Back-to-School Safety Series: Eyes on the Road, Hands on the Wheel, Minds on What Matters

By Nicholas Worrell, Chief, Safety Advocacy Division

 Parents and teens, please read this blog together (not while you’re driving!).

Driving fast with a sport carWhen you hear “distracted driving,” you probably immediately think of the endless “don’t text and drive” campaigns across the nation each year. This is not without good reason—texting and driving is certainly one of the deadliest forms of distraction. Reading or responding to a text takes your eyes from the road for 5 seconds. If you’re traveling at 55 mph, that’s enough time to drive the entire length of a football field.

Today’s teens have grown up with near-constant access to social media. Some teens text and drive, even though they acknowledge it’s dangerous. According to a recent AAA poll, 94% of teen drivers acknowledge the dangers of texting and driving, but 35% admitted to doing it anyway. Modern teens are often inseparable from their phones. It’s hard to think of a scenario in which a teen isn’t pulling out a device to text, take a selfie, or access social media. Most of the time, this is a minor annoyance to those competing for a teen’s attention, but this habit playing out behind the wheel could kill someone.

Distracted driving can be as deadly as driving impaired—the law supports this fact. New laws are being implemented across the nation to curb distracted driving; for example, an Oregon law that went into effect July 1st punishes distracted drivers with consequences akin to those incurred by DUI offenders. And, like many of the other topics we’ve covered in our Back-to-School Safety Series—impairment, drowsy driving, and seat belts—“Eliminate Distractions” is on our Most Wanted List of transportation safety improvements.

But what many fail to realize is that distracted driving is more harmful for teens than DUI—teens who text and drive are involved in 6 times more car accidents than their drunk‑driving counterparts, making it statistically even more dangerous to drive distracted than to drink and drive (and that’s saying something, considering the common knowledge that drinking and driving is an often fatal, horrible idea). Distracted driving kills more teens than drunk driving. A 20-year-old’s reaction time while talking on a cell phone is equal to the reaction time of 70-year-old. Texting while driving increases crash risk 23 times over for drivers of all ages. Texting while driving now accounts for 1.6 million crashes a year—that’s 25% of all car crashes. It’s a bigger issue than a few typed words on a little cell phone screen would seem.

As we mentioned in our introductory blog, if children grow up watching their parents drive distracted without major incident, they’ll see the danger as slight and the behavior as acceptable. But what your children don’t know is that whether it’s the first time or the fiftieth, at any moment the statistics can catch up to you. The good news is that 62 percent of teens say they don’t text and drive when their parents remind them not to—so, starting now, remind your kids about the dangers of distracted driving, and then practice what you preach.

Take a moment now and talk about it. Make a family rule on distraction and hold each other accountable.

Ten Years Later: Remembering Chatsworth With Action

By  Member Jennifer Homendy

Ten years ago today, September 12, 2008, a Metrolink commuter train filled with passengers in Chatsworth, California, collided head-on with a Union Pacific freight train. The collision took the lives of 25 people and injured 102 others. The cause: A texting engineer. A human operator making a human error.

On this 10th anniversary, we offer our condolences to all those who lost loved ones or were injured in the Chatsworth tragedy.

 

Photo of the Collision of Metrolink Train 111 With
Union Pacific

Although I was not a Member of the National Transportation Safety Board at that time, I was working tirelessly as the Staff Director of the Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials in the U.S. House of Representatives to mandate implementation of technology, called positive train control (PTC), which could have prevented the Chatsworth accident from occurring.

PTC is designed to automatically stop a train when a human operator fails to. Human error is the leading cause of all train accidents. Frustratingly, the NTSB has been recommending that railroads implement PTC to address human error-caused accidents for nearly 50 years.

In the wake of the Chatsworth collision and a number of others investigated by the NTSB, Congress passed the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008, which required freight, intercity passenger, and commuter railroads to implement PTC by the end of 2015. As the deadline approached, Congress extended it to 2018, with the possibility of further extensions until 2020. Now, as the new deadline approaches, PTC is still not fully implemented.

We know from railroad reports to the Federal Railroad Administration, the agency charged with regulating the railroads, that PTC is operational on only a small fraction of the railroad network.

Accidents, however, continue to occur. Since 2008, the NTSB has investigated 22 accidents that could have been prevented by PTC. Together, these accidents have resulted in 29 deaths, more than 500 injuries, and more than $190 million in property damage.

Tomorrow, Chairman Sumwalt will testify on Capitol Hill regarding the need to finish the job without further delay. Regrettably, nothing that the NTSB does can turn back the clock and change a tragic outcome; we can only urge that others be spared such an outcome in the future.

As the newest Member of the NTSB, I will continue to advocate for full implementation of PTC and for the safety recommendations we made as a result of the Chatsworth crash so that a similar tragedy is prevented in the future.

