Put the Brakes on Fatalities


By Debbie Hersman

Zero deaths on our highways is an ambitious — but not unachievable — goal shared by federal and state agencies, transportation organizations and professionals and safety advocates. How do we reach this goal?  Start with one day without traffic deaths. On October 1, 2001, the first annual Put the Brakes on Fatalities Day was held. Today, we join with many others and recommit to taking action to achieve our goal.

In 2010, a 15-passenger van carrying a family of 12 was struck by a truck-tractor semitrailer traveling in the wrong direction near Munfordville, Ky. Ten family members, eight of whom were not wearing seat belts, were killed; the two children who were using child restraints survived the crash with minor injuries. In 2010, the 19-year-old driver of a pick-up truck was killed when he ran into the back of a tractor-trailer truck that had stopped. The teen was texting before the crash. In 2011, an impaired driver with a BAC of 0.25 traveling in the wrong direction near Fountain, Colo., killed himself and two others when he collided head-on with their vehicle. What do all of these tragedies have in common? They all were preventable. Most drivers do not spend a lot of time thinking about decisions they make behind the wheel, but the reality is that the decisions made by individuals involved in these crashes contributed to their deaths and the deaths of others.

For decades, the NTSB and many others have promoted stronger laws and enhanced enforcement of those laws to reduce teen driver crashes, eliminate impaired and distracted driving and increase occupant restraint and motorcycle helmet use. Yet, decades later, we still see more than 32,000 lives lost on our roadways. One-third of those deaths involve an impaired driver — someone who made the decision to get behind the wheel and drive impaired. Even more startling, 52 percent of those killed weren’t wearing a seat belt. In the event of a crash, seat belts, child restraints and motorcycle helmets save lives. In 2011, had all passenger-vehicle occupants over 5 years of age had chosen to buckle up, almost 4,000 more lives could have been saved. If all motorcyclists had worn helmets, an additional 700 lives could have been saved.

Each of us has important decisions to make when we get in a car or on a motorcycle. Join me today in committing to achieving our goal of ZERO deaths on our nation’s roadways by making the right decisions.

Building a Safety Culture

727.cockpitBy Robert L. Sumwalt

Earlier this month, the NTSB was fortunate enough to host an outstanding two-day forum entitled, “Safety Culture: Enhancing Transportation Safety.”  We heard presentations from academic researchers, a broad range of federal regulators and some of the transportation industry leaders at the very forefront of developing robust, positive safety cultures.  All too often, the NTSB investigates accidents in which we determine an organization’s insufficient safety culture contributed to the accident; this can be created through an absence of management-level commitment to safety, widespread procedural noncompliance among line employees, or both. Whatever the source, the absence of a robust safety culture creates an environment in which apathy towards safety flourishes, and the result can be an accident in which lives are shattered and economic losses can reach into the millions.

As stated by so many of the forum’s presenters, complacency is the enemy of safety.  I echoed this sentiment at the forum when I quoted the words of James Reason, one of the world’s foremost authorities on safety culture and organizational factors: “[I]f you are convinced that your organization has a good safety culture, you are almost certainly mistaken.”  By this, he means that we should never smugly believe that we are “there.” Safety culture is a journey – not a destination.  In this spirit, our forum was intended not only to identify the foundational elements for organizations to create a positive safety culture, but also to foster an ongoing, industry-wide conversation about the value in doing so.  Sustaining a culture of safety may indeed be a journey . . . but it’s a journey most certainly worth undertaking.

Robert L. Sumwalt is an NTSB board member.

On the Road to a Safer Future

Traffic on FreewayBy Stephanie Davis and Jenny Cheek

 For many, Labor Day weekend meant the official end to summer.  As many of us spent one last family weekend at the beach or hosted one more barbeque with friends, other families received the tragic news that they lost a loved one in a motor vehicle crash.  If the past is any guide, the large number of people travelling on our roadways  this past weekend meant an increase in the number of injuries and deaths caused by crashes.  Many of these crashes, injuries and deaths were preventable.

 Last week, hundreds of traffic safety professionals gathered at the Governors Highway Safety Association’s  annual conference to raise awareness for emerging highway transportation issues and to discuss ways to reach our ultimate goal of zero deaths on the nation’s roadways.  The theme of this year’s conference was the effects of technology on highway safety.  While technologies like collision avoidance systems, seat belts, and alcohol ignition interlocks have the potential to save thousands of lives, other technologies like smart phones, tablets, and computers pose an unnecessary safety risk when used behind the wheel. 

 In her keynote address to the GHSA conference, NTSB Acting Chairman Deborah Hersman noted that for decades the NTSB has recommended and advocated for technologies that can prevent crashes, reduce injuries, and save lives, such as use of mandatory alcohol ignition interlocks for all DWI offenders and forward collision warning systems.  Hersman also noted the dangers of using other technology, such as portable electronic devices, while driving; she cited the NTSB recommendation for a ban on all nonemergency use of such devices, both hands-free and handheld, by drivers.  In his remarks, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Administrator David Strickland discussed NHTSA’s Significant and Seamless initiative focusing on increased seat belt use, prevention of impaired driving, and expedited implementation of technologies that would prevent an unbelted or impaired driver from operating their vehicles.  Google safety expert Ron Medford spoke about the potential of Google’s self-driving car to reduce accidents caused by human error, as well as to enhance mobility for older drivers and the disabled.   

However, we can’t just rely on technology to solve the problem of traffic crashes.  As Hersman noted, we are years — and in some cases decades — away from seeing newly-developed lifesaving technologies in all vehicles on the road.  With more than 30,000 people killed and thousands more injured each year in traffic crashes, we can’t afford to wait years to see these technologies’ reach their full potential.  We must continue to encourage people to become safer drivers through safer behavior.  It takes strong laws, effective educational campaigns, and visible enforcement of laws to change human behavior.  That’s why the work of the traffic safety professionals featured at the 2103 GHSA conference is so critical.  Their dedication just might save your loved ones’ lives … or even your own.

 Davis and Cheek are safety advocates in the NTSB Office of Communications.