Protect Your Business, By Protecting Your Employees

By Robert L. Sumwalt

MWL 2015 - Disconnect from Deadly DistractionsAs we approach the end of Distracted Driving Awareness Month, we recognize that today, April 28th, is World Day for Safety and Health at Work. This date provides us an opportunity to focus on the unique challenges of the phenomenon of distracted driving in the workplace. As we heard at last month’s NTSB Disconnect from Deadly Distractions Roundtable, the growing threat of on-the-job distracted driving has created a legal minefield for unsuspecting, and unprepared, employers.

Sound far-fetched? Think again. Back in 2002, a major investment banking firm was sued by the estate of a motorcyclist who was struck and killed by a firm employee using his cell phone behind the wheel. Although the accident occurred on a Saturday night – not during work hours – and the employee was using his own cell phone in his own car, he had been cold-calling clients of the firm when he struck the motorcyclist. In another case, a driver was seriously injured when a Georgia construction company worker tried to check voicemail on a hands-free, dash-mounted cell phone and caused an accident. The construction company settled the case for $4.75 million. Even more recently, in 2012, a Texas jury awarded $24 million to a woman whose car was struck by a soft drink delivery driver using her cell phone at time of the accident.

Employers – especially small business owners – can be one distracted accident away from potential financial ruin. How can employers protect themselves, and their employees? They can protect both by implementing and reinforcing policies that ban personal electronic device (PED) usage behind the wheel while on company business.

PED_Policy_posterAt the NTSB, we’re walking that particular walk. Since 2009, we have had an agency-wide policy to prohibit employee use of PEDs while on NTSB business. Even when driving in our own vehicles, on our own time, we cannot use agency-issued PEDs behind the wheel. It was a difficult transition for many, but the result has been to set an example for safety we hope employers across the nation will emulate.

Organizations like the National Safety Council (NSC) have already made it easier for companies to follow our example. In addition to its white paper examining potential employer liability for distracted driving by employees, the NSC has developed a cell phone policy kit ready-made to empower businesses to implement safer PED use policies.

At its core, the movement behind Distracted Driving Awareness Month is intended not only to raise awareness about the dangers posed by divided attention behind the wheel, but also to prompt action to stop it. Through the creation of sound cell phone use policies, employers are uniquely situated to effect this kind of real and immediate change in employee behavior – change that can carry over into employees’ personal lives, as well. Once employees are freed from the nagging demands on their attention by cell phones in their company cars, they may very well choose to put down their PEDs in their own vehicles.

Working to end distracted driving on behalf of your employees protects your workforce, protects the traveling public, and protects your bottom line. It just makes sense. Disconnect from deadly distractions.

Safety in Public Transportation by Rail

By Georgetta Gregory

If you are one of the millions of Americans who ride public transportation to and from work or for recreational purposes you expect and deserve the safest trip possible.

NTSB Chief, Railroad Division Georgetta Gregory at BNSF facility The good news is, you’re already safer on mass transit than you would be in a motor vehicle. But an accident in mass transportation has the potential to claim many lives, and it can be made safer, as we have learned through NTSB investigations.

After 30 years in the railroad industry, I began working with rail fixed guide way systems – or rail transit – safety oversight, and public transportation systems. I found system safety principles to be the foundation on which rail transit systems build safe transportation.

These principles include safety certification of new projects and system safety program plans to outline how each individual system executes its safety program. The industry is now moving towards safety management systems to further enhance safety and hazard management.

The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) required through regulation found at 49 Code of Federal Regulation Part 659 that each state designate an agency responsible for state safety oversight of rail transit systems that receive federal funding.

While the system safety approach is effective in ensuring solid safety principles, it can be improved upon. By contrast, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) takes a much more prescriptive approach at the federal level.

In 2012, the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP21,) granted the FTA authority to set minimum safety standards, and requires defined safety management at the national and individual system level. That gives the FTA authority to make sure that safety standards on your commute are as high as for a commute in another system in another state.

Congress took this action to improve safety culture after a catastrophic accident in 2009 that killed nine, in which the NTSB investigation identified a lack of safety culture leading to deterioration in infrastructure, maintenance, and operational controls.

Last week, I got to visit to a few companies in the rail industry that are hard at work to develop and maintain their safety cultures. Company leaders frequently echoed that safety is the number-one priority.

At BNSF Railway, the NTSB team trip focused on our advocacy for safer tank cars and enhanced railroad safety and risk management. One concern is that commuter rail trains share track with freight trains, including crude oil unit trains and other hazardous materials.

Having various speeds on the same tracks poses one difficulty, requiring redundant safety steps to keep the trains on track. One interesting BNSF innovation is the use of motor vehicle “DriveCams” to monitor highway vehicle and hi-rail drivers and operators, keeping them accountable against dangers such as distractions.

Another approach our team found interesting is BNSF’s concept of “Approaching Others About Safety.” This approach blends well with accountability and “being our brother’s and sister’s keeper.” A robust safety culture demands that all employees work together to reduce injuries and fatalities – not only to each other, but to employees themselves.

New laws and policies are only the beginning, and more needs to be done. There is no “end of the line” in safety, only the next station. That’s why last year the NTSB placed rail mass transit on our Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements, and why we addressed it again in our 2015 Most Wanted list, under Make Mass Transit Safer.

Georgetta Gregory is the Chief, Railroad Division in the Office Rail, Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Investigations

Cognitive Distraction and the Hands-Free Device “Myth”

By Robert Sumwalt

Many of us believe we can talk on a hands-free phone and remain engaged in the driving task. The science shows, however, that we can’t “multitask” and drive safely.

