Whoever saves one life . . .

By Danielle Roeber

To-do list: improve transportation safetyThere’s a scene in the last season of the TV series, “The West Wing” when the outgoing President’s Chief of Staff is offered $10 billion to “attack” a single problem that would have a substantive impact. She names highways, explaining that 9 out of 10 African aid projects fail because the people and resources can’t get to the people in need. The philanthropist’s initial reaction – less than excited. Transportation, particularly transportation safety, simply isn’t a sexy issue; “no one will ever raise money for it.”

That’s unfortunate. Before there was an information super highway, there was the real highway. And planes, trains, ships – all of which we still use today to visit loved ones, connect with business partners, and get away from it all on vacations. When that transportation system breaks down in a plane accident, train collision, or highway crash, it can be disruptive to the economy and society. It can make people cautious. Anxiety about flying goes up immediately after a plane crash. Here in DC, people were a little more nervous getting on the Metro after the 2009 collision outside Fort Totten station. But it doesn’t take very long for most people to forget these events and return to their normal activities. Why? Because they accept that the U.S. transportation system is generally safe.

Victims and families don’t forget, though. And neither do transportation safety professionals. We understand that highway crashes are a leading cause of death, particularly for younger people. We know that many more people are killed or injured in private plane crashes than in the dramatic commercial airline crashes that catch the attention of the nightly news. We can tell you just how things can go horribly wrong in an instant, shattering lives and necessitating critical, sometimes costly, changes. And unlike most of the population, we know what it takes to make the transportation system safe:

  • Placing safety at the top of the transportation operations priority list;
  • Dedicating time, energy, and resources to education, regulation, and enforcement;
  • Investing in innovation and technology that can aid, and sometimes correct for, human behavior;
  • Giving transportation safety the public, political, and policy attention that it deserves.

When I finished school more than 16 years ago, I sought a Federal government position. I wanted to serve my country, make a difference. For the last 13 years, I’ve done that by working at the National Transportation Safety Board. No, I didn’t seek a transportation safety career when I graduated; as The West Wing points out, transportation didn’t sound like an exciting career. I guess transportation safety chose me. It’s been a quiet, behind-the-scenes kind of service. And neither I nor my colleagues and other transportation safety professionals will ever know who didn’t crash, get injured, or die because of the work we’ve done. In some ways, this is one of the noblest professions. We work hard to “attack” the single problem of transportation safety, where we’re needed, whether or not anyone knows about it. We do so because we know that each life saved is worth it.

Today is my last day with the NTSB but transportation safety remains a part of me, and I will continue to work in this field. My vantage point may change, but not my admiration for the NTSB nor my commitment to transportation safety.

Danielle Roeber served as the Chief of NTSB’s Safety Advocacy Division.

What does transportation have to do with your health? . . . Everything!

By Natalie Draisin

Transportation is Public Healt graphic

Often, I get some confused looks when I tell people I’m doing an internship at the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) as part of my joint public health and business degrees at Johns Hopkins University. “What does transportation have to do with public health?” they ask.

Actually, transportation has a whole lot to do with public health. How did you get to work or school today? If you walked, drove, cycled, or took a bus, you were in danger of a life-changing incident. You could’ve been struck by another vehicle. Imagine the hospital bills, the lost productivity, and the debilitating consequences. Flown on a plane recently? Did your palms sweat a little when the turbulence started? You probably arrived at your destination safely, nonetheless. That’s because your pilot was well trained, following safety protocols and mitigating the inclement weather that in another situation, could have brought the plane down.

If you believe that you have the right to cross the street without worrying about being hit, injured, or killed by a drunk driver, or you believe that you have the right to board a plane, take off, and land safely – then you believe in transportation safety, and you believe in public health.

The two are integrally linked – think about the effects of a transportation incident on our public’s health. When a bus carrying an entire high school band crashes, it has a ripple effect, impacting the rest of the transportation system, the health system, and of course, the victims’ families. Miles of bumper-to-bumper traffic will follow, which could lead to further crashes, along with lost productivity when you, and everyone else caught in traffic, are late to work. Hospitals nearby will receive an influx of patients. In major incidents, it’s often more than one hospital can handle. Victims may not be able to function at the same level thereafter, and their families might be permanently scarred, in desperate need of mental health services.

When a pipeline bursts (pipelines are a mode of transportation, as they bring something from one place to another), it has economic, environmental and health repercussions. Remember the 2010 pipeline rupture and fire in San Bruno, California? More than 4 years later, that community is still rebuilding homes and infrastructure; families are still trying to pick up the pieces. Transportation incidents don’t occur in a bubble, they affect society at large, which inherently includes, of course, the public’s health.

