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‘Tis the Season…for Safe Digging

By Chair Jennifer Homendy

The warmer months are here, which means more time outside for many of us, whether for recreation or to tackle home-improvement projects.

Personally, I’m looking forward to running in the mornings, biking in the evenings, and spending weekends digging around in my vegetable garden — but not before taking an important safety action.

Call 811 Before You Dig

April is National Safe Digging Month, the perfect time to remind you to call 811 a few days before you put a shovel in the ground for any reason. This includes:

  • Planting trees, bushes, flowers, or vegetables.
  • Installing a fence or a mailbox.
  • Building a deck.

Calling 811 will direct you to the appropriate resource in your state, where you can request to have the location of buried utilities marked with paint or flags before breaking ground. Check out call811.com to learn more — some states even have an online portal where you can submit an electronic request.

It doesn’t matter what the project is, how deep you plan to dig, or whether you’ve dug there before. Utility lines and wells can be located just inches below the surface or even change depths over time, which might not be as uncommon as it sounds.

Understanding that things shift under our feet is important, especially when you consider how much is going on beneath the surface: there are 2.8 million miles of regulated pipelines and 17,000 underground natural gas storage wells in the U.S., according to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA).

Don’t Risk It  

The number-one cause of gas distribution pipeline accidents is excavation damage caused by third parties: anyone not employed by the gas company, such as homeowners or contractors.

In fact, more than a third of all PHMSA-reportable gas distribution pipeline accidents in 2019 had “excavation damage” listed as the incident cause (PHMSA 2021). Of these, 88% were attributed to a third-party.  

If you don’t call 811 before your next home-improvement project, you could disrupt the internet service to your whole neighborhood. Each year, damage to underground utilities costs the U.S. an estimated $30 billion.

Or you could put your entire community at risk. “Improve Pipeline Leak Detection and Mitigation” is on the NTSB’s Most Wanted List because damaged pipelines can be extremely dangerous. 

Unfortunately, this is something I’ve seen up close.

Devastation in San Francisco, California

I was the Board member on scene for the NTSB investigation of a February 6, 2019, pipeline accident in San Francisco, California.

An outdoor fire burns in front of a mini excavator amid smoke as firefighters try to extinguish the flames.
Northwest-facing view of fire during emergency response. (Photo courtesy of PG&E.)

What happened?

In digging to install underground fiber-optic cables, a contractor struck a pipeline, releasing over 1.9 million cubic feet of natural gas. The gas soon ignited.

The fire, which had flames more than two-stories high, reached a fully occupied restaurant with a rental unit above before spreading to the neighboring buildings.

Miraculously, there were no injuries. The accident did, however, cause over $10 million in damage. It also put many lives at risk, including those of the first responders.

How did this happen?

Our investigation determined that the probable cause of the fire was, in laymen’s terms, the contractor’s failure to follow safe digging practices.

While the contractor did call 811 to have utilities marked before beginning work, he used an excavator to mechanically dig too close to the marked utility lines. As a result, the excavator struck the pipeline, which released the gas that later ignited.

The safe thing to do — and the practice required under state law — would have been to use a lower-impact digging technique that close to the pipeline, such as hand digging.

Know What’s Below

While you might not be installing fiber-optic cables in your neighborhood, we can all take a lesson from San Francisco: Call 811 before you dig for any reason — and follow the guidance you’re given. It’s the only way to know what’s below. Never, ever take the risk.

Be careful this spring, wherever your home-improvement projects take you. And if you’re a gardener like me, here’s hoping these April showers pay off with beautiful May flowers…and some home-grown vegetables, too.

Excessive Speed Continues to Take Too Many Lives

By Vice Chairman Bruce Landsberg 

Our recent investigation of the fatal Jan. 5, 2020, multivehicle crash near Mt. Pleasant Township, Pennsylvania, determined that excessive speed played a critical factor. This is a recurring theme in too many highway crash investigations. Between 1967 and 2022, the NTSB has investigated over 50 major crashes in which speed was cited as a safety issue, a cause of the crash, or a contributing factor. And that represents just the tip of the iceberg, given the NTSB selectively investigates highway crashes. We have made numerous safety recommendations prioritizing safety technology, legislation, and education to prevent speed-related crashes and save lives. 

