Have a Gameplan for the Road This Sunday

By Mark R. Rosekind, Ph.D.

Football field. Picture credit Daniel O'Neil, via FLickr.comSunday is a big day for football fans across the country both at the stadium and watching on TV.  But the game is now just as synonymous with drinking as it is with sports and commercials.

Nine out of 10 spectators – including myself – will watch at home, either at their house or someone else’s.  As the largest sporting event in Unites States averaging about 100 million viewers, that’s a lot of parties.  Last year it amounted to 51.7 million cases of beer sold nationwide to mark the championship.

Unfortunately, many people who celebrate the game by drinking choose to drive impaired or ride with an impaired driver.  In my home state of California, there are 75 percent more alcohol-related car crashes on game day than on other comparable Sundays, according to an Automobile Club of Southern California study.  That tragic increase means an additional 276 unnecessary and preventable deaths and injuries on California roadways.

It’s no surprise a big event that often includes alcohol consumption is linked to an increase in crashes, even when a driver’s blood alcohol content (BAC) falls below legal limits.  As the NTSB noted in its report Reaching Zero: Actions to Eliminate Alcohol-Impaired Driving, driver impairment doesn’t just begin at the current legal BAC limit of 0.08, but with the very first drink.  In 2012 alone, 10,322 people were killed by an alcohol-impaired driver.

Research shows signs of impairment such as swerving and lack of focus with a BAC as low at 0.01.  At a BAC of 0.05, a driver’s crash risk increases by 38 percent.  That risk is 250 percent greater at 0.08.  A new UC San Diego study concludes that “minimally buzzed” drivers even with blood alcohol levels as low as 0.01 are often responsible for deaths on the road, and found a direct correlation between low-level alcohol impairment and greater accident severity.  Drivers with a BAC of just 0.01 are 46 percent more likely to be blamed for car crashes than the sober drivers they collide with.

Let’s cover the gameplan for this Sunday.  I’m not referring to the strategies of the opposing teams.  This is about your strategy for separating the consumption of alcohol from the driving task.  The problem is not just limited to my state.  According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 40 percent of motor vehicle fatalities nationwide involve alcohol-impaired driving on game day.  It’s clear that wherever fans are enjoying the game, the risk of involvement in an alcohol-impaired crash is higher.  Plan ahead to avoid a situation that places your life and the lives of others at risk.

And this advice isn’t just for those driving.  Hosts can be held responsible for their guests’ safety as well.  If your place is the game day venue, make sure all your guests designate a sober driver in advance or arrange for alternate transportation to ensure they get home safely.  Serve food and include non-alcoholic beverages as a choice.  Stop serving alcohol at the end of the third quarter of the game.  And keep the numbers for local cab companies handy.

By planning ahead to avoid drinking and driving, football fans can help make roads safer for everyone this weekend.  There are many options.  Personal responsibility, moderation, and discretion, combined with alternatives such as public transportation, taxis, designated drivers, and sober rides are all great ways to help prevent an impaired driver from getting behind the wheel.

Personally, my plan is to stay home, enjoy some munchies, and be glad I’m not sitting outside in the freezing New Jersey weather.  Whatever you do this Sunday, have a gameday safety strategy.  If everyone avoids alcohol-impaired driving, we’re all winners.

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

Surface Transportation Safety: A Paramount Priority

By Debbie Hersman

Vice Chairman Hart testifying before the U.S. House of Representatives’ Subcommittee on Highways and Transit
Vice Chairman Hart testifying before the U.S. House of Representatives’ Subcommittee on Highways and Transit.

On Tuesday, NTSB’s Vice Chairman Hart had the opportunity to testify before the U.S. House of Representatives’ Subcommittee on Highways and Transit at a hearing focused on ways to improve the effectiveness of the federal surface transportation safety grants programs.  He highlighted the surface transportation issues included on the recently-announced NTSB 2014 Most Wanted List and our ongoing efforts to address those and other transportation safety concerns. 

It’s not always clear how federal grants affect our daily lives, but consider your drive to work this morning.  Driving on our Nation’s roadways remains the deadliest form of transportation.  For more than two decades, our Most Wanted List has highlighted lessons learned from our investigations to address driver impairment, vehicle design and safety, improvements to our infrastructure, and technological solutions to reduce transportation accidents and related injuries and deaths.  Vice Chairman Hart’s testimony emphasized the role that these issues should play in developing grant programs.  And those grant programs as well as other federal policies lead to technology in your car, such as low tire pressure warning systems, and roadway infrastructure, such as rumble strips to warn you when you are about to leave the road.  Those grants result in stronger traffic safety laws and enforcement to encourage seat belt use and prevent distracted driving.