What is it about public health that uniquely positions the field to address transportation, and particularly traffic, safety? Public health is about protecting and improving the health and safety of the population. Public health figures out what’s hurting and killing people, and then uses evidence-based initiatives to fix it. We call that preventing morbidity and mortality. And, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, motor vehicle crashes are a leading cause of injury in our country – 2,362,000 injured and 33,561 killed in 2012. The CDC estimates that Americans spend over one million days in the hospital each year from crash related injuries. In 2012, that translated into $18 billion in lifetime medical costs, and $33 billion lost in lifetime work, such as lost wages or benefits. That’s a lot of lives changed, expenses incurred, and productivity lost.

Though it may not seem like it, transportation incidents have a lot of characteristics similar to a disease, which public health analyzes through the lens of a host, agent, and the environment. In a car crash, the host could be the young driver; the agent, the impact of the car hitting another car; and the environment, the slippery roads at night. Like a disease, public health can intervene in a number of ways to reduce the occurrence of crashes – for example, implementing graduated driver’s licenses so youth can gain more experience before having full driving privileges, incorporating airbags and seat belts into cars to reduce the impact of a crash, or equipping roads with reflectors and guard rails to make it easier to see at night and in the rain, and harder to veer into oncoming traffic. Also like a disease, the incidence of these crashes can be tracked, so we can see if our interventions are working and revise them when they’re not.

The government recognizes that it has a responsibility to keep the public safe from incidents while using our transportation system, and that’s why they’ve created organizations like the NTSB. It’s not a public health agency, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t address public health issues. And the good news is that through the help of agencies like the NTSB, we can work towards decreasing crash rates. The NTSB investigates accidents, determines probable cause, assists families, and then issues recommendations to federal agencies to prevent future accidents. This leads to life-saving changes.

At the NTSB, though, I didn’t sit at a desk and analyze crash data. I helped the NTSB address all elements of the public health triad – the host, the agent, and the environment. In the Safety Advocacy Division of the Office of Communications, I helped craft messages to internal and external stakeholders, to obtain support for our recommendations. Working with staff from the Office of Aviation Safety, I’ve drafted some of the web content for the NTSB’s Most Wanted List. I also wrote advocacy blogs about traffic safety, and tweets for forums. Building on my prior drunk driving prevention work, I’ve researched state laws addressing ignition interlocks (breathalyzers on cars to prevent drunk driving), and Automatic License Revocation. Some of these projects I’ve dreamed of working on for years, since I first became involved in traffic safety after the tragic death of a friend in college who was hit and killed by a drunk driver.

Throughout my internship, I’ve picked up invaluable skills. I’m fortunate to work for an outstanding group who were equally committed to developing my skills, providing constructive feedback, while at the same time, finding the synergy between their important safety work and mine. They are equally as talented and dedicated, and they’ve given me the opportunity to work with them on a variety of topics and projects. This team is representative of many of NTSB’s employees, some of the smartest, most driven people I’ve encountered. So, what does traffic safety have to do with public health? Everything.

Natalie Draisin was a graduate student intern in the Safety Advocacy Division.

School Bus Safety Has Come a Long Way

by Stephanie Shaw

School Buses

Twenty five years ago, a crash occurred in Alton, Texas, that changed school bus safety forever. At 7:34 a.m., on September 21, 1989, a school bus carrying 81 students to school collided with a truck operated by the Valley Coca-Cola Bottling Company. After the collision, the school bus continued traveling and dropped into an excavation pit partially filled with water; the bus was totally submerged in approximately 10 feet of water approximately 35 feet from the nearest shoreline. Twenty-one students died. The NTSB investigated this tragedy to examine what occurred and made recommendations to improve school bus safety.

This tragedy allowed the NTSB to shed light on serious school bus safety flaws. In Alton, the children needed to escape through the windows, as the standard exits were either overcrowded or not working. But even with passengers shifting to windows, which were not designed as emergency exits, the exit options were insufficient. Moreover, the children were unprepared for how to react during an emergency. And during the evacuation, children and rescuers struggled to keep exits open. The NTSB issued several recommendations designed to address these gaps, including evaluating the feasibility of making the windows larger, establishing a requirement that floor emergency exits are designed to remain open during emergencies, and developing a comprehensive school bus evacuation-resource guide. Amendments to applicable federal regulations, issued in November 1992, addressed school bus emergency exits and a comprehensive guide was developed by early 1994.

Twenty-five years later, school buses are the safest mode of transportation for getting children back and forth to school. Every day, nearly 500,000 yellow school buses transport about 26 million school children nationwide safely. This week, school districts around the county will observe School Bus Safety Week. A week dedicated to engaging parents, students, teachers, motorists and school bus operators, and many others to address the importance of school bus safety.

As we reflect on the Alton crash twenty-five years later and the 21 young lives lost, we recognize that because of that loss and the changes that were made to buses lives have been saved.

Even Passengers Have a Role in Safe Commuting

By Will Cusey

NTSB Government Affairs Specialist Will Cusey heads for the L’Enfant Escalator on his way into the office.
NTSB Government Affairs Specialist Will Cusey heads for the L’Enfant Escalator on his way into the office.