​​​In this photo, the final rest positions of all vehicles involved in crash below the curve on westbound Pennsylvania Turnpike. (Photo courtesy of the Pennsylvania State Police. Graphic overlay by NTSB.)​

The Mt. Pleasant Township investigation and resulting recommendations point out the importance of technology, such as automated speed safety cameras, to limit highway crashes. Safety-focused legislation is also needed to develop performance standards for advanced speed-limiting technology in heavy vehicles. We need education initiatives to inform drivers about the circumstances of the Mt. Pleasant Township crash; the importance of following the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s guidance on engine retarders, “Motorcoach Brake Systems and Safety Technologies”; and the need to incorporate the guidance into their members’ training and manuals.

The changes proposed to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania are applicable to all states as they strive to improve safety on their roads and highways: 

  • Allow speed safety cameras to be used outside of active work zones. (H-22-7)

Safety cameras are a reliable supplement to traditional enforcement. When properly implemented, they offer fair and equitable speeding enforcement. They should not, however, be used as a revenue source for non-safety-related projects, and drivers should be notified about when and where cameras are in use. Where photo enforcement has been used in construction and school zones, the numbers of crashes, injuries, and fatalities have all decreased markedly!

  • Implement the use of variable speed limit signs or other similar technology to adjust speeds in real-time based on weather and road conditions. (H-22-8)

Dynamic speed limits will help drivers adapt to changing road conditions. What’s suitable for dry pavement and light traffic is too fast for heavy traffic and contaminated road surfaces. Well-documented stopping distance tests on wet and icy roads have proved that point consistently. Reduced visibility is deadly, and there have been several massive crashes recently where drivers were unable to see stopped or slowed vehicles ahead of them. One-size speed limits do not fit all conditions or vehicles! 

  • Evaluate the applicability and use of the 85th percentile speed input variable in both of your tools, USLIMITS2 and the National Cooperative Highway Research Program 966, for setting appropriate speed limits to reduce serious and fatal injuries. (H-22-2) 

The 85th percentile is defined as “the speed at or below which 85 percent of all vehicles are observed to travel under free-flowing conditions past a monitored point.” This may not be the safest and most effective way to engineer safety into our roadways. Crash history and the presence of vulnerable road users should also be considered when setting speed limits.

For decades, excessive speed has been a factor in about one-third of all motor vehicle crashes. The NTSB added “Implement a Comprehensive Strategy to Eliminate Speeding-Related Crashes” to the Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements in 2019. Speeding increases the likelihood and severity of crashes. The physics of reaction time, stopping distance, and impact forces are sadly proven every single day—dozens of times.

State and federal government officials, safety advocates, and drivers have critical roles in preventing speed-related crashes. The safety recommendations outlined in the Mt. Pleasant Township crash investigation and in our 2017 safety study, Reducing Speeding-Related Crashes Involving Passenger Vehicles should be implemented in your state. Take action and slow down. Your life and the lives of your loved ones depend on it.

Check out the latest Behind-the-Scene @NTSB podcast episode for more information about the Mt. Pleasant Township, PA crash and investigation. Listen now: https://safetycompass.wordpress.com/?p=5820

Episode 47: Mt. Pleasant Township, PA Crash Investigation

In this episode of Behind-the-Scene @NTSB, Highway Factors Investigator, Dan Walsh discusses the 2020 multi-vehicle crash investigation near Mt. Pleasant Township, PA, and we explore the safety issues and safety recommendations issued as a result of our investigation.

The NTSB final report for the Multivehicle Crash Near Mt. Pleasant
Township, Pennsylvania, mentioned in this episode is available on our website.

For more information about the NTSB Most Wanted List visit our website.

To learn more about the NTSB Safe System Approach Roundtable Series visit our website. Recordings of each installment of the series are available on our YouTube channel.

Subscribe to the podcast on Apple PodcastsStitcher or your favorite podcast platform.

And find more ways to listen here: https://www.blubrry.com/behind_the_scene_ntsb/

Improving Safety in the Second-Largest Continent

By Nicholas Worrell, Chief, NTSB Safety Advocacy Division

In August, 2019, I wrote that Safe Skies for Africa was ending, but that the safety journey would go on in Africa, the world’s second-largest and second-most-populous continent. Earlier this month, it was my pleasure to represent the NTSB in a presentation about best practices in safety advocacy at the Civil Aviation Operational Safety Workshop in Cape Verde.

