Working for Safety

By Robert L. Sumwalt, Chairman

 Labor Day and Memorial Day both have specific relevance that can be lost in seasonal associations. The meaning of Memorial Day as a time to honor those lost in our nation’s wars can be eclipsed by its unofficial role as the “kickoff day” for summer. Similarly, all too often, we think of Labor Day only as summer’s end rather than as a commemoration of the contributions of the nation’s working men and women.

This Labor Day, I’d like to take a moment to express my appreciation for the men and women who work every day in transportation, doing everything right so that there’s not an accident for the NTSB to investigate.

TranspWorker_ThankYou2

From owner-operators of long-haul trucks to employees of the biggest trucking companies; from captains of small fishing boats to employees of the biggest cruise lines and marine cargo companies; from air-tour operators to airline pilots and cabin crews; and throughout railroad and pipeline transportation, safe transportation depends on the dedication and hard work of the people on the front lines: individual transportation workers.

At the NTSB, we investigate what goes wrong in transportation. In each accident, we look at the human, the machine, and the environment. When we find a lapse in any of those areas, we look for ways to eliminate the opportunity for error. Meanwhile, day in and day out, good men and women go to work every day and do everything right. We don’t investigate the truck that stayed on the road because its conscientious drivers got plenty of sleep, or the ship that didn’t run aground because its captain and crew were well-trained and attentive. We’ll never hold a Board meeting to discuss one of the millions of safe airline flights every year, or to talk about the pipeline operators and railroad employees who found the safety defect among thousands of miles of rail or pipe before it caused an accident.

Although technology and design innovations have greatly improved transportation safety, we haven’t yet managed to eliminate everything that can go wrong in transportation. That’s why we depend so heavily on the nation’s transportation workers, who face rigorous rules and laws, to ensure safety. Commercial truckers and pilots log their rest and duty time to prevent fatigue. While the general driving public is subjected to a .08-percent blood alcohol content (BAC) legal limit, for commercial drivers, the limit is already .04 percent. And then there are all the safety procedures these professionals are required to know—and follow—throughout their commercial transportation careers.

The majority of our nation’s transportation professionals meet these high standards and are intent on preventing transportation tragedies. As Chairman of the NTSB and a member of the traveling public, I want to express my appreciation for all those transportation workers who are quietly doing things right, day in and day out.

Professor James Reason once said that safety professionals live with a “chronic unease.” Safety is a matter of constantly searching out the unassessed hazard, the unmitigated risk. Transportation operators at every level embrace this difficult challenge every day. On this Labor Day, I gratefully tip my hat to each one of you who takes safety seriously.

 

Two Years and Counting . . . Still no FAA Action

By Chairman Robert L. Sumwalt

Saturday, July 30, 2016.

The day started like most summer days in central Texas—hot and muggy, with the Lockhart Blog.jpgchance of foggy and cloudy conditions around daybreak. I can only imagine the feelings of excitement—perhaps even a few fleeting moments of apprehension—as the pilot and his 15 passengers climbed into the basket of the enormous hot air balloon. The large smiley face that adorned the side of the balloon was emblematic of what the day’s flight was supposed to be for these paying passengers, who were celebrating birthdays, anniversaries, and even, belatedly, Mother’s Day. Tragically, about 45 minutes after lifting off, the balloon careened into high-tension powerlines that crisscrossed the Texas countryside. The balloon plunged to the ground, claiming all 16 lives on board.

This was the deadliest balloon crash in U.S. history. Furthermore, it was the deadliest U.S. aviation accident in more than 7 years.

We determined the probable cause of the crash was “the pilot’s pattern of poor decision-making that led to the initial launch, continued flight in fog and above clouds, and descent near or through clouds that decreased the pilot’s ability to see and avoid obstacles.” Further, we pointed out that “contributing to the accident were (1) the pilot’s impairing medical conditions and medications and (2) the Federal Aviation Administration’s [FAA’s] policy to not require a medical certificate for commercial balloon pilots.”

