Keeping the Focus on Distracted Driving

By Nicholas Worrell

Fall is here. Shorter days and a new year are swiftly approaching. Distracted Driving Awareness Month, Global Youth Traffic Safety Week, and the long-daylight driving days of summer have come and gone. It seems a good time to ask what has the safety community achieved? Have we made any progress in eliminating distracted driving?

According to NHTSA “distracted driving is a dangerous epidemic on America’s roadways. In 2012, alone, 3,328 were killed in distracted driving crashes.”

With those facts in mind, we advocate for tougher laws, strict enforcement, and more education while looking warily at the growing challenges. Google has developed “Google Glass,” putting potentially distracting images and content right in front of our eyes. Apple recently launched its new iPhone 6 and 6 Plus. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, and Snapshot all tempt users to make constant updates. And, automobile manufacturers are developing even more in-vehicle devices that can take the drivers attention away from the driving task.

Member Sumwalt using a safe driving simulator
Member Robert Sumwalt took the “Drive Smart Virginia” safe driving simulator for a test drive during his visit to the 2nd Annual Virginia Distracted Driving Summit.

We in the traffic safety community know that no call, no text, no update is ever worth a human life. So the question remains, how do we apply effective countermeasures against distracted driving?

Step one is to stay engaged in the fight. Earlier this month, I attended the Governors Highway Safety Association annual meeting. Several hundred of the nation’s top highway safety and law enforcement officials gathered in Grand Rapids to share, learn, and discuss the full spectrum of highway safety topics. We heard the grueling statistics about distracted driving, and yes, 44 states as well as the District of Columbia have now implemented all-driver texting bans. Two states, however, have yet to implement any measures to restrict drivers from using a personal electronic device in any shape or form.

At the GHSA meeting, we heard from award-winning reporter Matt Richtel, who discussed excerpts from his book “A Deadly Wandering.” He outlined the tragic distracted-driving crash involving Reggie Shaw. Mr. Richtel wanted us all to understand that anyone can be Reggie; anyone can be victims in a distracted driving crash. So that’s why we meet, to learn and then preach the message that highway crashes are not accidents.

A week later, I participated in DRIVE SMART Virginia’s  2nd Annual Virginia Distracted Driving Summit in Richmond where hundreds of industry leaders, scientists, educators, and law enforcement officials came together to share ideas, gather information, learn about best practices and forge solutions for Virginia and the nation. We heard an inspiring keynote address from NTSB Member Robert Sumwalt, who urged attendees to look beyond the concerns of just texting while driving or the use of handheld devices versus hands free, but to take action on all facets of distracted driving. He encouraged the audience to take the appropriate steps to help implement the NTSB’s recommendation calling for a ban on ALL portable electronic devices while driving.

Most touching was seeing the courage of the families of victims. Jennifer Smith lost her mother and is now taking action through Joel Feldman lost his daughter in a distracted driving-related accident and is active through his foundation

These are examples of the steady and sure steps to reduce the injuries and deaths caused by distracted driving, but we will get there. That’s why we at the NTSB are staying engaged.

These events in Michigan and Virginia recharged my advocacy batteries. I took that energy to more than 600 young people at Maryland’s Notre Dame Prep School in Towson. I wasn’t there to give a list of statistics, but to share with them that this growing epidemic is destroying young lives like theirs, disrupting families, and leaving friends with lifelong scars. I said distracted driving is a bad habit that must be stopped and that changing the culture starts with them.


It was the perfect opportunity to let the youth know that groups like the NTSB, GHSA, Drive SMART Virginia, and the families of victims are fighting to end distracted driving. However, we need them to join in the fight; we cannot do it alone. It will require young people to focus on the driving task, engage in peer-to-peer safety activities and school programs, and to speak up if they see someone driving distracted, even if it’s their parents.

The truth is we can attend conferences, meetings, write blogs and issue statements, but we all know that actions speak louder than words. Eliminating distracted driving and distraction in transportation is not a domestic, community or neighborhood problem; it’s a global problem that will require a global response. The battle must be steady and continuous and requires all of us to stay engaged.

Nicholas Worrell is a Safety Advocate in the NTSB Office of Communications.

Not One More

By Danielle Roeber

If I could travel back in time to visit myself during my senior year at James Madison University, I suspect that senior would never have imagined a career in transportation safety. I suspect she would not have imagined working for over a decade at the National Transportation Safety Board, devoting great attention to advocating for measures to prevent impaired driving. In that time, I have contributed to two of the agency’s impaired driving reports – the first, Actions to Reduce Fatalities, Injuries, and Crashes involving the Hard Core Drinking Driver, as a Presidential Management Intern (now Presidential Management Fellow), and the more recent, Reaching Zero: Actions to Eliminate Alcohol-Impaired Driving, in 2013. I have testified, given speeches, and drafted letters and other media content to push for NTSB recommendations from those reports. I have also met families of victims and been affected by their stories. Like many advocates, however, my passion was not necessarily personal. I had not actually known a family member of an impaired driving victim before the crash occurred. All that changed on March 20th.

