviation safety.

The Technical Center’s contributions span a wide range of passenger and cargo flight applications with implementation throughout commercial aviation. These include the development of fire-resistant flight recorders, heat-resistant evacuation slides, fuel tank explosion protection, cargo compartment fire detection and suppression systems, halon hand-held extinguishers, low-heat and smoke interior cabin panels, burn-through-resistant cargo liners and aircraft insulation, and lithium battery fire safety.

Located on 5,000 acres near Atlantic City, the Technical Center consists of state-of-the art laboratories and test facilities. One of the more remarkable of these is the Full-Scale Fire Test Facility. Completed in 1980, it is the largest government-operated structure of its kind with a 40-foot-high fire-proof ceiling that accommodates two full-scale aircraft fuselages where a variety of simulations can take place under controlled conditions.

Three cargo fire accidents in the past 6 years have resulted in the deaths of two flight crews and the total loss of three planes. The NTSB’s involvement in these accident investigations and others have revealed deficiencies in the fire safety strategy for fire detection and suppression in both cargo and passenger aircraft. The FAA Technical Center’s ongoing work and its responsiveness to the NTSB’s investigations are invaluable for helping to provide the safest possible transport for the nation’s travelers, goods, and flight personnel.

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

Deadly Alaska Plane Crash Highlights Role of Aviation in “The Last Frontier”

By Earl Weener

Member Weener in Soldotna, AKThe July 7 crash of a de Havilland DHC-3 Otter at Alaska’s Soldotna Airport that killed the pilot and nine passengers is currently under investigation. Senior aviation investigator Dan Bower is the investigator-in-charge; I was in Alaska last week serving as the NTSB’s on-scene spokesperson.

Our hearts go out to the families and friends of the ten people who perished in this crash. The NTSB’s role, as it is in the hundreds of investigations we conduct each year, is to find out what happened and why so we can make safety recommendations that, if implemented, will help prevent similar accidents in the future.

This wasn’t my first trip to Alaska, but each time I visit I am reminded of the vital importance of aviation to our nation’s largest state. Alaska is larger than Texas, California and Montana combined; its width greater than the distance between New York and Los Angeles. Here’s what is even more telling: More than 80 percent of Alaska’s communities, including the state capital, are not connected to highways or road systems. The state’s sheer size and the lack of surface transportation heighten aviation’s importance.

 In fact, aviation, especially general aviation, is to Alaska what buses and vans are to many other states. For example, for an away basketball game, the Varsity team climbs aboard a charter airplane. Many people routinely fly to do what their counterparts in the lower 48 consider to be everyday shopping.

Yet, while flying is more every day in Alaska, the challenges are much greater. There is treacherous terrain, including 39 mountain ranges with high peaks, deep gorges and more than 100,000 glaciers. Then, add weather to the mix. At any time, snow, ice, rain, wind and fog can appear in an instant.

The importance of aviation to Alaska adds more importance to our investigation. It’s crucial to understand what happened so we can help improve aviation safety for a state which relies so heavily on all manner and make of aircraft.

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.

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Safety – Eliminating Drunk Driving Deaths


By Mark Rosekind

A day that marks American leadership has become the deadliest American holiday.  On the Fourth of July, over the five-year period from 2007 to 2011, 780 people across the nation were killed by drunk drivers who had blood alcohol levels of at least .08.  These deaths accounted for 40 percent of all July 4th motor vehicle traffic fatalities over the same five years.  Statistics gathered during the past quarter century show that most of these fatal crashes are related to alcohol.  Although that varies from year to year, Independence Day routinely tops Labor Day, New Year’s, Memorial Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas on the list of times when drinking and driving kill most.

Such statistics demand the highest level of personal leadership from every one of us who drinks alcohol and expects to get behind the wheel this Fourth of July.  Take responsibility and use strategies to avoid drinking and driving such as depending on a designated driver…refraining from alcohol long before getting on the road…and celebrating at walkable venues. 

But these tragic circumstances underscore the tremendous need for leadership at the national and state levels to eliminate needless drunk driving deaths.  As the next step in the NTSB’s year-long activities on “Reaching Zero – Actions to Eliminate Substance-Impaired Driving,” last week we convened leaders from some of America’s top advocacy organizations against drinking and getting behind the wheel.  While specific strategies may vary, there was strong consensus that zero alcohol-impaired driving deaths is a common goal that must become a national priority.  It begins with working together on specific measures to achieve success.

Over the past year, the NTSB issued nineteen new safety recommendations resulting from its recent work on this issue.  With leadership among advocacy groups, lawmakers, and public officials, this bold set of targeted interventions calls for stronger laws, swifter enforcement, and expanded use of technology.  It can put the country on a course to eliminate alcohol-impaired driving crashes.

Each year in the United States nearly 10,000 people are killed in crashes involving alcohol-impaired drivers and more than 173,000 are injured, with 27,000 suffering incapacitating injuries.  Since the mid-1990s, even as total highway fatalities have fallen, the proportion of deaths from crashes involving an alcohol-impaired driver has remained constant at around 30 percent.  In the last 30 years, nearly 440,000 people have died in alcohol related crashes.  The time is long overdue to tackle this stubborn killer and make significant gains.

Two hundred and thirty-seven years ago the leaders of this country overcame different views and divergent opinions to lay the foundations for a new nation.  They should serve as an example for today’s lawmakers, public officials, and advocates to seek common ground on aggressive measures to save thousands of lives and prevent countless injuries on our roads every year.  The NTSB’s recent recommendations offer some compelling strategies across the board that – if implemented – would stave off the needless loss of life resulting from drinking and driving.  Little will change, however, absent the national leadership and personal responsibility needed to take us there.