Our investigation revealed that the pilot had several medical conditions that would have precluded his legal ability to operate any aircraft, including a balloon. He was also taking medications prohibited when piloting. He had been arrested on four occasions for driving under the influence. Any of these conditions or circumstances would have barred his ability to obtain an FAA medical certificate.

Lockhart Blog 2
Post accident photo of the basket

But, here’s the odd thing: unlike commercial airplane and helicopter air tour pilots, commercial air tour balloon pilots are not required to have an FAA medical certificate. Our accident investigation report made clear: “The [FAA’s] exemption of balloon pilots from medical certification requirements eliminated the potential for (1) an aviation medical examiner to identify the pilot’s potentially impairing medical conditions and medications and/or (2) FAA awareness of his history of drug-and alcohol-related offenses, which could have led to [his pilot certificate being revoked or suspended] until satisfactorily resolved.” To close this loophole, we recommended a logical solution—that the FAA begin requiring medical certificates for commercial balloon pilots (Safety Recommendation A-17-34). “Require Medical Fitness” has been a focus of our Most Wanted List of critical transportation safety improvements since 2015.

As we wrapped up the Board meeting we held to deliberate this tragedy, I expressed my optimism that “today’s recommendations, if acted upon, will help to bring the safety standards and oversight of commercial passenger balloon operations closer to those that apply to powered flight.”

Sadly, it appears that optimism was misplaced. Two years after the Lockhart tragedy, and nearly 10 months after we issued this recommendation, we still haven’t received any indication that the FAA plans to require commercial balloon pilots to hold valid medical certificates.

The FAA should act. The victims of this horrible accident and their families deserve nothing less, and future balloon passengers deserve better.

Back-to-School Safety Series: Zero Tolerance Starts at Home

By Leah Walton, NTSB Safety Advocate

As teen drivers head back to school—and all the daily exposure to peer influence that implies—remember that you have influence, too. That’s especially important when the subject is impaired driving.

You already know that driving impaired is dangerous, but underage drinking and driving is especially deadly. In the United States, 19% of drivers age 15 to 20 involved in fatal motor vehicle crashes had a BAC of at least 0.08%.

Chart of effects of BAC levels from .01 to .10Impairment begins with the first drink or the moment a mind- or mood-altering substance is ingested, inhaled, or injected. Teenagers drive under the influence of drugs other than alcohol in astonishing numbers; among the 62.6% of students nationwide who drove during the 30 days before a 2017 survey, 5.5% had driven a car or other vehicle one or more times when they had been drinking alcohol, and 16.5% had ridden one or more times in a vehicle driven by someone who had been drinking. Another survey showed that 19-year-old drivers drive under the influence of drugs at the staggering rate of 16%.

It’s important to point out that a broad range of drugs can be impairing. Illicit, prescribed, and over-the-counter drugs can all impair a driver. Whether it’s an allergy medication from the drug store or a prescription from a doctor, if the warning label reads, “do not operate heavy machinery,” that includes a car; driving should be avoided until the side effects pass.

Impairment is...

As a group, teenagers are at higher risk of experimenting with drugs or alcohol than adults. Teens’ brains are still developing and they’re less able to control their impulses than adults. It’s easy to see how teens can feel fearless in the face of tragedies they assume will “never happen to them”—until they do. The threat of injury from impaired driving crashes shouldn’t be the only deterrent. Consuming any alcohol at all under the age of 21 is illegal. All states have zero-tolerance laws for drivers under 21, meaning that driving with any or a very low BAC comes with great consequence. Teens who drive impaired can face DUI “school,” a lifelong conviction on their arrest record, and even jail time. And as more states begin to legalize marijuana, it’s a good time to remind teens that driving under the influence of drugs (DUID) is illegal and, more importantly, can be deadly.