The occasion was Aviation Safety Week, which gathered together transportation safety leaders from seven African nations, the EU, and the United States to share safety knowledge. Attendees were interested to learn from my presentation that in the United States, the accident investigator—the NTSB—has no power whatsoever to require change.

Enter Advocacy.

It’s been said that information + persuasion = advocacy. The idea is never to misrepresent; rather, it is to present information that makes the case most compellingly. If the case is compelling enough, your advocacy might inspire people to act. Then, they might influence others to act as well, creating a critical force multiplier. I spoke to my audience about advocacy methodology, messaging, and tools, and the absolute need for collaboration, working with and through others. I reminded my audience, though, that advocacy differs with the context and the organization. At the NTSB, for example, it’s the one way we can bring about change and encourage implementation of our recommendations. However, I urged safety leaders in Africa to be mindful that all advocacy is local. What might work in the United States might not necessarily work for all of Africa.

Ultimately, wherever it is done, advocacy done right moves the needle toward saving lives. As transportation safety leaders, I told my audience, we must communicate our work to gain the desired impact and outcomes. We must be proactive and go to our audience, not sit back waiting for them to come to us.

It was an honor addressing these passionate transportation safety leaders from the African region. We should always remember that our transportation safety work crosses air, land, and sea. When we share our lessons learned and best practices, and when others share theirs with us, we may save lives not just nationally, but globally, as well.

The 2021-2022 MWL After One Year: Noticeable Progress But Few Closed Recommendations

By Kathryn Catania, Acting Director, NTSB Office of Safety Recommendations and Communications

Since the unveiling a year ago of the 2021-2022 cycle of the NTSB’s Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements, we have seen increased awareness and discussion of safety items, high levels of engagement from the public, and incremental progress toward implementation of many recommendations.

In the past year, the NTSB has already successfully closed eight safety recommendations associated with this MWL cycle. But that is not enough. There are 167 other key recommendations that, if implemented, would save lives, and prevent injuries.

Soon after the unveiling of the MWL last year, NTSB Board members and staff sprang into action to educate, engage, and amplify the critical safety messages of our 10 safety improvements. Here’s a quick look by mode, starting with Highway, which makes up 5 of our 10 safety improvements. 

Highway

In recent years, we have increasingly expressed our highway safety goals in the language of the Safe System Approach—the very approach that we use in our own safety investigations. (We first discussed the approach in our 2017 report on reducing speeding.)

The Safe System Approach views every aspect of the crash as an opportunity to interrupt the series of events leading to it, and an opportunity to mitigate the harm that the crash does. People make mistakes, but safe roads, safe vehicles, safe road users, safe speeds, and post-crash care can combine to prevent the crash entirely, or failing that, to prevent the deaths or serious injuries of road users.

This paradigm shift applies to each of the highway safety improvements on the MWL, and is mentioned by name in “Protect Vulnerable Road Users Through a Safe System Approach,”

Between May 2021 and February 2022, we produced seven virtual roundtables to explain the approach and call for its adoption.  National and international experts discussed the approach and shared their successes and challenges. More than 1,000 advocates, regulators, academics, and others attended our webinars.

Included in the series hosted by Chair Homendy was a Safe Speeds Roundtable that explored the “Implement a Comprehensive Strategy to Eliminate Speeding-Related Crashes” safety improvement. Additionally, a “Behind the Scene @NTSB” podcast featured discussion on speeding and vulnerable road users.

In 2021, the Department of Transportation and Congress incorporated the approach into the DOT’s National Roadway Safety Strategy and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, respectively.

Will the new model result in lifesaving protections? Only final, and positive, closure of our recommendations will answer that. But the signs are very good, with the alignment of Congress, the DOT, and the road safety community.

Our MWL safety improvement, “Require Collision-Avoidance and Connected-Vehicle Technologies on all Vehicles,” could result in far superior situational awareness on our roads… if sufficient spectrum is available for the safety improvement.

Vehicle to everything (V2X) technology can save lives but has been delayed, and might be reduced or stopped, due to FCC rulings limiting the spectrum for safety operations. We released a four-part video series in which Member Graham interviewed some of the leading experts in V2X technologies—including academics, researchers, automakers, and policymakers—to discuss what can be done to find a way forward to deployment. 