In my senior year, through marching band, I met a freshman named Charlie. We were in the same section. Proving that it is a small world, many years later, I ended up working with Charlie’s wife. When Charlie and his wife had a little girl, I remember smiling at the thought of what Charlie would tell his daughter about freshman boys on the day he dropped her off for her first year of college. On March 20th, Charlie’s dad died in a multi-vehicle crash; the driver of one of the other vehicles has been charged with driving while intoxicated and death by auto.

The road of life can make some crazy turns. What are the odds that I would meet Charlie at JMU? What are the odds that I would read a newsletter, discover another JMU graduate at my agency, and that she would be married to Charlie? What are the odds that I would spend much of my professional career on an issue that would so directly affect Charlie’s life? There is no silver bullet to eliminating impaired driving, and no one person can tackle this problem by him or herself. But it bothers me greatly that in over 10 years of working on this problem, we continue to lose lives, about 10,000 lives each year. And I’m a little angry that despite my best efforts, Charlie and his family have joined a group to which no person should belong.

With last year’s NTSB report, some questioned whether “reaching zero” is practical. Can we truly “eliminate” impaired driving? I think yes. It will take a comprehensive effort. But even more, it demands full commitment, commitment to the phrase “not one more.” Not one more drink before driving home. Not one more impaired driving crash. Not one more preventable death.

Danielle Roeber is the Safety Advocacy Division Chief in NTSB’s Office of Communications

After 25,000 flight hours and 49 years in aviation, a good friend retires.

By Robert Sumwalt

Captain Bill Weeks is presented with a retirement gift from Captain Bruce Galleron
Captain Bill Weeks is presented with a retirement gift from Captain Bruce Galleron, American Airlines/US Airways director of flight for Charlotte crew base, following Captain Weeks’ last flight as an airline captain.

7:18 Friday evening, US Airways flight 1782, an Airbus A321, sailed 35,000 feet over America’s heartland at 610 mph. At the controls of the San Francisco to Charlotte flight was a 34 ½ year airline veteran, Captain Bill Weeks. Due to reaching mandatory airline pilot retirement age, Captain Weeks’ landing in Charlotte would be his last as an airline pilot.

Bill started flying at 16. After college he flew for the USAF for 6 years, followed by a distinguished airline career, where — in addition to his piloting duties — he served as instructor, check airman, air safety investigator, and air safety representative for the Air Line Pilots Association.

Bill was a mentor and role model for many during his 25,000 hours of flight time and 49 years as a pilot. One of those who was deeply influenced by his professionalism was me. In 1983, he and I were selected to be part of a small team to travel to The Netherlands to be trained on an airplane that our airline would be soon be placing into service. For six weeks, Bill and I grilled each other on various aircraft systems, limitations, and procedures so that when the final check flight came, our qualifications would be unquestioned.

My learning experience didn’t stop there, however. From that point forward, when faced with tough decisions as a new captain and years afterward, I would often ask myself, “What would Bill do?” Our paths continued to cross, as we were both detailed to work in the airline’s safety department.

I recently asked Bill to reflect back on his vast experience and provide three tips that he’d like share.

1) “When things get time-compressed, slow down.” Two of the most important controls in the cockpit are the parking brake and the microphone. When on the ground, the pilot can reduce the tempo by setting the parking brake and not releasing it until things are at a more comfortable pace. Likewise, use the microphone to request delaying vectors or a holding pattern. As the saying goes, “take time to make time.” When Bill and I did safety work together, we would review events where rushing was a factor. One of Bill’s mantras was, “Don’t let ATC fly your aircraft.”

2) “If you can avoid continuing an unstabilized approach or doing a high speed rejected takeoff, you’ll probably have a long career.” To further Bill’s point, this summer the NTSB completed two air carrier accident investigations where, if the crew had discontinued an unstabilized approach, the accident could have been prevented.

3) “Don’t take off or land when convective weather is on or near the field.” Bill relayed a recent flight where a thunderstorm was over the airport. ATC asked each flight in the queue awaiting take off if they were able to depart, and with the exception of one, each flight declined. Fifteen minutes later, the storm had passed over the airport and skies along the departure corridor were completely clear. His point is certainly valid: When the weather is questionable, it’s not worth the risk of trying to takeoff or land. Allow the weather to move through before attempting to go.

Good advice from someone who is a professional in every way. Wishing Bill and his family Godspeed.

The Lives Seat Belts Might Have Saved

By Stephanie Shaw

Seat belt posterAccording to research, nationwide, about 86 percent of us use our seat belts. A use rate that hasn’t really changed much over the last decade. And to most, that probably seems pretty good . . . until you realize that it means 14 percent still choose not to buckle up!