End Alcohol and Other Drug Impairment in Transportation is on the NTSB’s Most Wanted List of transportation safety improvements, and it applies to drivers of all ages. But young drivers (ages 16­­–20) are 17 times more likely to die in a crash when they have a BAC of .08% than when they have not been drinking. Although the number of underage impaired driving crashes has decreased over the past decade, in 2016, alcohol was still a factor in 20 percent of fatal crashes involving teens.

For teenagers, the world is small, and nebulous concepts like dying in a car crash are more easily heard than taken to heart. Talk to your teen about the dangers of impaired driving—share with them a story of someone in your community who was killed or injured as the result of a drunk or drugged driver. Make clear to your teen that a poor choice, such as driving impaired, can negatively affect the rest of their life; for example, even if no one is hurt in an impaired-driving incident, a DUI, DWI, or DUID on your teen’s record can disqualify him or her from getting certain jobs as an adult.

Maybe most importantly: lead by example. Make it a household rule that driving impaired by any substance is unacceptable, and hold yourself to that rule. Choose to drink or drive, but not both. At the same time, assure your teen that if he or she does slip up and drink or do drugs, they can—and should—always call you or another trusted adult for a ride home. There may be a consequence to their choice, but it will never be as severe as what impaired driving could bring.

Be aware of the influences your teen faces at school every day, and counteract any negative ones with your own. Set the standard in your home and prep your teen up for success as the pressures of the school year go into full swing.

Back-to-School Safety: Wake Up to Drowsy Driving

By Stephanie Shaw, NTSB Safety Advocate

Drowsy driving isn’t just a teen driver problem—it’s an every driver problem. However, a AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety study found that young drivers are at the greatest risk of being involved in a fatal drowsy driving crash.

From early sports practices and school start times to the demands of classwork, homework, and after-school activities, school days leave little time for sleep. It’s no surprise teens are skipping sleep to keep up—how else would they have time to balance extracurriculars, schoolwork, classroom hours, and socializing?

Getting behind the wheel a bit drowsy is probably part of your child’s daily routine, and you’ve likely accepted it as an occupational hazard of the ever-increasing to-do list your high schooler faces. What you may not know is that drowsy driving can be just as dangerous as alcohol‑impaired driving. For example, on March 20, 2016, four teens were traveling home from a weekend trip to South Padre Island, Texas. About 1:57 pm, the driver crossed the center median, lost control of the car, entered the opposing lanes of traffic, and collided with a tractor trailer.

The driver was seriously injured and her three passengers died. In the 24 hours before the crash, the driver had a window of only about 5 hours to sleep. The crash also happened at a time of day when most people commonly experience a dip in alertness and performance; in fact, the three passengers in the car were all either asleep or dozing at the time of the crash. We determined that that the driver’s loss of control was due to inattention resulting from her fatigue.

Do your best to ensure that your teen gets the right amount of sleep each night. For example, discourage your teen from using a cell phone late at night or during the night; these inhibit falling asleep and affect sleep quality. Also, limit driving time, especially between the hours of midnight and 5 am, when the body is accustomed to sleeping—this is the period of time in which the greatest number of drowsy driving crashes occur. For more ideas on ensuring your teen gets the right amount of sleep to stay alert behind the wheel, see our safety alert, Drowsy Driving Among Young Drivers.

As with all road safety lessons, it’s beneficial to lead by example and avoid driving while you’re tired. However, make sure your teen understands that adults generally need less sleep than teenagers, who are still growing and developing. While you may feel rested after 7 hours of sleep, teens need between 8 and 10 hours each night to avoid suffering the effects of fatigue. Keep in mind that your teen may have no idea how fatigued he or she is. The statement, “I only slept 4 hours last night, but I feel fine to drive,” should sound like a warning siren, not a reassurance. We are all notoriously bad judges of our own fatigue.