In the meantime, there is something you can do as we remember Chatsworth: eliminate distractions while operating a vehicle. Distraction continues to play a significant role in accidents.

Distracted driving kills thousands and injures hundreds of thousands every year. On the railroads, PTC is an effective backstop in case an operator is distracted, fatigued, impaired, or otherwise unable to take the right action. But operators must still adhere to strict procedures to minimize the chance of an accident.

On the highways, collision avoidance systems—forward collision warning systems and automatic emergency braking—are beginning to play a similar role to PTC. We think that these systems should be on every car, and we are working toward that outcome. But even without a collision avoidance system, you can take control by doing the right thing. Don’t send a text, make a call, or update your social media while driving. Strict laws aimed at preventing the use of portable electronic devices while driving and high-visibility enforcement can help, but ultimately, it’s up to each driver to drive attentively.

As we mark the 10th anniversary of the Chatsworth collision, we still have a long way to go to ensure the same kind of accident doesn’t happen again. But there are things we can do. We can insist railroads complete PTC implementation on all their tracks. We can choose vehicles with collision avoidance systems, and we can refuse to drive distracted.

Fatal collisions don’t end on impact; they echo through communities for years after the moment of a crash. But there can be hope as well as mourning in the echoes—hope for change that will prevent future tragedies. It will take all of us in transportation—professionals and the general public—to ensure the lessons learned from the Chatsworth tragedy result in that change.

 

The Value of Video

By Jennifer Morrison, NTSB Investigator-in-Charge, Office of Highway Safety

 On January 19, 2016, a Greyhound bus with 22 people on board was traveling on a California interstate in the dark in moderate-to-heavy wind and rain. The driver intended to take the left exit, en route to the next stop in San Jose, but instead crashed the bus head-on into the end of a concrete barrier. The bus jumped the barrier and rotated onto its side. Two passengers were ejected and died; the driver and 13 passengers were injured.

The crash occurred at 6:37 in the morning, after the driver had been on duty, commuting to his route and driving the bus, for about 12 hours. Tempting as it was to assume this crash resulted from driver fatigue, our investigation soon revealed that other factors were at play.

HWY16MH005_prelim[1]
Final rest position of bus and remains of REACT 350 crash attenuator base
When I arrived on scene with the rest of the “go team,” we discovered that the highway interchange where the crash occurred had four through lanes, two right exit lanes, and a single left exit lane. When the driver moved the bus left to what he thought was the left exit lane, he instead unintentionally entered a 990-foot-long unmarked gore area that separated the through lanes from the left exit lane. The gore area ended at the concrete barrier where the crash occurred. The crash attenuator at the end of the barrier likely absorbed some crash energy, but it was not designed to redirect a large commercial vehicle like a Greyhound bus.

What was interesting about the crash attenuator was that it had been hit before; our investigation found that damage from the previous impact had ripped the reflective sheeting off its face. Records showed that the California Department of Transportation had placed temporary barricades but had never finished the repair.

Fortunately for our investigation, the bus, like most of Greyhound’s buses now, was equipped with a video camera system. Video recovered from the bus showed that the temporary barricades had blown over, possibly in the wind and rain that morning. As we watched the forward-facing and inward-facing videos, the scene became clear: the driver was attentive as he signaled and moved into the gore area, interpreting it to be a travel lane. At 1 second before impact, a dark black barrel (the first part of the crash attenuator) appeared in the middle of the “lane” (see Figure 1). There was no reflective sheeting on its face, and there were no temporary barricades set up to identify the hazard.

Without the video camera system onboard the bus, it would’ve been impossible to know that the barricades had blown over prior to the crash, rather than simply been displaced by the event. Without the video evidence, it would have been easy to assume that the driver was just too tired or otherwise distracted by fatigue to see the warning. But the video showed clearly and indisputably the events leading up to the crash.

greyhound video
Still image of onboard video at 1 second prior to impact.

Onboard video systems provide investigators and fleet owners with the invaluable, unbiased evidence to interpret—and work to prevent—crashes like this one. That’s why we’ve strongly recommended they be installed on all highway vehicles for decades. We even emphasize the importance of these systems on our Most Wanted List of transportation safety improvements. This crash illustrates why this technology is important, and we continue to urge operators to install it across their fleets.

NTSB Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements 2017-2018

To learn more about this issue, join us Thursday, September 13 at 2 PM EST, for our “Reducing CMV Crashes Through the Use of Video Recorders webinar.” In our 1-hr webinar, NTSB Member Bella Dinh-Zarr, investigators and recorder analysts from the Office of Highway Safety and Office of Research and Engineering, along with commercial fleet owners representing the truck and bus industries, will discuss why and how their organizations use video recorders to improve safety. NTSB investigators will provide an in-depth discussion into the Greyhound crash discussed in this blog and will also highlight a truck case study. For more details or to register, visit this link.