Drive Sober And Save Lives This Holiday Season

By Member Tom Chapman

The holiday season is a time of increased impaired-driving crashes. Accordingly, December has been designated National Impaired Driving Prevention Month to draw attention to the 100-percent preventable traffic fatalities and injuries attributed to impaired driving.

In 2018, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), 10,511 people were killed in vehicle crashes in which at least one driver had a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) level of 0.08 g/dL or higher. That number comprises 29 percent of the 36,560 traffic fatalities that year. In other words, those 10,511 deaths equal about 29 deaths per day, or one death every 50 minutes. These weren’t just numbers, though. They were mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, children, friends, and other loved ones.

Alcohol isn’t the only impairing substance that can increase the risk of a crash; illegal drugs and prescription and over-the-counter medications can be as dangerous as alcohol for a driver. Unlike alcohol impairment, however, the extent to which drugged driving contributes to fatalities and injuries is less well established, but one fact is certain: the prevalence of drug use—and, even more troubling, the use of multiple drugs—while driving is on the rise. Just this month (December 1, 2020), the NTSB held a Board meeting to consider the June 21, 2019, fatal crash involving a pickup truck and a group of motorcyclists in Randolph, New Hampshire. We determined that the probable cause of the crash was the pickup truck driver crossing the centerline and encroaching into the oncoming lane of travel, which occurred because of his impairment from use of multiple drugs. Of the 22 individuals in the motorcycle group (riders and passengers), 7 were killed. An additional 7 were injured.

In October, NHTSA published a report looking at drug and alcohol prevalence in seriously and fatally injured road users before and during the COVID-19 public health emergency. Based on data collected at trauma centers and medical examiners’ offices in five cities, before mid‑March 2020, 51 percent of seriously or fatally injured road users tested positive for at least one of the following: alcohol, cannabinoids (active THC), stimulants, sedatives, opioids, antidepressants, over-the-counter medication, or other drugs. Eighteen percent tested positive in multiple categories. Stay-at-home orders and reduced travel resulting from the pandemic did not, as you might assume, reduce the prevalence of drug use among drivers. According to the same NHTSA study, the proportion of drivers who tested positive for single and multiple substances jumped to 64 percent and 24 percent, respectively, after mid-March 2020.

The NTSB has issued specific recommendations that, if implemented, would save lives, such as requiring all-offender ignition interlocks, .05 (or below) BAC limits, and a national drug testing standard. Our Most Wanted List includes the issue area “End Alcohol and Other Drug Impairment in Transportation,” and several additional recommendations addressing the issue remain open.

During this holiday season more than in years past, we should strive to keep ourselves and our friends and family as safe as possible. Wear a mask. Practice social distancing. Wash your hands. But also, abstain from drinking and driving. Designate a sober driver. Call a taxi or ride-share service. These simple steps can save our lives, as well as the lives of those we love, so we can enjoy many more holiday seasons to come.

Episode 38: Positive Train Control

In this episode of Behind-the-Scene @NTSB, we talk with Member Jennifer Homendy and Tim DePaepe, Railroad Accident Investigator, Office of Railroad, Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Investigations, about Positive Train Control (PTC), NTSB PTC-related investigations and recommendations and other rail safety issues.

Fully Implement Positive Train Control is on the NTSB 2019-2020 Most Wanted List.

Member Homendy’s full bio is available on our website.

For previous podcasts featuring Member Homendy and her blogs related to PTC visit our website.

The full Railroad Accident Reports mentioned during the podcast are also available on our website.

Get the latest episode on Apple Podcasts , on Google PlayStitcher, or your favorite podcast platform.

And find more ways to listen here:

Resilience in a Time of Crisis: NTSB Employees Shine Despite Uncertainty

By Chairman Robert Sumwalt

It’s been quite a year! This time last year, none of us had heard of COVID-19. It’s still difficult to process the profound effect that this crisis has had, and continues to have, on people’s lives and on society.

At the NTSB, we understand all too well the duality of a crisis: difficult challenges bringing out the best in people. And this year, our people shined during an unpredictable and stressful time. By putting people first in 2020, we were able to grow, stay engaged, and thrive. From our hastily scrambled-together makeshift home offices and virtual board rooms, we managed, nonetheless, to get the job done.

As expected, our employees showed great resilience and agility, adapting to significant operational change in an uncertain and fast-changing landscape. Following the start of our max telework operations in March, NTSB employees found ways to continue delivering our high-quality products from home. Although I’ve always had high expectations of the NTSB workforce, I can honestly say that, considering the challenges we’ve all faced over the past 9 months, NTSB employees have surpassed all expectations.