Work with your teens to help them manage their time so they’re getting the sleep they need. During the summer, teens’ sleep schedules often become irregular, so as they begin to plan their upcoming school schedules and enjoy their final weeks of summer vacation, teens should make sure sleep and relaxation find a prominent place on their priority list. Make sure your children know it’s not only okay, but also biologically necessary to sleep. And be aware that it’s not only acute sleep loss but also chronic sleep debt that can precede a drowsy driving crash. Losing a little sleep every night for a long time is dangerous for all drivers, but in young drivers, “minor” sleep losses over multiple nights can add up when combined with their bodies’ greater need for sleep.

Teen drivers have a lot on their plates: social life, after-school work and activities, the school day itself, homework . . . the list goes on. Older teens preparing for college may also be consumed by scholarship and college applications and test preparation, and overwhelmed by academic pressure. By encouraging youth to stay out of sleep debt and away from acute sleep deprivation, we can guarantee safer and more alert young drivers behind the wheel.

National Aviation Day

By Chairman Robert L. Sumwalt

Sunday, August 19 is National Aviation Day. It’s a day to celebrate more than a century of innovation and progress in aviation, certainly, but August 19 is also the birthday of a bicycle-maker—albeit one more famous for his contributions to aviation.

National Aviation Day.jpgAugust 19 was chosen to be National Aviation Day in honor of Orville Wright’s birthday while Wright was still alive to enjoy the honor. (Wilbur Wright had passed away in 1912, less than a decade after their landmark flight near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.) There’s a lesson in how the Wright brothers came to play their pivotal role in the story of aviation, and it’s especially worth mentioning on this day.

Wilbur was an early adopter of what was called the “ordinary” bicycle—a contraption with a high front wheel and a seat many feet off the ground. There had been earlier bicycles without the high wheel, but also without gears; the high wheel was necessary to get better performance out of limited muscle power.

The “safety bicycle” added gears, enabling good performance without using a high front wheel. It had two advantages: a center of gravity that was lower and rear of the front axle, and a shorter distance for the rider to fall. The popularity of pedaling exploded, and the Wright brothers saw a niche. From their shop in Dayton, Ohio, they began repairing, then renting, selling, and manufacturing bicycles—and, of course, tinkering with improvements.

Meanwhile, both were drawn to news of attempts at powered flight. Unlike other aviation pioneers, however, Wilbur and Orville insisted on three-axis control, using wing warping (deforming the shape of the wing) to control roll. Some competitors didn’t believe that a pilot could respond quickly enough to mechanically control all the required surfaces, but Orville and Wilbur had tested their concepts thoroughly (another advantage over some competitors). Through glider testing, they learned that an airplane could be controlled on all three axes and, in the bicycle trade, the Wright brothers had learned firsthand how innovation and safety could go hand-in-hand, providing control even when a platform seemed unstable.

It is an understatement to say that aircraft design has continued to evolve. Wing warping to control roll has given way to ailerons (precursors to amazing potential new technology reminiscent of the Wright brothers’ approach). The elevator has migrated from the front of the airplane to the rear. Wood has given way to aircraft aluminum and composites. Sticks and pulleys have given way to fly-by-wire and automation. But the Wright brothers’ insistence on three-axis control remains a foundational principle in modern powered flight, whether in the airlines or in general aviation. Because Orville and Wilbur Wright dared to believe in full control of all three axes, an industry was born.

Today, certification rules have changed to make it easier than ever to install innovative technology to maintain control of an aircraft. Angle-of-attack indicators and envelope protection are available not only in airliners, but for general aviation craft, as well. However, loss of control in flight continues to be the leading cause of fatal general aviation crashes.

NTSB Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements 2017-2018
Prevent loss of control in flight in general aviation

Why not celebrate National Aviation Day by reading up on current and innovative training and technology solutions that could eliminate loss of control in flight? You may find yourself surprised by how far aviation has come since the Wright brothers, and by how far there remains to go.

