All posts by ntsbgov

Safely Share our Nation’s Waterways this Fourth of July

By Tracy Murrell

As boaters of all kinds and types crowd the waterways this Fourth of July to observe the night’s fireworks spectacle, keep in mind the other boaters around you. America’s waterways—which include commercially navigable ocean, coastal, and inland waters—have become increasingly more crowded over the past several decades. With commercial shipments of passengers and goods, recreational motorboats, personal watercraft, kayaks, and paddleboards all sharing our nation’s waterways, this growth in traffic presents challenges to the safe operation of all.

This will be no more evident than on the Fourth of July, where, for example, in the Chesapeake Bay off the coast of Maryland you could find both motorboat and cargo ship sitting side by side waiting for the familiar boom and clap of fireworks off the shoreline.

Dangerously close encounters between commercial vessels and recreational craft on shared waterways are becoming all too frequent. In fact, the US Coast Guard reports that, in 2014, seven people were killed and nine others were injured in 18 accidents involving a recreational craft and a commercial vessel.

This weekend, consider all the waterway users around you—whether they be small, non-motorized craft or large ships—and take proper safety precautions to share our waterways safely. Follow these tips:

  • Wear a life jacket at all times. Putting on a life jacket when you’re in the water is too late!
  • Don’t operate a vessel while impaired. Boating Under the Influence (BUI) continues to be leading contributor of fatal boating accidents.
  • Maintain safe boating speeds and observe “No Wake” zones.
  • Always have a designated lookout in place.
  • If you are using a kayak, canoe, paddleboard, or other human-powered watercraft, stay close to the shore, wear high visibility clothing, and travel in a single file at all times.
  • If you are operating a personal watercraft, avoid shipping channels, and stay clear of ships, water taxis, and commercial tugs and barges.


Tracy Murrell is the Director of the NTSB Office of Marine Safety.

Celebrating our Independence Responsibly

By Dr. T. Bella Dinh-Zarr

image of the ConstitutionOn Independence Day, or the Fourth of July, Americans celebrate the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. In it, we declared not only our independence, but also that we have “…certain unalienable rights, [and] that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Millions of Americans celebrate Independence Day every year, with parades, barbecues, and fireworks. But all too often we Americans squander the very rights we celebrate – and deprive others of theirs – when we choose to get behind the wheel impaired.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, in 2013, more than 500 people were killed in motor vehicle crashes over the Fourth of July holiday (6 p.m. July 3 through 5:59 a.m. July 8). Of those fatalities, nearly 200 occurred in crashes that involved at least one driver or motorcycle operator with a BAC of .08 or higher. During that same time, the rate of alcohol impairment among drivers involved in fatal crashes was more than three times higher at night than during the day.

With liberty comes responsibility. So to help our readers safeguard their own life, liberty, and continued pursuit of happiness – and those of their fellow Americans – the NTSB offers these July 4 tips:

  • “July 4sight” – plan ahead. If your celebration involves alcohol, take public transportation, designate a sober driver, or call a local cab service to get you safely home. It’s not just your life you’re putting at risk!


  • “Homeland” defense – host like you mean it. If you’re hosting a celebration in your home, make sure that your friends and family are sober before getting behind the wheel. The Constitution says you don’t have to quarter soldiers in your home… but your party guests are your responsibility!


  • “Liberty without Virtue [is] Folly, vice, and madness, without… ” Wear your seatbelt – it’s your single greatest defense against death and injury in the event of a crash. And ensure that everyone in your car is buckled up. Keep your children safe; make sure they are properly restrained using a child safety seat or booster seat.


  • Good government: July 4th crackdown on impaired drivers. As Thomas Jefferson said, “The care of human life and happiness, and not their destruction, is the first and only object of good government.” This Fourth of July, law enforcement will be out in full force, aggressively targeting those who put human life and happiness in danger by drinking and driving. Don’t be among them.

Let’s celebrate this Fourth of July responsibly, and do our part to protect all Americans’ rights on the roads by encouraging others to do the same.

Dr. T. Bella Dinh-Zarr is Vice Chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board.

Motorcycle Safety: Freedom Isn’t Free

By Nicholas Worrell

Motorcycle with an American flag.The Fourth of July is coming, and so are motorcycle rallies around the nation—from Fly Our Flag High in Minnesota to the Hollister Independence Day Motorcycle Rally in California. Riding is about freedom; maybe that’s why bike rallies are such a natural fit with the Fourth.

But freedom isn’t free.

As a motorcyclist myself, I know that the feeling of freedom we experience out on the open road needs to be balanced with the good forethought to take smart precautions. Responsibility comes with freedom—or vice versa—and it’s not only responsibility to yourself, but to your family, your friends, and others on the road.

