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Help Us Reach Zero:  Adopt All-offender Ignition Interlock Laws

By Leah Walton, NTSB Safety Advocate

In the Spring of this year, I attended the Association of Ignition Interlock Program Administrators (AIIPA) Annual Conference, a gathering of about 130 people all committed to eliminating impaired driving. Attendees included state ignition interlock program administrators, ignition interlock manufacturers, researchers, law enforcement, toxicologists, and representatives from the treatment and criminal justice communities.

It was no surprise that a hot topic of the conference was the early estimates of traffic fatalities for 2021 released the same week by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). The numbers showed a trend in the wrong direction, with an estimated 42,915 people killed in motor vehicle crashes, a 10.5 percent increase from 2020. This number is the highest number of fatalities since 2005. Specifically, fatalities in police-reported, alcohol-involvement crashes were up 5 percent compared to 2020.

A breath ignition interlock device (IID), estimates a driver’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC). It is installed in a vehicle and the driver must provide a breath sample that does not exceed a certain BAC threshold (for instance, .00 BAC or .02 BAC) before the vehicle will start or continue to operate. Installing these devices can be a penalty for drivers convicted of driving while intoxicated (DWI) or driving under the influence (DUI). They allow impaired-driving offenders to continue to operate their vehicles on an ignition interlock restricted license, rather than having their license suspended altogether.

Ignition interlocks have been a piece of the NTSB’s comprehensive solution to eliminate impaired driving since 2000, when we recommended that all 50 states and DC establish a comprehensive program designed to reduce the incidence of alcohol-related crashes and fatalities caused by hard-core drinking drivers, including elements such as those suggested in the NTSB’s Model Program, such as requiring ignition interlocks for high-BAC first offenders and repeat offenders. The issue is still urgent enough that “Prevent Alcohol- and Other Drug-Impaired Driving” is on our 2021–2022 Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements.

In our 2012 Wrong Way Driving report, we found that installing alcohol ignition interlocks on the vehicles of all DWI offenders (first-time and subsequent-time offenders) would reduce crashes caused by alcohol-impaired drivers. Thus, we issued a safety recommendation to 33 states, Puerto Rico, and DC to enact laws to require the use of alcohol IIDs for all individuals convicted of DWI offenses (at the time of publishing the report, 17 states already had a law requiring mandatory IID installation for DWI first offenders).

In May 2012, the NTSB held a forum, Reaching Zero: Actions to Eliminate Substance-Impaired Driving, to identify the most effective, scientifically based actions needed to reach zero crashes associated with substance-impaired driving. In the resulting final report, adopted in May 2013, we discussed all-offender ignition interlock laws as part of a comprehensive strategy to prevent alcohol-impaired driving. Currently, 34 states have all-offender ignition interlock laws.

It’s difficult to quantify how many drivers currently have, an IID in their vehicle. However, in 2022, Mothers Against Drunk driving (MADD) reported that in 14 years (2006–2020), ignition interlocks had stopped 3.78 million drivers with a BAC of 0.08[1] g/dL or higher from starting their vehicles. Requiring ignition interlocks for all offenders is a swift and certain penalty for alcohol-impaired driving. IIDs can be installed on arrested DUI offenders’ vehicles immediately, to ensure they are not driving alcohol-impaired while they await trial. These devices are effective, both at preventing alcohol-impaired driving as well as reducing DUI recidivism. A 2016 California DMV study of the state’s ignition interlock pilot program showed ignition interlocks were associated with a 73 percent lower odds of recidivism compared to license suspension alone for first-time offenders during the first 182 days after conviction.

For more than a decade, the number of alcohol-impaired driving fatalities had become stagnant, with 10,000 people killed every year. Now, those numbers are rising again, with 11,654 impaired driving fatalities in 2020. And, like the fatality numbers, the conversation around impaired driving has stagnated, too. Many people are hopeful that new advanced driver assistance systems, collision-avoidance systems, in-vehicle alcohol detection technologies and automated vehicle technologies will end impaired driving once and for all. We are hopeful, too. But as we know, it takes at least 20 years for new technology to fully penetrate a fleet of vehicles. We cannot—and should not—accept the fully preventable loss of 10,000 lives each year while we wait. We must implement the countermeasures that we have available now that we know work, like IIDs.

While at the AIIPA conference, I had the opportunity to address the attendees. I shared that I started my highway safety career with MADD in 2001, and at that time, I could not imagine that in 20 years I would still be here advocating for countermeasures to eliminate impaired driving. I thought that by 2022, surely people would learn to make smart choices and designate a sober driver. Unfortunately, we have made very little progress. That can change if all states adopt all-offender ignition interlock laws. We could finally make meaningful progress toward eliminating this dangerous behavior that ends in so many completely preventable tragedies.  


[1] NTSB recommends that all 50 states, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia lower their legal BAC limit to .05 percent g/dL or lower. In 2018, Utah became the first state with a BAC limit of .05 percent.

Episode 51: Conception Investigation

In a new episode of our Behind-the-Scene @NTSB podcast, we talk with Morgan Turrell, Director, Office of Marine Safety about the lessons learned from the 2019 Conception disaster.

To learn more about the NTSB Conception investigation, and to access the full investigative report and docket, visit our investigation webpage.