 Sadly, the number of deaths and injuries from crashes on our highways continues to be a national tragedy; more than 33,000 people died and more than 2 million more were injured in 2012 alone.  Too many lives lost in events that could be easily prevented.  That is why the 2014 Most Wanted List will continue to emphasize critical changes needed – eliminating distraction, reducing impaired driving, and improving occupant protection – to make true reductions in these numbers.  Improved motor carrier oversight, combatting driver fatigue, improving technology, and improvements in highway design can also have lasting impacts on reducing deaths and injuries. 

 The safety issues and the accidents discussed at yesterday’s hearing are a reminder that there is still much to be done to improve the safety of highway transportation.  The safety of the traveling public needs to be a top priority.  Only through continued emphasis on safety in federal surface transportation policies can the nation effectively tackle a leading cause of death.  We have the facts; we only need the will.

The Safety of Vertical Flight

By Vice Chairman Christopher A. Hart

Helicopter taking off in the sunsetLast week, my fellow Board Members and I unveiled the 2014 NTSB Most Wanted List of critical changes needed to reduce transportation accidents and save lives. This list of ten issues represents our advocacy priorities for the coming year. One of those priorities is to Address the Unique Characteristics of Helicopter Operations. In the past ten years, nearly 1,500 accidents have occurred involving helicopters used as air ambulances, for search and rescue missions and for commercial helicopter operations such as tour flights. During that same time, the NTSB issued over 100 safety recommendations on helicopter-specific issues.

NTSB recommended practices include the need for operators to develop and implement safety management systems that include sound risk management practices and access to training that includes realistic scenarios involving inadvertent flight into instrument meteorological conditions and autorotation. In addition, crash-resistant flight recorder systems can assist investigators in determining what went wrong when an accident does occur. In October 2010, the FAA issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM), which responded to NTSB recommendations for equipment requirements, pilot training, and alternate airport weather minimums. Unfortunately, the NPRM did not address flight recorders, safety management systems, autopilots for single-pilot operations, and night vision imaging systems.

The NTSB believes that improving the safety of helicopter operations will require increased awareness among, and action by, key stakeholders such as the helicopter manufacturers, operators, training and regulatory agencies. In 2004, as a way to share industry best practices and coordinate industry responses to safety recommendations and requirements, the FAA and industry established the Helicopter Emergency Medical Services (HEMS) Safety Task Force. This effort led to many safety improvements, but ceased meeting shortly before the issuance of the FAA’s NPRM. Last week, I was pleased to attend a meeting in which stakeholders involved in the original HEMS Safety Task Force met to address delays in the issuance of the final rule and current helicopter industry safety initiatives.

Next month, I will join Chairman Hersman, Member Sumwalt and staff from the NTSB’s Office of Aviation Safety, including John DeLisi, Clint Johnson, Kristi Dunks, Aaron Sauer, Jim Silliman, Van McKenny, and Patrick Jones, at the 2014 HAI HELI‑EXPO in Anaheim, California to continue the NTSB’s efforts to increase awareness. More than 20,000 industry professionals will convene at this event to share ways to enhance helicopter safety. In a special session on February 24, the NTSB will present information on our recent helicopter accident investigations and share lessons learned and recommendations related to helicopter maintenance, pilot training/simulators, and flight recorders.

There is no simple solution for reducing helicopter accidents but safety improvements to address helicopter operations have the potential to mitigate risk to thousands of pilots and passengers each year.

100 Years of SOLAS Viewed

By Tracy Murrell

RMS Titanic. Image credit: Wikipedia
RMS Titanic departing Southampton on April 10, 1912

Twenty minutes before midnight on April 14, 1912, the RMS Titanic, with more than 2,200 passengers and crew aboard, struck an iceberg. At 2:20 the next morning, the state-of-the-art liner sank beneath the cold waters of the North Atlantic, claiming the lives of more than 1,500 men, women, and children.

Tragically, there was room in lifeboats for scarcely half those aboard. Perhaps worse, because of ill-defined evacuation procedures, some of the lifeboats departed half-empty.

The Titanic’s story has been told many times through art, literature, and film. What is less well-known is what the world’s major seafaring powers did in response.

