Let’s all “show the love for safety”

By Debbie Hersman

Dear Valentine,

showtheloveforsafetyEach year nearly 34,000 people die in transportation-related accidents. Day-in and day-out people are killed in this country – needlessly and senselessly – because of distraction, substance-impaired driving, hazardous weather, and more. That’s the tough news. The good news is that as a nation, we are doing better. Planes, trains, and automobiles are being manufactured with more safety features; many laws are stronger; and more people aware of how they can make safer decisions.

My Valentines are the countless individuals and organizations who work so hard and do so much to improve transportation safety. With all the work these Valentines have done to make aviation safer, travelers on U.S. airlines now live in the safest period in commercial aviation. You, dear Valentines, have shown the love for safety by making our highways and vehicles safer. You have strengthened occupant protection with air bags, seat belts, child safety seats and more. You have worked to understand better and call for changes that address human performance, including fatigue, impaired driving, and distracted operations in transportation. And you’ve championed stronger safety cultures in helicopter, passenger vessel, and rail mass transit operations. Without your efforts, none of these safety strides would have been possible.

So in closing, dear Valentines, we share your passion for safety and moving toward zero deaths in all forms of transportation – on our roadways, railways, airways and waterways — so more people can enjoy a happy Valentine’s Day each and every year. That’s one great reason to show the love for safety.

“Snow” your love for safety: Winter storm roundup edition

Traffic snarls in Atlanta due to wintery weatherToday hasn’t been a good day for traveling on the east coast, but there’s good news on the transportation safety front nonetheless.

The Port Authority of NY & NJ has announced weekend closures of two PATH stations in order to install Positive Train Control technology on the lines. NTSB has long been advocating for PTC implementation, and the issue is again on our Most Wanted List. We’re encouraged to see the steps PATH and other rail operators are taking to implement PTC systems and to make rail travel safer.

The National Safety Council released its preliminary estimate of 2013 motor vehicle fatalities, and their analysis shows a 3% decline in fatalities from 2012. Every decline in fatalities is a step toward reaching zero, but as NSC notes, more than 90% of crashes are due to human error and ultimately preventable, which is why NTSB includes eliminating both distraction and substance-impaired driving on our Most Wanted List.


Champions for Safety

By Debbie Hersman

Continental Connection Flight 3407 memorial plaqueOn February 12, 2009, a Colgan Air, Inc., plane operating as Continental Connection flight 3407, departed Newark airport en route to Buffalo, New York.  Approximately 5 miles from the airport, the regional jet tragically crashed into the Clarence Center neighborhood killing all 49 passengers and crew members on board, and 1 person on the ground.

In the wake of catastrophic transportation accidents, the families left behind are often the biggest champions for change.  Today the loved ones of those killed 5 years ago on Continental Connection 3407 will mark the anniversary with a candlelight vigil at the crash site – the same spot where they came together a few days after the accident and resolved to improve transportation safety.

Through our investigation, the NTSB determined that the accident was caused by the inappropriate responses and actions by the flight crew during flight.  Colgan Air’s inadequate procedures for airspeed selection and management during approaches in icing conditions contributed to the cause of the accident.  The NTSB’s investigation identified several additional safety issues and our recommendations focused on strategies to address flight crew monitoring failures, pilot professionalism, fatigue, remedial training, and pilot training records, just to name a few.  Twenty-five recommendations were made in order to prevent similar accidents.

Following the 2009 crash, the loved ones of many of the passengers killed in the accident launched a campaign to advocate for many safety issues identified in the NTSB’s investigation.  Their efforts were instrumental in the passage of the Airline Safety and Federal Aviation Administration Extension Act of 2010, which President Obama signed in August 2010.  The legislation mandated numerous improvements addressing pilot training, qualifications and fatigue and also included a provision designed to ensure that airline tickets clearly reflect which airline is actually operating each flight.  From this legislation, we have seen new regulations that address flight and duty time.  This past November, the FAA issued a new regulation requiring increased training, including simulator training on stalls, like the event encountered by the crew of Flight 3407.

Today, as the family members mark the five-year anniversary of the accident, their loss is still painful.  But their achievements are a testament to their continued love for those who perished.  We are grateful to these families who continue to be tireless champions for change.

Distracted driving – debunking the myth

By Robert Sumwalt

handsfreedevicedrivingA few days ago someone told me he liked to use his driving time to catch up on returning phone calls. Without trying to sound like too much of a zealot, I told him the NTSB has called for states to pass laws prohibiting non-emergency use of wireless communications devices while driving. Then came the answer I have heard too many times – “Oh, I use a hands-free device.”

Somewhere along the way, drivers have started believing that talking on cell phones using hands-free devices is safer than using hand-held devices. Sorry to break the news, but the notion that hands-free is safer is — quite simply — a myth. Many sources, including the makers of after-market hands-free devices and lawmakers who pass laws only outlawing hand-held devices, would like for you to believe one is safer than the other. The overwhelming data, however, show there is no significant difference in crash risk between hand-held and hands-free devices.