Chatting on the phone is a form of cognitive distraction. When your mind is not focused on driving, but is focused on another task, such as talking, you have succumbed to the real problem of cognitive distraction. This kind of distraction can prove catastrophic, as many of the accidents we have investigated show.

Scene of Bridge Collapse, Mt. Vernon, WA
Cognitive distraction was a contributing factor in this accident, which caused a highway bridge collapse in WA state.

We saw such a crash in Mt. Vernon, Washington, when a bridge collapsed after the escort vehicle failed to warn the following truck-tractor of an impending clearance issue. The truck-tractor struck the steel beam trusses, sending the bridge and several vehicles into the Skagit River below. The driver of the escort vehicle had been using a hands-free cell phone, but was engaged in a conversation with her husband when the accident happened. Cognitive distraction was a contributing factor in this accident.

During our “Disconnect from Deadly Distraction” roundtable in March, this topic of cognitive distraction and “multitasking” produced some very thought-provoking dialogue.

“The bottom line is that eyes do not equal minds. You can be looking at one thing and thinking about something entirely different,” Dr. Stephen Casner of NASA’s Ames Research Center told the roundtable.

Dr. Charlie Klauer, a researcher at Virginia Tech University, said cognitive distraction “is real, it exists.” She explained that, in their naturalistic research and testing, “We see the performance detriments.”

This idea that, if we aren’t holding the phone in our hands, we are focused on driving is part of what I would call the “myth” of the hands-free device. Driving hands-free does not mean you are not distracted. Indeed, you still very much are.

“Catching up with mom on the phone is not part of the driving task,” David Teater, senior director at the National Safety Council, reminded us during the roundtable discussions.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has done research indicating that, even when drivers put down the cell phone, they don’t necessarily put their attention back on the road. “The finding was that, half the time we are doing anything, we are actually thinking about something else,” Dr. Adrian Lund, president of IIHS, said.

These are the facts from some of the greatest minds on this issue. Our roundtable has shown us that we still have a long way to go in understanding the unique features of the brain and its role in cell phone use and distracted driving.

Operating a vehicle in any mode of transportation is serious business. Doesn’t it deserve your undivided attention? Please, disconnect from your cell phone conversations, which can be a deadly distraction.

Rail Tank Car Safety Improvements, Up Close and Personal

By Christopher A. Hart

Chairman Christopher Hart touring the Greenbrier rail tank car facility at the Hockley & Greens Port facilityThe North American energy boom has resulted in placing rail tank cars into service as ad-hoc pipelines; it’s the ad-hoc part that is troubling. Several recent high-profile derailments and hazmat releases have resulted in pressure to make transportation of flammable liquids by rail tank cars safer.

In January, the NTSB placed Improve Rail Tank Car Safety on our Most Wanted List of transportation safety improvements. We recently issued four urgent recommendations calling for an aggressive schedule of replacing or retrofitting the current rail car fleet with better thermal protection against heat from fires and installing appropriately sized  pressure relief devices. And earlier this week, I testified before Congress on the issue of rail safety, including rail tank car safety.

Today, a team of NTSB investigators and I visited The Greenbrier Companies, where they manufacture, repair, and refurbish rail tank cars. They gave us a first-hand look at the intricacies of making and servicing rail tank cars at the Hockley & Greens Port facility.

What I learned today only underscored my confidence that the necessary retrofits can be completed in much less than the ten years that has been proposed by some in the industry. We saw how the existing tank car fleet can be retrofitted with puncture resistance and thermal protection systems, and valve protection to significantly reduce the possibility of releases in accidents of highly flammable materials such as crude oil and ethanol. We also saw significantly improved tank cars that exceed current federal and industry standards for puncture resistance and thermal protection. Retrofitting the fleet can be done in less than a decade.

We know that preventing tragedies will require a systems approach that keeps trains from derailing, especially in sensitive areas, preserves tank car integrity if a derailment occurs, and prepares our emergency responders for such events.

Our visit has given us deeper insight about how the industry is preparing to meet the crashworthiness challenge. What I learned today gave me a better understanding of how this work can be done safely and quickly.

NTSB Employees Volunteer to Make a Difference

By Christopher A. Hart

2015 National Volunteer Week logoThis week, we celebrate National Volunteer Week, and recognize the great work done by many on behalf of their neighbors and fellow citizens.

Here at the NTSB, I get to see how passionately our staff dedicates their time at work to support the agency’s mission of saving lives, by learning the lessons from accidents and recommending ways to prevent recurrences. But I am even more excited to see the incredible efforts that so many of our staff undertakes, when they are not at work, on behalf of so many others.

From our houses of worship, to various community service projects in the communities in which we live, NTSB staff live and practice the values of volunteerism. I hear countless stories from so many about the work they do on behalf of their children, schools, and activities. From leading scout troops, to mentoring, to coaching, NTSB staff is just as busy outside of the office as they are inside.

As a science and technology based agency, a number of staff have been participating in various science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) programs. And that, sharing and helping to educate, doesn’t stop at the classroom.   A number of our staff is engaged in adult education, including teaching English as a second language. And the spirit of volunteerism extends to the sick, elderly and at-risk community.

On top of all of that, our staff donates generously to the Combine Federal Campaign. As we’ve seen through the many CFC programs and activities that the different offices support during the annual campaign, there is no shortage to the extensive volunteerism that exists among our NTSB family.

Winston Churchill said that “we make a living by what we do, but we make a life by what we give.” So, I extend a special thank you to the NTSB staff that I have the honor of working with and also to the countless others who give of their time and talents to improve the lives of families, friends, neighbors and fellow citizens across the nation.