Black History Month and Transportation Safety

By Nicholas Worrell, Chief, NTSB Safety Advocacy Division

Our stoplight system—red for stop, green for go, and yellow for caution—benefits every motorist in the nation. Yet, most people don’t realize that the system was invented by a Black man whose father was formerly enslaved: Garrett Morgan.

A largely self-taught inventor and a hard worker, Morgan was the first Black person in his city of Cleveland, Ohio, to own a car. In 1923, he realized the need for a yellow signal after seeing a crash at an intersection, and the rest is history. As a result, our roads are much safer today.

But they’re not equally safe for all communities. As Chair Jennifer Homendy has said, “Black road users are not as safe as their white counterparts—and these disparities are unacceptable.” For example:

  • Traffic fatalities among Black people increased by 23% between 2019 and 2020, compared to an overall increase of 7.2%. (NHTSA)
  • From 2010–2019, Black people were struck and killed by drivers at an 82% higher rate than white, non-Hispanic Americans. (Smart Growth America)
  • Drivers are less likely to yield to Black people walking and biking than white people doing those activities. Black pedestrians were passed by twice as many cars and experienced 32% longer wait times for cars to yield to them than white pedestrians. (National Institute for Transportation and Communities)

This month, we celebrate Garrett Morgan and all Black leaders who’ve worked to improve transportation safety. We should also take this time to examine the shameful statistics and work to address their root causes. We can’t address the problems different communities face in transportation until we recognize the diversity of the communities we serve and the disparities between them. These statistics beg the question: How much of the full transportation safety story are we overlooking?

Members of the transportation safety community must understand how—and who—transportation tragedies strike, and we must engage the communities we want to help in designing solutions. We need representatives of all colors, creeds, and perspectives to improve transportation for everyone, regardless of their race.

Garrett Morgan improved life for all in the U.S. Yet during his time, a time before civil rights, overt racism was so common that it was literally built into our transportation system’s asphalt and concrete bones. We owe it to Black pioneers like Garrett Morgan—and to all the traveling public—to make transportation safety more equitable.  

February 20: International Day Commemorating Air Crash Victims and Families

By Elias Kontanis, Chief, NTSB Transportation Disaster Assistance Division

This year, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) designated February 20 the International Day Commemorating Air Crash Victims and Families. Although ICAO has addressed various aspects of family assistance for decades, this is the first time a day has been set aside to remember and honor all who lost their lives in air disasters and their families.

ICAO’s interest in family assistance dates to 1976, with the inclusion of a recommended practice in Annex 13, the document that outlines standards and recommended practices for accident investigations. The following is a brief timeline of significant ICAO activities related to family assistance.

  • 1976: Contracting States (that is, countries) whose citizens are involved in a crash are granted access to information about the crash investigation and play a direct role in identifying their citizens. This recommended practice was strengthened to a standard in 2001.
  • 1998: The ICAO Assembly acknowledges that “the policy of the ICAO should be to ensure that the mental, physical and spiritual well-being of victims involved in civil aviation accidents and their families are considered and accommodated by ICAO and its Contracting States.”[1]
  • 2001: In response to Assembly Resolution A32-7, ICAO issues Circ 285, “Guidance on Assistance to Aircraft Accident Victims and their Families,” a keystone document for countries interested in developing family assistance programs. Circ 285 provides guidance on the various aspects of a comprehensive family assistance operation.
  • 2005: Provisions are included in Annex 9, “Facilitation,” to enable victims’ family members to expeditiously enter the State in which the accident occurred. Additional provisions address repatriation of remains and emergency travel documents for family members and accident survivors.
  • 2013: ICAO issues Doc 9998, “ICAO Policy on Assistance to Aircraft Accident Victims and Their Families,” and Doc 9973, “Manual on Assistance to Aircraft Accident Victims and Their Families.”
  • 2015: Annex 9 is further amended with Recommended Practice 8.46, which encourages Contracting States to establish legislation, regulations, and/or policies in support of assistance to aircraft accident victims and their families.
  • 2021: ICAO convenes its first International Symposium on Assistance to Aircraft Accident Victims and Their Families. This 3-day event, hosted by the governments of Spain and the Canary Islands, provides an opportunity for participants to share best practices and lessons learned to support the development of family assistance programs. NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy and I were honored to participate as guest speakers at this important event.
  • 2021: ICAO’s Global Aviation Training Section begins developing a 3-day course designed to provide Contracting States, as well as aircraft and airport operators, the foundational knowledge to develop family assistance plans. The NTSB is a proud partner in this effort.
  • 2021: ICAO proposes elevating Recommended Practice 8.46 to a standard and developing a new recommended practice encouraging aircraft and airport operators to develop family assistance plans. Again, the United States stands with a significant number of other States in support of this initiative.