The creativity and resilience of our employees working in the virtual environment has led to some unexpected efficiencies, too—in both time and resources. Through our employees’ hard work, the agency has been able to catch up on backlogs, follow up on and close several open recommendations, and publish more reports and products than in years past, putting us in a stronger position moving forward.

Since the beginning of March, our investigative staff across each of the transportation modes have completed 1,293 investigations—a 21‑percent increase over the same period last year.

The employees in our Office of Research and Engineering (RE), who support all our investigations by reading out recorders, providing medical expertise, analyzing materials to determine failure modes, and conducting statistical analyses and data requests, completed 760 reports and fulfilled 240 data requests. Within RE, the vehicle recorders investigative staff completed 361 reports, decreasing their backlog by 60 percent. The materials lab staff reduced their backlog to the lowest it’s been in 12 years.

Since the beginning of the year, our Freedom of Information Act backlog decreased by 85 percent, thanks to the hard work of the employees in our records management division. With a backlog now in the double digits, we have the lowest level of open cases in 8 years. These employees are committed to eliminating the backlog entirely.

NTSB Board meetings, which are essentially hearings where the full Board deliberates accident findings, probable cause, and recommendations, are always conducted in open, publicly attended meetings. Thanks to the efforts of many, we successfully conducted seven virtual Board meetings. Although Board meetings have been webcast for years, these virtual meetings have had some of the highest ever attendance by remote viewers. Three of the seven had over 1,000 remote viewers, and one was the highest ever attended by remote viewers, with nearly 2,500 viewers.

Our Administrative Law Judges conducted 10 virtual hearings, with two more scheduled for next week. Meanwhile, the employees in the Office of the Chief Financial Officer worked with outside auditors to obtain the agency’s 18th consecutive clean audit opinion. This involved working in the virtual space to supply auditors with over 300 documents.

The employees of the NTSB Training Center quickly adopted to the virtual environment, offering eight courses that typically would be taught in person at our training center in Ashburn, Virginia. This is in addition to producing over 40 training courses that are typically administered online for NTSB employees.

Our chief data scientist collaborated with the NTSB’s enterprise architect, our various modal offices, and employees in our Office of Safety Recommendations and Communications (SRC) to develop and roll out a new multimodal database known as SAFTI—System for Analysis of Transportation Investigations. Concurrent with this project, NTSB staff developed a new online database search tool known as CAROL—Case Analysis and Reporting Online query tool, which provides the public with advanced search capability when seeking investigative information. SAFTI and CAROL were mandated by Congress and, through the tireless efforts of our employees, the project was completed on time.

There are several other important functions that our employees performed behind the scenes, such as recruiting and onboarding new employees, working to procure contracts, writing legal opinions and providing legal counsel, along with other administrative tasks. Our managing director and her staff, along with other senior agency leaders, run the NTSB’s day-to-day operations. All of these employees are so vital to keeping the wheels of the agency turning, whether it’s through clear skies or through the dark overcast of a pandemic.   

None of this could have been possible without a robust IT network. Many of us, myself included, had never heard of Microsoft Teams or Zoom at the beginning of 2020. Thankfully, all throughout 2019, NTSB’s IT team was busily implementing a highly available, resilient network with state-of-the-art virtual collaboration tools. When the pandemic hit, these IT enhancements allowed us to continue to fulfill our mission, virtually and without delay.

Additionally, employees were able to stay informed and connected during 100 percent max telework thanks to the launch of our internal intranet platform, InsideNTSB. The SRC team deployed the new site at the end of February. It has become a daily hub for communications where employees can find fresh news and event announcements, work resources, and articles spotlighting staff and office achievements. 

Fundamental to accomplishing our mission was the commitment to keep our people safe. We assembled a COVID team consisting of our in-house medical professionals and representatives from other offices, including our managing director’s office, human resources division, and our workplace safety experts. The team was tasked with determining the safest and most appropriate way for us to resume investigative travel, including launching to investigations and investigative follow-up activities. Working in close collaboration, our RE and CIO staff developed a COVID dashboard, which shows the COVID rate in near real time for each county in the country. This information is fed into an extensive risk assessment that we use to determine how to proceed with travel.

All of this is to say how much I appreciate the resilience and commitment of the great employees of the NTSB, including the agency’s leadership team. While faced with a crisis of unimagined proportion, these employees have shown great resolve. It’s our employees that make the NTSB one of the best places to work in the federal government.

I wish all a safe and healthy holiday season, and a very good new year!

The Safety of ‘Part 135’ Flights—Why Should You Care?

