Celebrate Safely this Holiday Season

By Debbie Hersman

Chairman Hersman with SantaThis week begins a season of celebrating with family and friends and reflecting on the year that has passed. Many of us will load our families into cars or board an airplane, in fact AAA predicts that 94.5 million Americans will travel at least 50 miles from home this holiday season; with nearly 86 million of those traveling by automobile.

Unfortunately, this time of year is also one of the deadliest times on our Nations’ roadways. During last holiday season, 830 lives were lost in drunk driving crashes; every 54 minutes a life was tragically lost at the hands of an impaired driver.

As you make last minute preparations for your trip, here are a few tips to make traveling safer for everyone:

• Don’t operate any vehicle while impaired by drugs, alcohol, or fatigue.

• Put away phones and other devices while driving.

• In the event of a crash, your best defense is a restraint. If you’re traveling by automobile, make sure you and all of your passengers are buckled up. If you’re traveling with children, whether by car or airplane, make sure that they are properly secured in a size-appropriate restraint system, even those under age 2!

As we prepare to spend time with loved ones, we send our appreciation to those professionals, in the transportation and public safety sectors, who are on duty during the holidays. Thank you for what you do every day, but especially in the coming week when being at work, rather than with your families, is a sacrifice you make to serve others.

On behalf of the NTSB Board Members and staff – we hope everyone that travels stays safe this holiday season and wish you the best in 2014!

Working on the Rails

By Debbie Hersman

NTSB Investigators at rail accidentWhether you are taking the subway two stops or Amtrak across the country this holiday season, think about the workers who keep the trains running. And remember those who won’t be coming home for Christmas this year.

Today, the NTSB issued urgent recommendations intended to protect track workers from their own trains. This was in response to our ongoing investigation into the deaths of two track workers in the San Francisco area in October, (as well as several other investigations on properties from Washington, D.C. to Boston).

When the two workers were struck and killed on October 19 in Walnut Creek, Calif., BART used a “simple approval” process to authorize employees to enter the train roadway. This simple process put the burden on workers to look out for trains and “provide their own protection and not interfere with mainline/yard operations.” BART has since eliminated the practice.

The NTSB recommendations strongly urge the FTA to issue directives to all transit agencies to improve the safety protections for roadway workers. The first recommendation asks FTA to require redundant protection for railway right-of-way workers such as positive train control, secondary warning devices, or the use of a shunt—a safety device that workers attach to rails that results in approaching trains receiving a stop signal. The second recommendation urges a directive to require transit agencies to review wayside worker rules and procedures to eliminate any work authorization that depends solely on the roadway worker to provide protection from trains and moving equipment.

The BART workers were not the first – and won’t be the last– track workers to be killed. Since 2006, the NTSB has investigated three fatal events on the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, another involving fatalities on the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, and earlier this year a fatal accident involving a track worker for Metro-North Railroad.

Other industries have redundant protections for their workers, such as fall protection for those working above the ground and lock-out/tag-out protections for those working with high energy sources.

Having redundant protection measures in place for track workers is not only a best practice but common sense. After all, a positive safety culture is not a solo act.

VTTI’s Smart Road: Driving Toward Zero

Chairman Hersman with VTTI Director Tom Dingus
Chairman Hersman with VTTI Director Tom Dingus

By Debbie Hersman

In the ambitious but achievable quest for zero deaths on our highways, strong laws, strong enforcement and smarter personal choices will all play a role. So will advances in safety technology – and that does not just mean vehicles. During a recent trip to speak at the 25th anniversary of the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI), Director Tom Dingus took me on a tour of the Smart Road, a 2.2-mile technological marvel tucked into the green hills of Southwestern Virginia.

The Smart Road is a closed research test track built to highway specifications, owned by the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) and managed by VTTI. Behind the scenes, it has quietly added an arrow to the quiver of every crusader for highway safety.

Since the Smart Road was opened in 2000, it has been used for more than 17,500 research hours. Its 75 weather towers are capable of simulating conditions ranging from torrential downpours to fine drizzle, snowfall at the rate of four inches per hour (conditions permitting), and fog. Its lighting towers with variable pole spacing are designed to replicate 95 percent of national highway systems. Fourteen different asphalt mixtures make up its surface. Sensors throughout the road collect data (e.g., moisture, temperature, strain, vibration, weigh-in-motion), and seven roadside equipment units facilitate connected-vehicle communication, as surveillance cameras convey video in real time to a control center. Its 175-foot-high Smart Road Bridge is the tallest in the state. And the entire road is connected by a high-bandwidth fiber-optic network.