Through the Aviation Disaster Family Assistance Act of 1996, the United States committed to addressing the needs of passengers’ families following an aviation disaster. This commitment continues to grow. Today, the NTSB is the lead federal agency responsible for coordinating federal resources to support the families of air crash victims, as well as the victims of any other transportation disaster the NTSB investigates.

As family assistance specialists, my team and I work every day with the families of those lost in transportation crashes, trying to shed what light we can during some of their darkest days. We provide information during a time of uncertainty, address questions, and facilitate access to services that help loved ones navigate the loss they have suffered.

We have this charge in common with family assistance specialists all around the world, and we work collaboratively with international colleagues to enhance family assistance programs worldwide. We offer representatives of ICAO Contracting States seats in our family assistance course to help them develop or enhance their family assistance programs. We deliver presentations and participate in discussion panels overseas on family assistance, and we assist ICAO in developing its 3-day family assistance course.

Over the decades, the strength of survivors and victims’ families has humbled us. We have seen them organize not only to support each other through the grieving process, but also to advocate for change to enhance transportation safety so that others never have to face the same kind of loss.

We at the NTSB stand alongside our international colleagues in honoring the International Day Commemorating Air Crash Victims and Families. No traveler likes to ponder the possibility, however remote, that a flight will crash. But, if the unthinkable happens, the NTSB and our counterparts around the globe are dedicated to supporting crash survivors and family members.

[1] International Civil Aviation Organization. Assembly Resolution A32-7. Resolutions Adopted at the 32nd Session of the Assembly. Montreal, Quebec; Sept. 22–Oct. 2, 1998.

The Super Bowl—By the Numbers

By Member Tom Chapman

This year, the Super Bowl will be played on Sunday, February 13th. Like many Americans, I circled the date on my calendar months ago. It’s a special day to enjoy with family and friends.  It’s a day to watch the biggest game of the year while indulging in favorite football fare— buffalo wings, salsa and chips, and a cold beer or two.

Fifty-six years of Super Bowls have generated lots of impressive numbers. In 1995, the San Francisco 49ers beat the San Diego Chargers by a score of 49 to 26. That’s a combined score of 75 points, making it the highest-scoring Super Bowl in history. Carolina Panthers Muhsin Muhammad’s 85-yard touchdown reception in Super Bowl XXXVIII (2004) still stands as the longest passing play. The Pittsburg Steelers and New England Patriots are tied as the winningest teams, at six Super Bowl wins each. Every team strives for higher scores, longer plays, and more Super Bowl wins.

At the NTSB, like everyone who works in traffic safety, we strive to reach the number ZERO. That’s the number that matters the most—zero traffic deaths.

This year, the Super Bowl will take place at SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles, only five miles from the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum where the very first Super Bowl was played in 1967. That year, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), a staggering 50,724 road users died on our roadways. Since then, some progress has been made toward reducing traffic deaths. But we are nowhere near our vision of zero. And the trend is alarmingly up in the last few years. According to NHTSA’s latest estimate, 38,680 people died in traffic crashes in 2020. That was the highest number of traffic fatalities since 2007. To put this in perspective, SoFi Stadium has a capacity of 70,240. The 38,680 preventable traffic deaths in 2020 would have filled 55% of the seats.

Super Bowl Sundays have regularly seen higher traffic fatalities over the years. A disturbing trend was revealed by a look at the 12-hour period (Sunday 6 pm to Monday 6 am) of five previous Super Bowl Sundays (2015–2019). A total of 244 traffic deaths occurred in those five 12-hour periods (a total of 60 hours) on Super Bowl Sundays. For comparison, the traffic deaths were 202 and 187 for the same 12-hour period one week before and one week after a Super Bowl Sunday, respectively.

It’s hard to say exactly why we often see higher traffic deaths on Super Bowl Sundays. However, alcohol consumption is certainly one factor. According to an analysis of NHTSA data, 46% of the 244 traffic deaths during the 12-hour period on the five Super Bowl Sundays were alcohol-related (that is, the police considered at least one driver involved in the crash to be impaired by alcohol, or the driver tested positive for alcohol in their system). What about the Sundays one week before and one week after the five targeted Super Bowl Sundays? Alcohol-related traffic fatalities were 74% higher on Super Bowl Sunday compared to the week before, and 82% higher than the following week.

Analysis of NHTSA fatality data

There are actions everyone can take to prevent these crashes without dampening the enjoyment of the Super Bowl Sunday experience. Impairment starts with the first drink. The smartest action you can take is to separate drinking from driving. Make a plan before you head to a Super Bowl party, so you have a safe way to get home. If you’re hosting a party, check in with your guests to verify they have a sober ride home before they start drinking. Have the contact for a taxi or rideshare service on hand. Be prepared to offer your guests a place to stay overnight if no sober ride is available.

At the NTSB, we’re doing our part. Our 2021­–2022 Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements includes the safety item, “Prevent Alcohol- and Other Drug-Impaired Driving.” NTSB has issued specific recommendations that, if implemented, would help prevent deaths and injuries that are attributed to alcohol impairment. They include requiring all-offender ignition interlocks and .05 percent or lower blood alcohol content limits (or .05 BAC).