Although a metro rider isn’t exactly “driving,” the NTSB wanted to discuss other forms of transportation people use to get to and from work as part of our series highlighting Drive Safely Work Week. For me, going to work every day at the National Transportation Safety Board involves a trip on the DC metro rail system. This is true for many others in the DC area who combine to take 750,000 trips each day. Around the country, light and commuter rail passengers take roughly 900 million trips each year. The simple fact is that millions of Americans rely on mass rail transit to get them to and from work every day, and they expect these rail systems to deliver them safely.

But, recently, not everyone has made it to their destinations. Over the last several years, rail mass transit systems have been involved in several deadly crashes and collisions: from here in DC to New York to Boston to California. One of these incidents in particular left a profound, lasting impression with me.

It was June 22, 2009—a day that I will never forget. It started out like any other day: I hopped on the red line at Takoma and rode the metro into work. But, later that day the unthinkable happened. This transportation system that I had taken for granted—that I assumed was safe—caused the deaths of nine people. What made it hit so close to home was the realization that this deadly collision literally hit so close to home—happening just outside the Takoma metro stop. All I could think about was how I could have been on one of those trains that day.

This event completely transformed my view of rail safety. It taught me that investing in the regular maintenance, safety checks, and equipment upgrades of our rail mass transit systems is crucial to preventing tragedies such as the 2009 red line collision. It taught me that strengthening the culture of safety within the mass transit agencies is needed to ensure a safe and reliable future for these systems. And, it taught me that the NTSB has a large role to play in spurring both the mass transit agencies and the federal and state regulatory agencies to action.

Following the 2009 collision, I saw how NTSB drove the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, the Federal Railroad Administration, the Federal Transit Administration, and other regulatory entities, to improve DC’s aging metro rail system. Now, over five years later, it is evident that progress has been made—thanks in part to the work done by NTSB.

But, more work needs to be done to ensure the safety of every rail mass transit rider. That is why NTSB has made operational safety in rail mass transit a top priority in 2014 by putting the issue on its Most Wanted List. NTSB is constantly making new recommendations, holding public forums and hearings, and communicating with transit and regulatory agencies on how to make our country’s systems safer and more secure.

But, we can’t do it alone! Changing the safety culture within these agencies isn’t easy—we need your help. So, get involved! Follow us on Twitter @NTSB, like us on Facebook, check out our YouTube channel, or sign up for news updates. Retweet and share our content with your friends. And, don’t forget to tell us about your experiences. Tell us why rail safety matters to you and your family.

At the end of the day, people should be able to ride DC’s metro, or any other rail mass transit system, with the confidence that every night they will get home to their families safe and sound. It is our mission here at NTSB to help make that happen.

Will Cusey is a Government Affairs Specialist at NTSB

Safe Commuting Starts with You

By Joy White

NTSB Investigator Doug Brazy is covered head to toe in his safety gear before heading home on his motorcycle.
NTSB Investigator Doug Brazy is covered head to toe in his safety gear before heading home on his motorcycle.

As the NTSB continues to feature Drive Safely Work Week on our blog, today I want to discuss motorcycle safety. A number of NTSB employees ride their motorcycles both to work and recreationally. And both my brothers are avid riders. As any rider in the DC area will tell you, it’s no picnic doing so in traffic and can be downright dangerous at times.

Ten years ago, 3,714 riders died in a motorcycle crash; 42,884 people were killed on the highways. In 2012, the number of riders killed had risen to almost 5,000 while overall highway deaths had declined to 33,561. A number of factors can lead to crashes, injuries, and deaths, but many are preventable.

On September 25, Acting Chairman Christopher Hart and NTSB Director of Highway Safety Donald Karol presented at the 2014 National Association of State Motorcycle Safety Administrators Symposium, “Working Cooperatively to Implement Motorcycle Safety Countermeasures”. One point emphasized at this event was that more and more people are purchasing motorcycles without the proper training and not protecting themselves with the proper safety equipment. Even riders who have been on the road for some time are not refreshing their training to enhance their skills.

Motorcycles, by their nature, afford riders less protection than any other motor vehicle. Therefore, it is imperative that riders take steps to prevent crashes and strengthen occupant protection in the event of a crash. For example, a bike is no place to be impaired or distracted. And the number one way a rider can improve his or her chances of surviving a crash is to use an effective helmet. Drivers also have a role to play. When I’m on the road in my car, I’m literally my brothers’ keeper and have an obligation to perform at my best. Driving while distracted is a definite “no no” and will prevent you from seeing the rider in the lane next to you.

Because the NTSB cannot make changes or require them to be made, we depend on collaboration to improve transportation safety. That collaboration includes the individual – riders who take appropriate safety precautions and drivers being respectful by sharing the rode. In the end, safety starts at home. By adopting good habits on the bike and in the car, we can make the ride to work a safe one!

Joy White is an Information Specialist with NTSB