Simulated weather conditions at the VTTI. Photo by Rick Griffiths
Simulated weather conditions at the VTTI. Photo by Rick Griffiths

All of that makes the Smart Road the perfect place to test new safety approaches, whether they apply to the surfaces of our highways, the way they’re lit, or safety features built into vehicles. Active safety systems now in commercial use first saw testing on the Smart Road and other VTTI test beds, including such collision avoidance systems as backup warnings, blind spot warnings, assisted braking and forward collision warnings. As Tom put it,

“We test them on the Smart Road to determine their safety benefits, whether there were unintended consequences, and how drivers really use a system compared to how engineers thought it would be used.”

Today, researchers are testing connected-vehicle technology on the Smart Road prior to deployment in the real world to assess the potential for safety benefits while minimizing driving distraction and information overload. VTTI is also testing automated vehicle technologies and user acceptance. Industry leaders such as Google and GM use the Smart Road to address automated vehicle topics. Law enforcement personnel use the road for emergency maneuver and crash reconstruction classes.

Technology as simple as the seat belt, coupled with strong laws and enforcement, helped to bring yearly highway fatalities down from more than 47,000 in 1965 – the year of the first national seat-belt standard – to fewer than 34,000 in 2012. Taking into account the number of miles Americans drive, the chance of a fatality has fallen nearly fivefold.

The more lessons come from state-of-the-art facilities like the Smart Road, the fewer we have to learn the hard way – from actual highway crashes. VTTI’s Smart Road is helping with research and development of the technologies, materials, and rules of the road that, together with changes in driver behavior, can make highway fatalities a thing of the past.

Fire and Cabin Safety – the NTSB’s Broad Perspective

By Mark Rosekind

Member Rosekind presenting on fire safetyLast week, as part of my NTSB advocacy efforts on fire safety and its inclusion on this year’s Most Wanted List, I spoke at the Federal Aviation Administration’s Seventh Annual Triennial Fire and Cabin Safety Research Conference in Philadelphia and presented information on the investigator’s role in addressing fire safety in transportation. This is one of the aviation community’s largest gatherings for airlines, manufacturers, inspectors, researchers, computer modelers, regulators, and academics to share critical information that can help prevent tragic accidents.

Fires are especially dangerous in aircraft, marine vessels, and vehicles. When fires are detected and extinguished early, the likelihood of surviving, reducing injury, and minimizing damage increases greatly. Prevention is critical.

I learned this firsthand during a visit last July to the FAA’s Technical Research Center where 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.

Even though this week’s conference was focused on aviation, the NTSB and its investigators have identified fire safety shortcomings in every transportation mode. Lessons learned, recommendations, and improvements often can and should find important applications in every sector. Whether it’s a deadly wheel well fire on a motorcoach in Wilmer, Texas; or an engine room fire aboard the “Queen of the West” on the Columbia River; or a fleet-grounding lithium battery event on a Boeing 787 “Dreamliner,” these dangers are universal and not limited to any one particular type of travel. Our mission is to find out how they happen and recommend how to prevent them.

My remarks at the conference’s opening session helped reinforce the agency’s efforts and support valuable contributions by other NTSB participants. Research and Engineering (RE) expert Joe Panagiotou presented information including a paper he and RE Director Dr. Joe Kolly prepared on the NTSB’s work investigating the cause of the 787 battery failure. The presentation provided details on the Materials Laboratory examinations including the methods and equipment used, and their significance in determining the origin of the event. It emphasized some of the specific challenges of investigations involving emerging technology, the importance of multidisciplinary and internationally diverse teams of expertise, and using unconventional testing techniques to get to the bottom of why batteries fail. The audience was packed.

By providing insight into the NTSB’s fire safety recommendations and our forensic investigation of fire events, we hope that anyone involved in fire safety, especially industry, manufacturers, and investigators, will apply this information in every mode to make lithium batteries safer as this technology goes into production across the transportation spectrum.

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