Back-to-School Safety: Pedestrian and Bicycle Safety Tips

By Leah Walton, NTSB Safety Advocate

If you’re a parent of schoolchildren like me, you’re likely starting to hunt for deals in the school supply aisle of Target and taking stock of your kids’ closets (new shoes, again?). One thing that’s easily overlooked in back-to-school prep is determining or reviewing how your child will get safely to and from school. Whether you will drive your child to school or he or she will ride the school bus, take public transportation, walk, or bicycle, safety should always be the priority. This installment of our back-to-school blog series will review pedestrian and bicycle safety tips to get you ready to send your kids back safely.

Walking

Will your child walk to and from school? Children should walk with an adult or an older sibling until they are at least 10 years old. Map out the safest route for your child before school is back in session and practice it a few times. This will help your child become familiar with the route, including any crosswalks or intersections they may need to negotiate. If possible, select a route with sidewalks, and try to avoid busy roads with high levels of traffic. Demonstrate safe walking behaviors by finding marked crosswalks or other designated crossing areas and stopping at any curbs to look LEFT-RIGHT-LEFT before crossing the street. Check out the Safe Routes to School resource, Teaching Children to Walk Safely as They Grow and Develop, to help you teach your children safe walking behaviors.

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Bicycling

Your child is going to school to develop his or her brain; be sure to protect that brain with a helmet! Helmets are the most important piece of safety equipment for bicycle riders. Just as with walking, it’s also important to help your child select the safest bicycle route before starting the school year. This guide of bicycle skills a child should have before riding to school from Safe Routes to School can help you prepare your child for bicycling safely to and from school.

Safety Education is Continuous!

Whether your child is entering kindergarten or senior year, pedestrian and bicycle safety can always be reviewed, practiced, and reinforced to ensure safe road behaviors continue throughout your child’s life.

More resources:

Pedestrian Safety

Pedestrian Safety Tips from SafeKids Worldwide

Consejos de Seguridad para los peatones from SafeKids Worldwide

Walking Safely from National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

Bicycle Safety

Bike Safety Tips from SafeKids Worldwide

Consejos de seguridad para ir en bicicleta from SafeKids Worldwide

Bicycle Safety from National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

Back-to-School Safety: Why the School Bus is the Safest Choice

By Stephanie Shaw, NTSB Safety Advocate

I work in transportation safety every day, but every morning before I leave the house, I make sure my children get to school safely. For my daughter, that means making sure she gets to the school bus on time.

Like many parents, I send my daughter to school on a bus that is not equipped with seat belts, because I know that even without seat belts, it’s still the safest way for her to get to and from school. In fact, students are 70 times more likely to get to school safely when taking the school bus than when traveling by car, even if the bus doesn’t have seat belts.

That being said, school buses are even safer with lap/shoulder belts, especially because lap/shoulder belts can protect your child from side-to-side movement during a rollover crash. At the NTSB, we believe that your child needs that added protection. In May, we recommended that states only purchase new school buses that are equipped with lap/shoulder belts for all passenger seating positions. We also recommended collision avoidance systems and automatic emergency braking on newly manufactured school buses, to further enhance school bus safety in the future.

Check out our school bus safety video featuring NTSB’s Dr. Kris Poland, who explains compartmentalization, talks about a few of our crash investigations, and discusses the added safety benefit of lap/shoulder belts in school buses.

Before setting out on your journey to the bus stop, refresh your knowledge of safe school bus practices, and then talk about safety with your children. Remind your kids to sit facing forward in their seat when the vehicle is in motion, to buckle up if the bus is equipped with seat belts, and to be aware of traffic on the roads when it’s time to step on or off. Last but not least, if you or your child have concerns about a bus driver’s behavior, by all means, report it to the school principal or bus company.

Over the next few weeks, nearly 50 million children will head back to school; more than 20 million of them will ride on a school bus. Although there’s much to be done to make school bus transportation even safer, it’s still the safest way to get to and from school. When possible, make the school bus the preferred method of transportation for your kids this school year.