If I might be forgiven for quoting an Englishman in a Fourth of July blog, actor Hugh Laurie once said that riding a motorcycle is “like flying. All your senses are alive.” He also recently tweeted, “As they used to say… there are old motorcyclists, and bold motorcyclists, but there are no old, bold motorcyclists.”

So you young motorcyclists, listen up. And you old motorcyclists spread the word. The price we pay for the freedom to ride is not just the cost of the bike – it is the constant attention to safety.

I see young riders taking to the streets on bikes like a Kawasaki ZX10R Ninja, Yamaha FJR 1300, or a Harley Davidson V-Rod shortly after passing their motorcycle tests. I wonder whether they know and understand the power and speed of such models.

I started off with a Honda 150, moved up to a 250, and finally learned to operate bigger bikes like a 600, 750 or 1000. That longer learning curve gave me a chance to improve my physical and mental skills.

At the same time, as I moved up through different models, I learned first-hand the value of proper protective gear. When—not if—you lay that bike down, you need protection between the pavement, the bike, and you.

Brett Robinson, executive director of the National Association of State Motorcycle Safety Administrators, reminds us that “gearing up” is not just about wearing the right protective clothing. “Gearing up also means training and lifelong learning.”

According to Robinson,“If you haven’t received training, you should seek training. And don’t just get training once and think you’re done. We need to get training throughout our riding careers, continuously improving our skills. And not only our physical skills but our mental skills as well, because riding is so much mental.”

Robinson also says there’s a lot of merit to mentorship programs, where new riders ride with more experienced riders. But, he says, “the experienced rider should ride at the level of the new rider, and not vice versa.”

One of the greatest riders and stuntmen ever, Evel Knievel, said, “Riding a motorcycle on today’s highways, you have to ride in a very defensive manner. You have to be a good rider and you have to have both hands and both feet on the controls at all times.”

Concentrate and focus on the riding task, not on distractions. Be on the lookout for distracted drivers who don’t see you, and stay mentally engaged. (With all the new technology on the bike today, operating the vehicle itself can be a tall order – don’t complicate it with distractions that aren’t related to operating the vehicle!)

Don’t ride if you’re too tired, and don’t ride while impaired. And that doesn’t just mean alcohol and illicit drugs. Prescription medications and over-the-counter medications could also be sources of impairment.

What about “the other guy,” the one in the passenger vehicle who should share the road?

“Never trust anybody,” Robinson says. “You have to ride like you’re invisible.”

But while Robinson recognizes that any given motorist might not see a rider, he also urges riders to make themselves as visible to motorists as possible. “Being conspicuous is so important,” he says. “When I ride I wear a reflective vest, and I think it makes a big difference.”

This Fourth of July, get out there and celebrate freedom in the way motorcyclists do. But remember that, as Thomas Jefferson said, “the price of liberty is eternal vigilance.”

Safe riding takes a commitment to protecting yourself, other riders, and motorists.

Nicholas Worrell is Chief of the NTSB’s Office of Communications’ Safety Advocacy Division.

A Beautiful Mind; A Tragic Loss

By Robert L. Sumwalt

CIOT-Infographics_1I spend a fair amount of time on airline flights these days. I usually spend most of that time working and catching up on reading. Late last month, however, I did something I rarely do – I watched an inflight movie. The movie, 2001’s “A Beautiful Mind,” starred Russell Crowe as Dr. John Nash, widely regarded as one of the greatest mathematicians of the 20th Century.

The movie depicted many of Nash’s struggles with mental illness and how he overcame those struggles to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1994. The last scene showed Nash and his wife, Alicia, departing the ceremony with happy words scrolling across the screen: “John and Alicia Nash live in Princeton, New Jersey. John keeps regular office hours in the Mathematics Department. He still walks to campus every day.”

Despite the movie’s happy ending, the real-life story did not end so happily. On May 24, 2015, just a few days before I watched the movie, John and Alicia Nash were killed in an automobile crash. The NTSB is not involved with the investigation of this crash, but according to news reports, they were sitting in the back seat of a taxi when another car ran into their vehicle. Neither John nor Alicia were wearing a seat belt; tragically, they were ejected from the vehicle and died at the scene. The taxi driver was treated for non-life threatening injuries.

The question that came to my mind was, “Why would someone so brilliant make such a devastating decision — not to wear a seatbelt?” Perhaps there’s a false sense of security when it comes to riding in the back seat, especially in taxis. CBS News recently featured a story, however, which should dispel any false beliefs about not needing to wear seat belts in the back seat.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) teamed with Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia to examine the characteristics of back seat safety. Among the report’s findings was that “the risk of serious injury was nearly 8 times higher among unrestrained rear-row occupants as compared with those using restraints.”

With numbers like that, each of us — mathematical genius and layperson alike – can understand why it is important to wear seat belts, even in the back seat. Make sure every occupant is buckled up when getting on the road.