One hundred years ago today, on January 20, 1914, 13 nations agreed on the terms of the International Convention on Safety of Life at Sea, or SOLAS. It was a landmark international agreement, establishing international standards on (among other things) watertight and fireproof bulkheads; signaling apparatus (particularly wireless telegraphy); safety of navigation; and lifesaving, fire prevention, and firefighting equipment.

Shortly thereafter, the First World War broke out. Only five countries had signed the treaty when it went into force in 1915. But from humble beginnings, international marine safety grew into a truly global undertaking. SOLAS has survived revolutions and world wars and today 159 countries are signed on.

From the beginning, SOLAS provided realistic flexibility in meeting requirements: for example, provisions applied to new ships in full, but each country’s existing vessels could be modified “with a view to improvements providing increased safety where practicable and reasonable.”

Nations were also encouraged to allow innovations that equaled or exceeded the safety specifications in the treaty’s first incarnation. So it was that life-rafts came into use alongside life-boats, and that marine evacuation systems came into use alongside life-rafts in a later era.

In the United States, the NTSB has investigated domestic marine accidents and made safety recommendations since the agency’s founding in 1967. Today, 100 years after SOLAS was signed, we have included passenger vessel safety on our Most Wanted List for 2014 – our top 10 safety priorities.

On this anniversary, we’re reminded that for 100 years, SOLAS has mandated a seat on a lifeboat for every passenger on an international voyage. We think it’s time to provide the modern equivalent in domestic marine transportation. One safety improvement we’re focusing on is out-of-water flotation for passengers and crew (rather than life floats or other devices that leave survivors exposed to water).

We’re also encouraging standardized documented procedures to be kept by vessel operators and the use of voyage data recorders (VDRs), so that investigators can better learn what went wrong when an accident does happen.

We’re modeling our approach on the flexibility that was and is built into SOLAS. We’re avoiding over-specifying safety procedures, because the men and women on-board vessels are the ones who know their operations best: Better to build a concise safety management system that is well utilized and helps save lives, than volume after volume of unused irrelevant material. Similarly, a basic voyage data recorder without audio is better than no VDR at all.

It’s been 100 years since the seagoing nations of the world authored SOLAS, their refusal to accept the status quo in safety at sea. This year, the NTSB is committed to seeing marine safety at home catch up.

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

Most Wanted List: Preserving a Safe Path Home

By Debbie Hersman

MWL_Press_Conference2014Yesterday, the National Transportation Safety Board announced our 2014 Most Wanted List of critical changes needed to reduce transportation accidents and save lives. We publish this list of ten issues annually, but this was the first time we made our announcement at the annual meeting of the Transportation Research Board (TRB). The TRB has been at the forefront of transportation research for decades, so it was fitting for NTSB to announce our 2014 Most Wanted List at their meeting. TRB’s conference theme was “Celebrating Our Legacy, Anticipating Our Future” and there is so much to celebrate: transportation is safer than ever. But with more than 35,000 transportation-related fatalities and hundreds of thousands of injuries every year, we can, and must, do better.

Expectations for safe transportation are as woven into our lives as the things we do at home each morning: wake up, shower, dress for work, make coffee. When we put our children on the school bus or we board a train or we get in our car to drive to the office, we take the safety of our trip for granted. Unfortunately, at the NTSB we focus on those devastating occasions when something does go wrong. That’s why we have the Most Wanted List. These are steps we can take today, so that more people make it home safely tonight.

The Most Wanted List covers all modes of transportation. The ten issues are based on NTSB investigations and safety studies, and the list is then approved by our five-member board. These issues are by no means the only important transportation safety issues. However, they are the areas we feel are most in need of increased awareness, dialogue and action right now.

This year we are highlighting four new areas – helicopter safety, passenger vessel operations, safety in rail mass transit, as well as improved occupant protection. And in a fifth, General Aviation Safety, we’re sharpening our focus to improve awareness of weather hazards.

Five areas remain from our 2013 list: impaired driving, distraction in transportation, fire safety, pipeline safety and positive train control.

We’ve already begun work on initiatives and actions that will directly support the important issues we’re highlighting on our Most Wanted List today. Not everybody will like every action we take, and not everybody will agree with what we say; but the NTSB speaks for the traveling public, so we are engaging every stakeholder – including the traveling public – in an ever-broadening conversation on these issues.

The NTSB Most Wanted List is our roadmap for 2014. If decision makers use this list in taking action to make transportation safer, for travelers leaving the house each morning, it will be much more: it will be the safe path home.