It’s As Simple As ‘Don’t Drink and Drive’

By Stephanie D. Shaw

Many of us grew up hearing from our parents, teachers, and television ads, “Don’t Drink and Drive” and “Drinking and Driving Don’t Mix.”

They were right: Alcohol impairment begins with the first drink. Yet, for some, that very simple message seems to have been lost. People want to know, “how much can I drink and drive?” The safe answer is, none. If you’ll be drinking, you need a designated driver, a cab, a ride-sharing service, or some other way home. Studies show that drinking and then getting behind the wheel is simply rolling the dice.

Earlier this month, when we released our 2016 Most Wanted List, there was a lot of media interest in how we discussed substance impairment in transportation.

There has been a lot of talk about the NTSB’s recommendation to lower the legal BAC limit from 0.08 to 0.05, a recommendation that we first made in our 2013 report, Reaching Zero: Actions to Eliminate Alcohol-Impaired Driving.

Many of the news stories following our Most Wanted List announcement have focused on how much a person can drink before getting behind the wheel. Many have reported that for an average-weight man of 180 pounds, two drinks could mean a 0.05 BAC and for an average-weight woman just one drink. While it’s important to know how many drinks may get you to a 0.05 or 0.08 BAC, what’s more vital to consider after a drink or two is what happens to your ability to operate a vehicle safely at those limits.

Chart of effects of BAC levels from .01 to .10In certain circumstances, alcohol degrades driving-related performance at levels as low a BAC of 0.01. In fact, by the time a driver reaches a BAC of 0.08 factors such as lane deviations, divided attention, vigilance, and reaction time are all affected.

Studies of crash risk associated with alcohol use have found that at a BAC of 0.05, there was a 38 percent higher crash risk than for drivers with a zero BAC. At 0.08, the current legal limit, the crash risk was more than two-and-a-half times as much, and at 0.10, the crash risk was nearly five times as high.

Changing the legal per se BAC limits from 0.08 to 0.05 or lower would lead to a meaningful reduction in crashes, injuries, and fatalities caused by alcohol-impaired driving.

But the change we really need is to recognize that while a BAC under 0.08 (or even .05) might keep you safe from a DUI charge, it does not make you safe to drive. The change to a lower BAC will help accomplish the ultimate goal – keeping yourself and others alive. But ultimately the focus should be on being safe on the road, not only safe from law enforcement.

Reaching ZeroIn the last 15 years alone, one-third of all motor vehicle crash deaths involved an alcohol-impaired driver. In 2014, 9,967 people were killed in a crash involving an alcohol impaired driver – one death every 53 minutes! That’s nearly 10,000 lives lost because as a society we accept that it’s okay to have a drink (or a few drinks) and get behind the wheel.

Your teachers, your parents, and those ads were right: “Don’t Drink and Drive.” Not “Don’t get stumbling drunk and drive,” or “only drink and drive if you’ve only had two or three glasses of wine with dinner.”

A change in the per se limit from .08 to .05 will save lives. Embracing the values our parents and teachers tried to instill, if it is ever universally accepted, will end alcohol impairment on our roads for good.

Stephanie Shaw is a Safety Advocate in the NTSB’s Office of Safety Recommendations and Communications

A Visit to the Auto Show – A Preview of Collision Avoidance Technologies

By Chairman Christopher A. Hart

Chairman Hart at the 2016 Washington Auto ShowLast week, I had the opportunity to meet with 13 automakers at the Washington Auto Show in Washington, DC, to learn about some of the new safety features offered in their 2016 and subsequent models. I was impressed by their level of commitment to building safer cars.

Each automaker displayed several technologies aimed at helping drivers avoid or mitigate the impact of crashes. Some systems warned the driver of a potential frontal crash or of the possibility of hitting a pedestrian, and others not only warned of an imminent collision but also applied the brakes, assisting in both collision prevention and reducing damage and injury sustained from collisions. Several vehicles offered post-collision braking, a technology that helps to prevent a vehicle that is struck from behind from striking the vehicle in front of it or from being pushed into an intersection.

I was very interested to hear about these technologies because “Promote Availability of Collision Avoidance Technologies” is one of the 10 issues on our 2016 Most Wanted List of critical transportation safety improvements. Just as seat belts are standard equipment, not optional, we are pushing for all passenger and commercial vehicles to have – as standard equipment – collision avoidance technologies, such as lane departure warning, collision warning, autonomous emergency braking, and advanced lighting.

Chairman Hart and NTSB staff at the 2016 Washington Auto ShowAs automakers, to their credit, are working to bring down the price of these safety features, they should also be looking to make them standard on all models. Most automakers now offer these types of technologies as optional features, but consumers shouldn’t have to ask for these safety technologies and then pay for them as part of add-on trim packages.