Member Robert SumwaltRobert L. Sumwalt has been a Member of the NTSB since 2006. He is a frequent contributor to the blog.

ESC for Heaviest Trucks and Buses: A Great First Step Toward Saving Lives

Photo of Indianapolis, IN, rollover crash of combination vehicle.
Indianapolis, IN, rollover crash of combination vehicle.

By Robert Molloy

The NTSB has long urged that trucks and buses be equipped with electronic stability control (ESC) to help prevent and mitigate crashes. ESC automatically helps drivers maintain directional control when they cannot steer and brake quickly enough on their own. We are pleased that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) released a final rule earlier this month—FMVSS No. 136that will help drivers of large vehicles do just that.

The new rule requires ESC systems on heavy trucks and large buses with weight ratings over 26,000 pounds, and NHTSA is beginning the process of expanding the requirement to include medium-sized vehicles between 10,000 and 26,000 pounds.

The rule covers vehicles such as the truck-tractor cargo tank semitrailer involved in the 2009 Indianapolis, Indiana, crash.

In that crash, the driver of the combination unit, which was loaded with 9,000 gallons of liquefied petroleum gas, went through a guardrail and collided with the support structure of an interstate overpass. The truck driver had been negotiating a left curve in the right lane on the connection ramp, which consisted of two southbound lanes, when the combination unit began to encroach upon the left lane, occupied by a passenger car. The truck driver responded by oversteering clockwise, causing the combination unit to veer to the right and travel onto the paved right shoulder. The driver’s excessive, rapid, evasive steering caused the cargo tank semitrailer to roll over and separate from the truck-tractor. A large explosion followed the crash, and five people were seriously injured.

The NTSB determined that the rollover might have been prevented had the truck been equipped with an ESC system. As a result of this investigation, the NTSB issued two recommendations requiring ESC on all commercial vehicles.

The new rule is a good first step. Applying the rule to all vehicles over 10,000 pounds is difficult, as hydraulic ESC systems for commercial vehicles are just beginning to be deployed. However, until ESC is expanded to cover commercial vehicles below 26,000 pounds, we may still see crashes such as the one NTSB investigated in Dolan Springs, Arizona. In that crash, a medium-size tour bus with a weight rating of 19,500 pounds was traveling on a four-lane divided highway when it started moving to the left and out of its lane at about 70 mph. The driver steered sharply back to the right, crossing both lanes and entering the right shoulder. The driver overcorrected to the left, again crossing both lanes. The bus entered a median and rolled all the way over before coming to rest on its side. As a result, seven passengers died and nine others were injured.

As vehicle safety technologies continue to be developed, ESC becomes all the more important. ESC is a necessary component of, and serves as a platform for, other life-saving technologies such as collision avoidance systems that include autonomous emergency braking (AEB). According to our Special Investigation Report (SIR) on The Use of Forward CAS to Prevent and Mitigate Rear-End Crashes, the full benefits of AEB for commercial vehicles can be achieved only when such a braking system is installed on vehicles also equipped with ESC. Equipping commercial vehicles with both AEB and ESC would be an effective countermeasure against rear-end collisions.

NHTSA estimates the new ESC rule—which will be rolled out in stages over the next four years—will prevent as many as 1,759 crashes, 649 injuries, and 49 deaths each year. When it becomes expanded to smaller vehicles, even more lives will be saved.

Robert Molloy, PhD, is the Acting Director of the NTSB’s Office of Highway Safety.

Perfect Storm

By Rachel Smith

MITAGS Simulator (photo provided by MITAGS)
MITAGS Simulator (photo provided by MITAGS)

The “perfect storm” overcomes us. Our ship rocks back and forth. Fog sets in obscuring our vision of the passing ships. We navigate the channels based only on our radar and control systems. Panic is beginning to set in. But, then I remember, this is a simulation.

I relocated to Washington, DC to be a student trainee for the summer with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). I recently had the opportunity to visit the Maritime Institute of Technology and Graduate Studies (MITAGS) campus in Baltimore, Maryland with NTSB’s Vice Chairman Bella Dinh-Zarr and Tracy Murrell, Director, Office of Marine Safety. MITAGS is a vocational training center for individuals seeking to enter the maritime profession and for professional mariners seeking to advance their careers. This visit was particularly special to me, because I am from Florida and have grown up around beautiful water ways and beaches. Marine safety is vital, because it helps to protect people, marine life, animals and our precious natural resources.

The technology MITAGS has available allows students to experience challenging scenarios in the safety of a classroom setting. The ship handling simulation scenario we experienced is one of many MITAGS can recreate to prepare their students. MITAGS’ staff showed us the inner workings of their simulations. In addition to the ship handling simulator, MITAGS also has a 300° tug simulator.