The recently enacted Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act advances some of the NTSB’s most important safety recommendations to prevent impaired driving. For example, the new law requires the Secretary of Transportation to issue a final rule within three years requiring all new passenger motor vehicles to be equipped with advanced drunk-driving prevention technology. This is a safety recommendation we made in 2012, and we’re eager to see it move toward acceptable closure .

I look forward to this year’s Super Bowl Sunday, spending time with my family, taking in all the excitement and fun the game (and sometimes the commercials) can offer, and enjoying our favorite game-day food and drinks. My family and friends will do our part to achieve the goal of zero traffic deaths. We will separate drinking from driving. I call on you to do the same.

Recognizing a Quarter Century of 24/7 Response

By Chair Jennifer Homendy

Blue jackets. Devastating scenes. Calm in the wake of tragedy.

This is how many people describe their first impressions of NTSB. It’s not surprising given the international visibility of our on-scene work.

But today is all about who you don’t see: the folks who make the agency’s headline-grabbing work possible.

I’m talking about the incredible people of NTSB’s Response Operations Center, which is today celebrating 25 years of uninterrupted service to our nation.

What is the ROC?

It’s no exaggeration to say the Response Operations Center — or “ROC,” as we affectionally call it — is the agency’s central nervous system.

The ROC is staffed 24-hours-a-day, seven days a week by at least two watch officers. They work three or four consecutive, 12-hour shifts, for a total of about seven shifts over two weeks. 

The room looks as you would imagine: a dozen televisions line the wall in front of desks staffed by watch officers. Newscasters deliver the day’s stories from C-SPAN, the Weather Channel, CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, and various local stations.

NTSB’s Response Operations Center. The photo was taken before the pandemic required the use of masks in our office.

This is where the team takes in reports of transportation-related events around the clock. In addition to monitoring the news outlets, the team fields phone calls and emails from around the world, triages them, and rapidly pushes out the news to NTSB leadership and investigators who need to respond.

But most importantly, the ROC initiates the launch process by notifying the appropriate modal duty officers when an accident or crash occurs. 

As the investigation team members pack their gear, the ROC staff help prepare everything for the launch. This includes setting up conference calls, reserving hotel rooms, and booking rental cars. As for flights, many of the Washington, DC-based go-team members will expedite their travels to investigation destinations using one of the jets managed and operated by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

The NTSB has access to two jets managed and operated by the Federal Aviation Administration.

Origin Story

The first NTSB communications center opened its doors on February 3, 1997, in a conference room at NTSB headquarters.

NTSB’s first communication center in 1997.

The idea to launch a command center came from former NTSB Chairman Jim Hall, who was on scene for the July 17, 1996, Trans World Airlines flight 800 explosion. It was the third-deadliest aviation tragedy in U.S. history.

Befitting its status as “central” to our mission, the agency relocated the ROC in 2014 to a room in the literal center of the building.

What It Takes to Operate for 9,125 Consecutive Days — and Counting

Once settled into its current location, the agency invested in everything needed to operate the ROC without interruption, no matter what.

Here are some examples of what it takes to keep the ROC ready for anything:

  • Computers specifically built to run nonstop, complete with special air filters to keep their internal systems clean.
  • A standalone HVAC system that runs independently from that of the building.
  • A full kitchen to ensure ROC staff can eat and prepare food even if local restaurants are closed.
  • Ever mindful of workplace safety, even the chairs in the ROC are ergonomically designed for continuous use.
  • Regular drills to ensure preparedness. 

The View from the ROC

For many working in the ROC, having a front seat to transportation tragedies can take an emotional toll.  

When asked how they cope, here’s what some team members had to share:

“For me, when these bad things happen, it is sort of like a wake-up call. It helps me appreciate life more.”

“The way I cope is by not following a crash after we play our role in the ROC. I don’t keep tabs on what is going on with them. I have to let go.”

The serious nature of the work may explain why the ROC team has named the electronic voice from its primary notification system.

Similar to the voice from your favorite smart speaker, “Helga” alerts ROC staff when notifications arrive from the FAA, Federal Railroad Administration, or the National Response Center. She’s been a constant in the ROC.

One team member shared that giving the system a persona is another coping mechanism, adding: “If it ever gets lonely in the ROC, there is always Helga to keep you company.”  

Celebrating 25 Years of 24/7 Response

Even as we celebrate the dedicated service of our ROC team, every NTSB employee is working to put ourselves out of a job by making transportation safer.

Until that day arrives, consider sending a mental “thank you” to the incredible professionals of the ROC the next time you’re enjoying the weekend, celebrating a holiday, or enjoying a quiet night at home.

The duty officers are always there, monitoring the safety of our transportation system.

Just as they have for the last 25 years.