By Nicholas Worrell, Chief, Office of Safety Advocacy
Normally this time of year, the transportation safety advocacy world would be buzzing with annual calendared campaigns, like these more well-known ones in the highway safety world:
• Global Youth Traffic Safety Month
• Motorcycle Awareness Month
• 100 Deadliest Days of Summer
• NHTSA’s “Click it or Ticket” seatbelt enforcement campaign
As the weather gets warmer, students learning to drive, fly or even operate a boat would gather for educational awareness-raising events or training seminars and conferences. Driver-educators and safety advocates would be working to pour their hearts and souls into reaching teen drivers on stages around the country, hoping to convince some to avoid the bad choices that would put them at higher risk of traffic crashes. Flight schools would be gearing up for the busy summer flying months, and the US Coast Guard and other organizations would be prepping for summer safety on our waterways.
But it is different this year. This year, the country is in large part sheltering in place because of a global public health pandemic.
In terms of traffic safety, the dark cloud might have a silver lining. The Los Angeles Times reports that crash incidences have reduced by half due to the virus; however, Streetsblog.org questions whether this silver lining in the form of reduced numbers of crashes will come with another dark cloud in the form of higher rates of crashes. We will have to wait for the statistics to be compiled a year or more from now to get a clearer picture. Although advocacy messages no longer reach students face-to-face, young people have less freedom—and reason—to drive. Will those two factors cancel each other out? Will drivers of all ages remember to drive sober and without distractions? Only time will tell.
General aviation continues to operate, though in a slightly more limited fashion, but we at the NTSB continue to investigate crashes. Boaters have not been out, due to shutdowns and weather, but with summer coming, things will change.
The big question I find myself pondering is, what will transportation safety look like once we are all able to move about freely again?
I like to think that Abraham Lincoln was right when he said that the best way to predict your future is to create it. I wonder about the new normal that we could strive to achieve in transportation safety on the other side of this pandemic. I also find myself worrying about re-emergence shock on the highways.
I recall from my time in the Marine Corps that when we’d return from duty on ship for an extended period without driving, traffic safety advocates would come on board to remind us what we would be facing returning home. That type of reminder would be helpful now after this long period of reduced driving. Have our skills gotten rusty? Will our road awareness be slow to return?
A potential benefit that could come from this pandemic, though, is that many of us have become much more mindful of how our behavior affects others. Will our mindfulness stay with us when we head back out on the roads, or jump back into our cockpits, or warm up our boats?
The present crisis knocked us out of our 24/7, “go-go-go” lifestyle suddenly and shockingly. Now, it is finally sinking in that returning to that normal will not happen soon or suddenly; rather, it will happen step by step. How can we rebuild transportation safety in our new normal? Tens of thousands of lives are lost on our roads every year. For too long, we have accepted this as normal. Perhaps this pandemic will wake us up to the fact that it does not have to be this way.
The step to transitioning back to our new normal will be to remember all the little safety lessons that might not have been front-of-mind these last few weeks or months. Returning to safe driving, flying, and other transportation operations will require renewed focus. To help us return to safe operations, the NTSB and other transportation organizations will launch the #SafetyReminder campaign with a Twitter chat @NTSB, May 21, 2020, at 12pm EDT. You can join the conversation by mentioning @NTSB in your tweets to questions and comments or simply follow the conversation using #SafetyReminder.
I encourage you to follow the campaign and brush up on some of the things you may have forgotten before we all get back out on the road. When it comes to transportation safety, we really are all in this together.