Other technologies showcased at the auto show addressed other safety issues that are on our 2016 Most Wanted List, such as distraction, fatigue, and occupant protection. One available fatigue-management technology can detect excessive carbon dioxide that can contribute to driver fatigue. Side air bags are being enhanced in order to push a person toward the center of the car, providing better protection from the forces of a side impact. At least one manufacturer offered a rear-seat reminder to notify a driver of something left in the back seat, such as a child in a car seat. Pedal misapplication, which has been implicated in several crashes, is also receiving increased attention with new technologies.

To significantly reduce fatalities and injuries on U.S. roads each yearmost of which are the result of driver errordriver-assist technologies such as collision avoidance systems must be included now in all new vehicles, including commercial vehicles.

Without a doubt, automakers are essential partners in saving lives.

Unveiling NTSB’s 2016 Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements

By Chairman Christopher A. Hart

NTSB Chairman Christopher Hart announces the issue areas on the 2016 Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements. (left to right: Member Robert Sumwalt, Chairman Christopher Hart, Vice Chairman T. Bella Dinh-Zarr, Member Earl Weener)

Transportation in the United States is safer than ever before. Nevertheless, each year tens of thousands still lose their lives, and hundreds of thousands are injured, in accidents in transportation.

The NTSB’s mission is to investigate accidents, determine their probable causes, and make safety recommendations which, if implemented, can save lives and prevent or mitigate injuries. We advocate for these life-saving changes through the NTSB Most Wanted List of transportation safety improvements.

Earlier today the NTSB unveiled its 2016 Most Wanted List. The Most Wanted List covers improvements that we need in all modes of transportation, and includes:

These are by no means the only important transportation safety issues, but these are the areas where we can use our limited resources most effectively to improve safety.

This year, we are highlighting five new or reinstated areas: Reduce Fatigue-Related Accidents, Improve Rail Transit Safety Oversight, Promote Availability of Collision Avoidance Technologies in Highway Vehicles, Expand the Use of Recorders to Enhance Transportation Safety, and Strengthen Occupant Protection.

Four areas remain unchanged from our 2015 list: Disconnect From Deadly Distractions, End Substance Impairment in Transportation, Prevent Loss of Control in Flight in General Aviation, and Require Medical Fitness for Duty.

And one of our issue areas for 2016, Promote Completion of Rail Safety Initiatives, adds a sense of urgency to two areas for rail safety improvements that appeared on our 2015 list: rail tank car safety and positive train control. There are timelines for rail safety initiatives in both these areas.

But industry missed a 2015 deadline for implementation of PTC, and replacement of all DOT-111 tank-cars in the transportation of hazardous liquids is not called for until 2025. The rail industry needs to make every day count. The next tragedy that could be prevented by PTC, or the next explosion of a DOT-111 tank car, could come at any time.

The NTSB 2016 Most Wanted List is our roadmap from lessons learned to lives saved. It establishes our priorities for 2016 in a way that is accessible to industry, regulators, and the public alike. We will organize concerted efforts to secure implementation of our safety recommendations regarding these ten issues.

More needs to be done to improve Helicopter EMS safety

By Robert L. Sumwalt

In mid-December I visited someone in the hospital. I paused as I gazed out the hospital window and saw the hospital’s helipad. I reflected on how using helicopters to transport critically injured patients is such a vital part of our nation’s healthcare system. The Association of Air Medical Services estimates that each year approximately 400,000 patients and transplant organs are safely transported via helicopters emergency medical services (HEMS). But, being in the business that I’m in also made me reflect on the safety record of this industry. In the past ten years, the HEMS industry has averaged one crash every 40 days. In the eight-day period prior to my hospital visit, there were two fatal helicopter HEMS crashes.

The NTSB has a long-standing interest in HEMS. In 1988, the NTSB conducted a safety study of commercial EMS helicopter operations. That study evaluated 59 EMS helicopter accidents and resulted in the NTSB issuing 19 safety recommendations. After a decrease in accidents, crashes began to rise in the late 1990s and early 2000s. That uptick prompted the Board to conduct a Special Investigation Report in 2006, which resulted in the issuance of four safety recommendations to the FAA. As accidents increased, the NTSB held a comprehensive four-day public hearing, in February 2009, which resulted in the Board adopting 21 safety recommendations. Later that year, in wrapping up a HEMS crash investigation, NTSB issued nine recommendations.

In response to these and other NTSB recommendations, in February 2014, the FAA published a broad-reaching set of regulations to strengthen helicopter safety – much of it aimed at the HEMS industry. Once the rule is fully implemented, all HEMS operators will be required to be equipped with Helicopter Terrain Awareness and Warning Systems (HTAWS), establish pre-flight risk-analysis programs, establish operations control centers if they operate with 10 or more helicopters, ensure their pilots hold an instrument rating, conduct the flight using more stringent charter flight regulations (known as “Part 135” regulations) pertaining to weather requirements and flight crew duty time limitations. They will also be required to equip their helicopters with flight data monitoring systems. There are additional flight planning and weather minimums requirements, as well.