In progress toward Eliminating Distracted Driving,  Vice Chairman Landsberg and staff joined government officials, industry, academia, insurers, and transportation safety advocates to announce the launch of a new National Distracted Driving Coalition. This is the first such broad national coalition on distracted driving.

We kept working with states considering lowering their BAC limit from .08 to .05 or lower, to help Prevent Alcohol- and Other Drug-Impairment. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has now evaluated the results from Utah, which has made the change to .05. Not surprisingly, the lower threshold prevented drinking and driving and saved lives. NHTSA’s study showed that the state’s fatal crash rate dropped by 19.8% in 2019, the first year under the lower legal limit, and the fatality rate decreased by 18.3%.

Aviation

To highlight our two aviation MWL safety items, “Require and Verify the Effectiveness of Safety Management Systems in all Revenue Passenger-Carrying Aviation Operations” and “​Install Crash-Resistant Recorders and Establish Flight Data Monitoring Programs,” we met with operators and pilots from the Helicopter Association International, General Aviation Manufacturers Association, and National Business Aviation Association, among others. In webinars, podcasts, and at in-person national conferences, Board members talked with Part 135 and Part 91 operators and pilots to identify challenges. Our outreach meetings alone reached more than 1,500 operators nationwide.

Marine

With an increasing number of deadly fishing vessel accidents in recent years, Office of Marine Safety Director Morgan Turrell and Chair Homendy hosted a virtual roundtable on improving fishing vessel safety that was viewed by over 1,000 people. Panelists discussed what can be done to address commercial fishing safety, implement NTSB safety recommendations, and improve the safety of fishing operations in the United States.

Pipeline and Hazardous Materials

Our MWL calls for pipeline and hazardous materials (hazmat) stakeholders to “Improve Pipeline Leak Detection and Mitigation” by equipping all pipeline systems with leak-detection systems and automatic shutoff or remote-control valves. These valves allow for quick detection and mitigation.

Additionally, we produced a video featuring Member Michael Graham and Hazardous Materials Investigator Rachael Gunaratnam, which explores cases in which odorants failed as a natural gas leak-detection strategy, and promotes both required natural gas leak detectors, and voluntary adoption of such detectors until they are required.

Rail

To highlight the dangers to rail roadway workers and to help Improve Rail Worker Safety, Member Tom Chapman wrote a blog on rail worker safety, discussing how the railroad regulators—the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), and the Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration (PHMSA)— are in the best position to make change.

We also completed our investigation of the April 24, 2018, accident in which an Amtrak rail watchman was killed in Bowie, Maryland. As a result of this investigation, we called on the FRA and Amtrak to put an immediate end to the use of train approach warning (TAW) systems as the sole method of on-track safety in areas covered by positive train control.

To mark the anniversary of the January 2017 train collision in Edgemont, South Dakota, we also issued a media statement again urging railroads to act to better protect rail roadway workers.

Looking ahead

We are pleased by the engagement of so many of our safety advocacy partners, industry groups, and associations in the past year, to promote our recommendations and highlight transportation safety concerns. Also, we acknowledge that many industry groups and operators are making voluntary efforts to improve safety, including on some of our recommendations. However, without mandates, many others may not act.

We remain disappointed by the lack of movement by regulators to implement the safety recommendations associated with our MWL. While there has been some progress during this first year, much more needs to be done to implement the 167 remaining safety recommendations associated with the current list. The longer these authorities wait to implement our recommendations, the greater the risk to the traveling public. Safety delayed is safety denied.

The NTSB will not stand by quietly and watch as regulators, industry, and other recommendation recipients ignore and dismiss our safety recommendations—and neither should the public. As NTSB Chair Homendy expressed in recent remarks to the largest highway safety gathering in the U.S, “The horrific toll of people who’ve died on our roads and their families… millions of people who were injured… are counting on us to “fight like hell” for the next family. To give a voice to those who no longer have one.” 

All our lives are on the line, and no death in transportation is acceptable. It is our mission to advocate for the changes outlined in our safety recommendations which, if implemented, will save lives.

Safety is a shared responsibility. We all play a role in getting us to zero transportation deaths. The NTSB cannot do this alone. We need each of you, individually and collectively, to help us advocate for these critical safety improvements.