The National Safety Council, for example, has compiled more than 30 research studies and reports by scientists around the world that show hands-free phones offer no safety benefit when driving. The paper describes how drivers who use cell phones have a tendency to “look at” but not “see” up to 50 percent of the information in their driving environment. A form of inattention blindness occurs, which results in drivers having difficulty monitoring their surroundings, seeking and identifying potential hazards, and responding to unexpected situations.

The under-appreciated risk here is the cognitive distraction associated with talking on a phone while driving. A study by AAA Foundation  found that a driver’s level of cognitive distraction is about equal when using either hands-free or hand-held cell phones. Quite simply, because we are so busy concentrating on the phone conversation, our brain can’t process other information. Hard to believe, right? Well, perhaps you’ve experienced a situation where you missed a turn, ran a red light, or failed to stop at a stop sign while talking on a phone. NTSB has seen more extreme examples that led to serious consequences. For example, a few years ago we investigated an accident where the top of a bus carrying high school students was sheared off because the driver drove under a bridge with inadequate clearance. The driver was involved in a heated conversation with his sister using a hands-free phone. Investigators asked if he noticed the signs before the bridge that indicated that the bridge was too low for his vehicle. He not only missed seeing the signs, but he did not even notice the bridge until after he sheared off the top of the bus, injuring several students!

A question often asked is how does talking on phones differ from talking to a passenger in the vehicle. As we all know, in many cases, passengers in the car can be distracting – especially when the passengers are young children or rowdy teens. However, in the case of a licensed driver as a passenger, studies show they will often adjust their conversation when they notice the driver is facing a potentially challenging driving situation such as merging or complex intersections.  This may lower the risk of distraction, although any conversation, whether on a cell phone or with a passenger in the vehicle, has the potential to be distracting.

While hands-free devices allow a driver to keep hands on the wheel and eyes on the road, use of these devices overlooks the disruptive effects of not being able to keep your mind on the driving task. The best way to minimize risks associated with wireless communications devices is to not use them at all while driving. After all, no call is so important that it can’t wait.

Robert L. Sumwalt was sworn in as the 37th Member of the National Transportation Safety Board on August 21, 2006. He is a frequent contributor to the NTSB blog.

GA: Weather Wise

By Earl Weener

Radar image of weather patternsRecently, the NTSB announced its 2014 Most Wanted List, and is again highlighting General Aviation (GA).  This year, as opposed to the previous two years, the agency is focusing specifically on GA in terms of weather related issues – zeroing in on a factor that turns up in several categories of recurring GA accidents.

As a GA pilot myself, as well as an experienced flight instructor, I not only enjoy flying but also sharing my flying experiences and encouraging others to try it – but this is a challenge, when GA is not considered a safe pursuit.  Unlike the commercial aviation industry, where a dramatic reduction in fatal crashes has occurred over the last decade, GA accident numbers remain stubbornly stuck; and hazardous weather is a factor in several categories of these accidents, including loss-of-control, in-flight breakup, and controlled flight into terrain.

For the past two years, I have collaborated with both the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and representatives from the GA community to improve the GA accident rate. Joint activities such as the GA Joint Steering Committee and the GA Summits hosted by the FAA Administrator, have energized the entire community and helped coordinate a united effort.  As well, in addition to these joint initiatives, the NTSB has retooled its outreach efforts and is making greater use of Safety Alerts and video testimonials by its investigators – helpful material identifying key safety issues related to GA operations and guidance on how to mitigate these safety risks.

For the coming year, in support of the Most Wanted List, the NTSB will be emphasizing the  need to identify and communicate hazardous weather, within the GA community.  We will be highlighting several areas for improvement, such as providing guidance on sources of preflight weather information, educating stakeholders on the weather identification capabilities available within the community, and encouraging ways to obtain pilot and automatic in-flight weather reporting, to name a few.  Also, we will be issuing weather related Safety Alerts, such as our recent Safety Alert on carburetor icing, and continue to participate in government/industry efforts, such as the GAJSC.

Weather-wise, based on the accident statistics, it appears the GA community would benefit from a renewed focus on weather – both from how it is identified and to how information is communicated. The issue of weather touches the entire aviation community, including pilots and flight operators, air traffic control, and weather reporting and forecasting services.  If we want to affect the GA accident rate, then we need to consider how to better address weather.  I believe if we improve our weather related resources and facilitate access to weather information, GA pilots can become “weather wise” – and this will affect the GA accident rate.

Earl F. Weener, Ph.D., took the oath of office as a Member of the National Transportation Safety Board on June 30, 2010.

Engaging the Trucking Community to Enhance Safety

By Debbie Hersman

Chairman Hersman participates in a media roundtable event held at the Transport Topics Editorial Board.America’s commercial trucking industry is so ingrained to the fabric of our daily lives that we risk overlooking it. According to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, over 500,000 interstate companies, 3 million interstate commercial drivers, and more than 10 million large trucks keep our supermarkets stocked with fresh food, keep construction humming with materials and equipment, and transport the fuel that our cars need to keep us moving from home to work and everywhere in between. From the milk in our coffee in the morning to the television set showing the evening news, it is difficult to imagine a day in America without the goods moved by truck over our highways.