Let’s look at this a little closer.

The national belt use rate only reflects those people sitting in the front seat observed using a belt between 7am and 6pm. And it doesn’t show how the use rate differs from state to state. In states with a primary seat belt law, average belt use for front seat occupants is 90 percent; in states with a secondary law, it’s only 78 percent. It also doesn’t reflect the fact that seat belt use by back seat passengers is startlingly low.

In 2012, nearly 21,667 people died in motor vehicle crashes; more than 50 percent of them were not buckled up—lives the seat belt might have saved!

When used, lap/shoulder seat belts reduce the risk of fatal injury to front-seat passenger car occupants by 45 percent. It’s estimated that seat belts saved an estimated 12,174 lives in 2012.

Another startling fact not reflected in that 86 percent, the number of children not buckled up. Car crashes are a leading cause of death to children in the U.S. Every day, an average of 3 children age 14 and younger are killed and nearly 500 more are injured in motor vehicle crashes.

In 2012, there were 4,888 passenger vehicle occupants 14 and younger involved in fatal crashes. Among the children killed in those crashes, 40 percent were unrestrained.

When used, research shows that child safety seats reduce the risk of fatal injury by 71 percent for infants (younger than 1 year old) and by 54 percent for toddlers (1 to 4 years old) in passenger cars. Among children under age 5, an estimated 284 lives were saved in 2012 by the use of child safety seats and seat belts; 265 as a result of the use of child safety seats and 18 with the use of adult seat belts.

Occupant restraints such as child safety seats and seat belts save lives! If all passenger vehicle occupants age 5 and older had worn seat belts in 2012, more than 3,000 additional lives could have been saved. And, if all children under age 5 had used a child safety seat, an additional 59 lives could have been saved!

So, on every trip, make sure you and everyone in your car buckle up every time. Don’t let your life or the life of someone you love be the one the seat belt might have saved!

The Crash of Flight 427, 20 Years later…

By Christopher A Hart

Photo Credit September 8, 1994, USAir flight 427, a Boeing 737‑300 crashed while maneuvering to land at Pittsburgh International Airport. The airplane was destroyed and 132 people perished. On this day, the 20th anniversary of this tragedy, our thoughts are with the families of the victims.

After a thorough investigation, the NTSB determined that USAir flight 427 lost control because of issues with the rudder that led to the rudder moving in a direction opposite to that commanded by the pilots. This large rudder movement contrary to what the pilots wanted put the airplane into an unusual attitude, and the pilot’s training had not prepared them for how to recover control of the airplane before it hit the ground at high speed. Although the NTSB issued a number of recommendations to address the issues associated with rudder’s design, this wasn’t the first, or last, time that the NTSB discovered difficulties with pilots’ ability to recover from unusual attitudes.

  • On March 31, 1991, United Airlines flight 585, another Boeing 737, crashed while maneuvering to land at Colorado Springs Airport when it experienced the same type of rudder upset as US Air flight 427.
  • On June 9, 1996, Eastwinds Airlines flight 517, also a Boeing 737, experienced an upset on approach to Richmond Airport, which started with the same type of uncommanded rudder movement. In this case, however, the pilot was able to safely recover control before the airplane crashed.
  • On November 2001, American Airlines flight 587, an Airbus 300-600, crashed while taking off from JFK Airport when the tail ripped off during to inappropriate pilot inputs and an unreasonably hypersensitive rudder control system. The flying pilot had recently completed unusual attitude training that had taught inappropriate techniques for recovery.
  • On June 4, 2007, a Cessna Citation 550, chartered by the University of Michigan hospital to carry a medical team involved in a transplant operation, impacted Lake Michigan shortly after departure from General Mitchell International Airport, Milwaukee, Wisconsin when the pilots mismanaged an abnormal flight control situation.

From this body of accident investigations, the NTSB found that recovering from these situations is possible, but only if the pilots immediately recognize the situation and apply appropriate flight control inputs. As a result, even before concluding our investigation of the US Air flight 427 accident, the NTSB asked the FAA to require additional flight crew training that would prepare pilots to handle similar emergencies.

In November 2013, the FAA published a final rule significantly upgrading training requirements for airline pilots. The provisions require initial and recurrent flight simulator training for pilots on escape maneuvers from unusual attitudes. It also gives FAA inspectors the authority to force airlines to change their training programs when an FAA inspector believes the program is promoting undesirable piloting techniques (as was the case in the American Airlines flight 587 accident). Although it took 18 years, and work remains to establish flight simulator specifications that can provide this training, these new requirements are a significant improvement to the safety of airline operations.

The pain of the loss of Flight 427 on September 8, 1994 remains in the hearts and minds of the families affected by this disaster. The outcome, however, has made air travel safer for millions of passengers.