Despite the FAA’s positive actions, several NTSB recommendations were not implemented. For example, one NTSB recommendation issued in 2009 called for the FAA to require HEMS pilots to conduct scenario-based training in simulators or flight training devices (FTD). As a former airline pilot, I realize the value of simulator training. In addition to enabling pilots to train in skills that are too risky to perform in a real helicopter, simulators and FTDs can, unlike real helicopters, be used anytime, day or night, and in any kind of weather. Simulators and FTDs can also allow training for a complete flight, including an emergency. Furthermore, training in simulators or FTDs is less expensive than using the actual helicopter.

Another requirement not included in the FAA’s final rule was one for night vision imaging systems (NVIS), such as night vision goggles (NVG). When issuing a recommendation for NVIS in 2009, the NTSB noted that several accidents we investigated likely could have been prevented by use of NVIS. Of all the initiatives discussed at the NTSB’s 2009 HEMS hearing, requiring the use of NVIS received the strongest support. For example, in their joint written submission to the NTSB HEMS hearing, three industry groups noted that “all air medical operations at night [should] be conducted using either NVGs or enhanced vision system.”

As a long-time pilot myself, I realize the importance of having a qualified pilot next to me to provide an extra set of eyes, and to back up my decisions and actions. However, due to space and weight considerations, configuring an air ambulance helicopter with two pilots may not be practical. In absence of having an extra pilot, an autopilot can relieve the pilot of workload. Not only does this physically free up the pilot, it also allows more cognitive resources to be devoted to monitoring and assessing the situation. In 2009, the NTSB issued a recommendation calling for EMS helicopters have two qualified pilots; if that is not possible, the helicopter should be equipped with autopilots. FAA’s final rule was absent of such a requirement.

The FAA is to be applauded for implementing a broad-reaching set of regulations to improve HEMS. However, as evidenced by continued crashes, more needs to be done. NTSB crash investigations have demonstrated the safety benefits of scenario-based simulator or FTD training, use of NVIS, and a second pilot or an autopilot. Despite the FAA’s rule not including such requirements, the industry can voluntarily incorporate these life-saving measures. After all, an industry that is designed to save lives should not be claiming lives.

Robert Sumwalt is a Member of the NTSB Board.

President Obama: “Let us pledge to always drive sober”

The blog was co-authored by:

Christopher A. Hart, Chairman, NTSB

Michael P. Botticelli, Director, Office of National Drug Control Policy

Mark Rosekind, Administrator, NHTSA

Americans are well aware of the terrible consequences of drunk driving and are increasingly learning about the dangers of drugged driving. More than 10,000 people are killed in alcohol-impaired-driving crashes every year. Driving under the influence of drugs, an increasingly common occurrence, is also dangerous – and preventable.  Every American can play a role in reducing the frequency of these incidents. This is why President Obama observed the month of December as National Impaired Driving Prevention Month:

“During National Impaired Driving Prevention Month, let us pledge to always drive sober and alert and to avoid distractions behind the wheel. Together, we can help ensure all our people are able to enjoy the holiday spirit and make memories with those they care about while safeguarding the well-being of everyone on the road.” – President Obama

In 2013-2014, the National Roadside Survey conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that more than 22 percent of drivers tested positive for illegal, prescription, or over-the-counter drugs. To tackle this increasing problem, the Administration is working tirelessly with Federal, state, and local partners. At the Federal level, the 2015 National Drug Control Strategy, released by ONDCP, aims to reduce drugged driving by raising public awareness, working with states to enact legal reforms to address drugged driving, improving drug tests and data collection on our Nation’s roads, and increasing law enforcement’s ability to identify these drivers.

In a 2013 report,  the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) concluded that drivers are at increased risk of a fatal crash even before their blood alcohol concentration (BAC) level reaches the legal limit.  By the time a driver’s BAC reaches 0.08 percent, his or her fatal crash risk has more than doubled. The NTSB 2015 Most Wanted Transportation Safety Improvements calls for several countermeasures to eliminate substance-impaired driving, including stronger laws, high-visibility enforcement, increased use of ignition interlocks, and targeted measures for repeat offenders. The NTSB also suggests consulting with your doctor to understand possible impairing effects of medications.

During National Impaired Driving Prevention Month, we recommitted to preventing accidents due to drugged and drunk driving by acting responsibly and promoting responsible behavior in those around us.

Learn more about what you can do to encourage safe driving:

Michael P. Botticelli is the Director of National Drug Control Policy. Christopher A. Hart is the Chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, and Mark R. Rosekind is the Administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.