Most people don’t think about how the goods made it to their table, but even fewer think about the safety of the trucking industry unless they have been involved in a life-altering crash. The good news is that according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, deaths on our highways have decreased if you take a long view – in 2000, 5,211 were killed in crashes involving large trucks compared with 3,675 in 2010. Unfortunately, in recent years, fatalities, injuries, and crashes involving trucks are all on the rise: fatal crashes involving large trucks rose by 4% in the last 4 years, and in 2012 alone there were nearly 4,000 fatalities and more than 100,000 injuries as a result of these crashes.

On Tuesday I sat down with the Editorial Board of the American Trucking Association’s Transport Topics publication. We discussed past and on-going NTSB investigations that have resulted in recommendations regarding oversight, fatigue, technology and equipment; we also talked about the on-going challenges of distraction and occupant protection, which are on the NTSB’s Most Wanted List. The journalists of Transport Topics had a lot of questions about the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s oversight programs in light of harsh criticism from the NTSB last fall and a critical GAO report released this week. We also discussed the pending Congressional reauthorization of surface transportation safety programs – which may be a vehicle to implement the NTSB’s recommendations.

At the NTSB we do not accept that thousands must die, and tens of thousands must be injured in truck-related crashes each year. Yet to reverse trend, accountability in all sectors of the industry must go beyond the status quo. The lives of America’s truckers – and all of the rest of us on the roadways – depend on it.

Vehicle Technology of Tomorrow

By Jennifer Morrison

NTSB Vehicle Factors Engineer Jennifer Morrison at the Washington Auto Show
NTSB Vehicle Factors Engineer Jennifer Morrison at the Washington Auto Show

As an accident investigator for the NTSB, I find that walking the floor of the 2014 Washington Auto Show provides a much nicer environment for photographing vehicles than my more usual setting, on the scene of major highway crash investigations.  Generally speaking, vehicles are much easier to photograph when they are intact and in one piece.  The cars, trucks, and SUV’s on display at the Washington Auto Show were more than simply intact; they were in pristine condition and begging to have their images captured.

Strolling among the new vehicles at the show, I  began to recognize just how far many of these vehicles have come in terms of safety over the past few years.  With more and more competition between manufacturers and demand from the public, advanced safety systems are not only emerging, they are taking main stage.  When attending the show in 2010 I recall searching for cars and trucks that offered  collision warning, lane departure, or blind spot monitoring systems – and found only two.  But today, nearly every manufacturer was exhibiting some sort of collision avoidance system.  They come by many names: Chevrolet’s Forward Collision Alert, Subaru’s EyeSight, Mercedes-Benz’s Pre-Safe and Attention Assist, and Volvo’s IntelliSafe, just to name a few.  And today, these systems can not only warn a driver about a dangerous situation, they can do something about it.  These increasingly intelligent systems, for which the NTSB has been advocating  since the mid-1990’s, can now apply the vehicle’s brakes or re-center the vehicle in the lane to avoid a collision.

This year’s show continues the industry’s march toward so-called “autonomous” vehicles.  Some might find the idea of such vehicle intervention concerning.  That’s understandable; as an accident-investigation agency, we at the NTSB understand all too well that things can and do go horribly wrong.  Luckily, we have had an inside view of how these advanced safety systems have been developed long before the term “autonomous” was coined.  The term “autonomous”, although it sounds scary, can mean many things.  At its most basic, it can mean a  vehicle that limits loss of traction situations, a technology already in place and required for all passenger vehicles manufactured after 2012, known as electronic stability control (or ESC).  Taking the same idea further could mean that a  vehicle limits collision situations, like with the collision avoidance systems on display at the auto show, or it could mean that it limits human driving altogether.

So while advocating for collision avoidance systems, as the NTSB has done in such cases as the 2009 10-fatal multi-vehicle crash in Miami, Oklahoma and the 2010 fatal school bus accident in Gray Summit, Missouri, we are advocating for some level of autonomous vehicles.  Autonomous, however, does not necessarily mean driverless.  With the increased attention and scrutiny of autonomous vehicles, auto manufacturers will weigh the pros and cons and deliver vehicles that the public will continue to drive for quite some time.  The introduction of ESC systems on vehicles has saved thousands of lives, and now collision avoidance systems are available options even on low-to-moderately priced vehicles, with the potential to save many more lives in the years ahead.  That’s a good thing because these technologies should be standard at all car levels; safety shouldn’t be a luxury.  We all need to remember that more than 30,000 lives area lost each year on our nation’s highways, and we all have vulnerable moments behind the wheel.  If we want to address these facts, getting more comfortable with the term “autonomous” requires at least some consideration.

Jennifer Morrison is a Vehicle Factors Engineer in NTSB’s Office of Highway Safety.