After a presentation about MITAGS we made our way to the ship handling simulator’s wheelhouse, and the environment suddenly began to change to mimic that of a ship. The narrow hallway leads to a steep staircase and soon the wheelhouse came into view. The wheelhouse is equipped with navigational technology that would be on a fully equipped ship. There is a small table to lay out navigational material, and even a reading lamp to account for the dim lighting. Every detail makes you feel as though you are sailing through, in our case, the Port of Baltimore.

Surrounding the wheelhouse is a nearly three story tall 360° screen, which the instructor controls from an adjacent room. The instructor has controls to adjust your location, the weather, ship length and the cargo you are carrying. The instructor is also able to control the ships that are sailing in your view. For an extra layer of challenge during our simulation, we were faced with a burning ship on our port side. To monitor the student’s progress, the instructor is also equipped with devices that show every action the student takes to maneuver and monitor the ship, as well as streaming video feed of the wheelhouse.

MITAGS combines high education standards with rigorous simulation exposure and assessment, to equip their students with the tools to safely and successfully navigate their maritime careers. With more than 120 courses, MITAGS allows for specialized training in various areas. They have courses covering a range of disciplines from upgrading to the Chief Mate or Master’s level, continuing education for Tug and Barge, and everything in between.

My experience in a controlled simulation was only a small glimpse at the challenges mariners can potentially face during their time at sea. Although, you may not be maneuvering a ship this summer, remember to be safe as you enjoy your summer time on the water. Always be prepared for inclement weather, because you never know when the “perfect storm” could set in.

Rachel Smith is an intern with the NTSB

A Sobering Experience

By Vice Chairman Bella Dinh-Zarr

Photo of Chairman Hart and Vice Chairman Dinh-Zarr at a  sobriety checkpointLast Friday, Chairman Hart and I, along with several NTSB investigators, observed a sobriety checkpoint in Lanham, Maryland. The checkpoint, which searches for alcohol-impaired drivers, was run by the Special Operations Division of the Prince George’s County, Maryland, Police Department (PGPD). 

For those who challenge the need for such an event, let me remind you: more than 10,000 people die each year from crashes involving alcohol-impaired drivers. For one of our investigators on hand that evening, retired P.G. County police officer Kenny Bragg, the checkpoint brought home to him one experience that changed him forever. He told me about the trauma of having to knock on a stranger’s door to tell them that a loved one had died after a crash involving alcohol. Sobriety checkpoints are meant to stop another family from having to experience such a tragedy.

And, I can relate.

When I was 9 years old in early 1981, the station wagon my mom was driving was struck by a drunk driver. My brother and I were in the back seat and fortunately, perhaps because we had been fighting, my mom made us wear our seat belts. My brother and I weren’t hurt in the crash, but my mom was injured even though she had her seatbelt on. The drunk driver who ran into us lived in my town and was known to both my family and the police, but he was never charged.

In those days, more than 20,000 people per year were dying in crashes involving alcohol-impaired drivers. Mothers Against Drunk Driving had just begun to bring the issue of drunk driving into the national spotlight.

Since then, we have learned a lot about the impact of drinking and driving. All over the country, High Visibility Enforcement (HVE) efforts, which include the use of sobriety checkpoints, have helped significantly reduce impaired driving crashes. Well-implemented sobriety checkpoint programs have been shown to reduce alcohol-related fatal and injury crashes by about 20 percent in the communities where they are used.

This past Friday night, after the officers safely secured the checkpoint area with overhead lighting and safety cones, and officers took their positions on the line, I watched as vehicles began moving through. Within a few minutes, an officer identified a driver he believed to be impaired. It turned out, he was right! The officer conducted a field sobriety test and the driver took an alcohol breath test (breathalyzer test). His preliminary reading was .10 BAC; over the legal .08 BAC limit. 

I observed hundreds of drivers passing through. And, because of the efforts of the PGPD, 12 people were detained and their sobriety evaluated. Although 4 of the 12 were actually arrested, all 12 were found to have some level of impairment and were taken off the road. Who knows what could have happened if they had remained on the road? Maybe someone would have become a victim like my mother or, perhaps worse, like the victims Kenny visited.

Getting drunk drivers off the road is critically important, but it’s even more important to ensure that individuals who drink don’t get behind the wheel in the first place. Improvements in impaired driving laws and stronger law enforcement have had an important impact. Since 1981, we’ve seen the number of impaired driving deaths reduced by half, and our attitudes about drunk driving have changed greatly.

But more work needs to be done. That is why ending substance impairment in transportation is on the NTSB Most Wanted List of safety improvements, and why we are pushing for wider implementation of countermeasures we know will reduce drunk-driving crashes and fatalities.

As I watched the excellent work done by the PGPD, the road safety advocate in me recognized the long-term value of their efforts. But that 9-year-old little girl in me simply thought, “Thank you – somebody’s mom got home safely tonight.”