Shaun Williams, Senior Aviation Accident Investigator, and Amy Terrone, Safety Advocate

Ever paid for a helicopter tour over a scenic spot, like the islands of Hawaii or the Grand Canyon? Ever needed an emergency medical flight to a hospital or known someone who has? Ever joined the company CEO on a chartered flight to visit a client, or pitched in with friends to charter an airplane as part of a hunting trip or wedding party?

Part 135 certificated flights—more specifically, commuter and on-demand operations—include a variety of aircraft types and segments, many subject to different requirements. Although Part 135 operations are generally very safe, what you may not know is that these operations aren’t required to have all the same safety systems as commercial airlines. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) doesn’t mandate all air medical service, air taxi, or on-demand flights to have safety management systems (SMSs), flight data recorders and systems, and some other key safety critical training practices required of passenger-carrying commercial operations (or “Part 121”).

Unfortunately, our recent accident investigations have highlighted this safety gap. We have investigated too many Part 135 accidents since 2000, resulting in dozens of fatalities, that may have been prevented if operators had implemented important safety processes, whether as a result of FAA regulations or their own initiative. Because of our concerns, the NTSB added “Improve the Safety of Part 135 Aircraft Flight Operations” to our Most Wanted List of transportation safety improvements for 2019–2020.

The number of commercial flights this year has decreased dramatically due to the COVID‑19 pandemic, and there are indications that customers are turning to the Part 135 segment for some of their flying needs. This only increases our concern for the safety of these operations. According to a recent New York Times article, for example, many more travelers are considering Part 135 operations for leisure and business travel due to the limited availability of commercial flights as well as the desire to avoid crowded airports and airplanes.

So, what specific regulations are we asking the FAA to implement that are already required of commercial airliners but not of Part 135 operators? We want the FAA to:  

  • require SMSs—a formal, top-down, organization-wide approach to managing and tracking safety that also helps instill a strong safety culture in operations, and
  • require flight data monitoring programs (FDMs)—that is, use technology that records airplane flight data, then make adjustments based on operational data to improve safety going forward.

Although most executive-style Part 135 jets and turboprop aircraft chartered for business purposes are quite safe and even sometimes operate above and beyond what commercial airlines implement, we have seen a few cases in this segment in recent years that raise concern and prompted the bulk of our recommendations in this area. For example, in November 2015, we investigated an accident involving a chartered business jet, Execuflight flight 1526, that crashed into an apartment building on approach to the Akron Fulton International airport in Akron, Ohio. The flight was carrying seven employees of a Florida-based company, all of whom, as well as the captain and first officer, died. Fortunately, no one on the ground was injured. As an on‑demand flight, Execuflight flight 1526 was operating under Part 135 regulations. Our investigation revealed that the operator did not have a SMS or FDM program, either voluntarily or by regulation, that may have prevented the accident. As a result of this crash, we recommended that the FAA require that Part 135 operators like Execuflight have SMS and FDM programs, just as commercial airlines have had for years.

Image from November 2015 Execuflight crash on approach to the Akron Fulton International airport in Akron, Ohio.

Even if the FAA doesn’t require these programs, Part 135 operators should voluntarily adopt them, scalable to their operations, to ensure the highest level of safety for their aircraft and passengers. But, without regulatory requirements, some operators may not implement these safety policies to ensure that their flights are as safe as possible.

It’s important to remember that aviation in the United States is the safest form of transportation. As a customer, you can play a role in keeping it the safest and in improving the safety of on-demand operations. Before you book a flight, do a bit of research and ask a few questions. The following are a few examples of questions you might ask air charter operators directly or the broker if that’s who made your flight arrangements:

  • Does the operator hold its own FAA Air Carrier Certificate? Request copies.
  • Does the operator have a history of any accidents or recordable incidents?
  • Does the operator have an SMS program?
  • Does the operator use flight data recorders and FDM programs?
  • Does the operator belong to any safety organizations? Do these organizations audit or provide some sort of safety review for their members, which could possibly give an insight into their safety program?

You can visit the websites of organizations such as the Air Charter Safety Foundation and its sister organization, the National Air Transportation Association (NATA) for information on these types of operations. The NATA also fulfills the important role of educating the flying public about illegal charters, an increasing safety concern for the industry and for the NTSB.  The FAA also has a helpful website to identify safe air charter operations and how consumers can identify safe and unsafe operators. Illegal or unlicensed air charter operations—those who avoid FAA regulations and compromise safety for a buck or to meet a customer’s unrealistic demands—pose a serious safety hazard. You should look for charter operators who at least comply with current regulations—if not those that do more, such as have an SMS program in place—and reward them with your business.

By doing a little homework in advance, you can make an informed—and important—decision about boarding a Part 135 flight. You might also be making these flights safer for other passengers by making operators aware that their customers are watching and demanding safer operations.