For more information about the NTSB Most Wanted List “Improve Passenger and Fishing Vessel Safety” item visit our website.

The previously released podcast episode featuring Morgan Turrell is available on our website.

Subscribe to the podcast on Apple PodcastsGoogle PlayStitcher, or your favorite podcast platform.

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

Time for Action: Passenger Vessel Safety Can’t Wait

By Chair Jennifer Homendy

Three years ago, I launched with the NTSB Go Team to Santa Barbara, California, to investigate the deadliest U.S. marine accident in decades.

On September 2, 2019, the Conception dive boat caught fire in the early morning hours, burned to the waterline, and sank less than 100 feet from shore. Tragically, the 34 people asleep below deck in the bunkroom — 33 passengers and one crewmember — were trapped. None of them survived. 

A plaque to honor the 34 victims of the Conception dive boat tragedy on September 2, 2019, sits in Santa Barbara Harbor. Photo by Rafael Maldonado, News-Press

The Conception tragedy was my first marine investigation as an NTSB Board member. As I have previously shared, I am forever changed by the time we spent on scene—especially my time speaking with the victims’ families.

Unfortunately, they are not alone. Including the Conception, the NTSB has investigated seven passenger vessel accidents since 1999 that have claimed a total of 86 lives.

Eighty-six lives lost unnecessarily. Eighty-six people who’ve left behind bereaved families and friends.

Enough is enough.

It’s time for meaningful action to improve passenger vessel safety — and it starts with the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG).

Our Marine Safety Partner

The USCG is NTSB’s closest marine safety partner. Our relationship is an outstanding example of government collaboration focused on saving lives and improving safety.

It is no exaggeration to say that we could not carry out our marine safety mandate without the USCG. Every accident we investigate is supported in a variety of ways by the dedicated men and women of the USCG, and my sincere thanks goes out to every one of them.

Many NTSB marine safety recommendations are directed to the USCG because, as the industry’s regulator, they are best positioned to improve safety.

Improving passenger and fishing vessel safety is on the NTSB’s Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements (MWL).

Lessons from Tragedy

There are currently 21 open NTSB recommendations to the USCG focused on improving passenger vessel safety. “Open” status means the recipient of our safety recommendation has not, in the Board’s estimation, sufficiently addressed the safety risk.

That’s 21 unacted-upon opportunities to prevent further passenger vessel tragedies, like the Conception

Every day that an NTSB recommendation lingers as “open” is unacceptable. But, sometimes, we must measure inaction on our recommendations not in days, weeks, months, or even years.  That’s the case with several NTSB recommendations to the USCG.

Here are some of the safety gaps the USCG needs to address — all of which are on the MWL.

Fire Safety

The Conception is a heartbreaking example of the need for rigorous fire safety standards for small passenger vessels.  

We determined the probable cause of the accident was the failure of the operator, Truth Aquatics, to provide effective oversight of its vessel and crewmember operations. The lack of both oversight and adherence to certain safety requirements allowed the fire to grow undetected.

We also found that the lack of a USCG regulatory requirement for smoke detection in all accommodation spaces and inadequate emergency escape arrangements from the vessel’s bunkroom contributed to the undetected growth of the fire and the high loss of life.

As a result of our investigation, we issued 7 new safety recommendations to the USCG and reiterated a prior recommendation calling on the USCG to require safety management systems (SMS) on U.S.‑flag passenger vessels.

The Conception disaster was so compelling that Congress felt our safety recommendations needed to be codified into law. Legislators mandated the USCG implement our recommendations in the Elijah E. Cummings Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2020 as part of the National Defense Authorization Act.

The USCG took an important step to carry out this congressional mandate by issuing an interim rule, most of which took effect in March of this year. We look forward to the final rule implementing our recommendations.

Until then, our recommendations from the Conception investigation remain open. 

Safety Management Systems

The second safety issue involves SMS: a comprehensive, documented system to enhance safety. They’re so effective that the NTSB has recommended SMSs in all modes of transportation.

For nearly two decades, we’ve called for SMS on passenger vessels. This call to action is on the MWL, which is our single most important tool to increase awareness of important needed safety improvements.

The first time we issued a marine SMS recommendation was due to the October 15, 2003, ferry accident involving the Andrew J. Barberi. The vessel struck a maintenance pier at the Staten Island Ferry terminal, killing 11 passengers and injuring 70 others. We issued a recommendation to the USCG to “seek legislative authority to require all U.S.-flag ferry operators to implement SMS.”

Congress granted the necessary authority in 2010 — but the Coast Guard still didn’t act.

We then investigated a second accident involving the Andrew J. Barberi. This time, the ferry struck the St. George terminal on May 8, 2010, resulting in three serious injuries and 47 minor injuries.

Between the 2003 and 2010 accidents, the New York City Department of Transportation Ferry Division had implemented an SMS. Based on differences between crew actions in the two accidents, we concluded that the SMS benefitted passenger safety.

But the USCG still didn’t act on our SMS recommendation.

Several more accidents followed — in all of these, we determined an SMS would have either prevented the accident or reduced the number of deaths and injuries:

  • In 2013, the Seastreak Wall Street hit a pier in Manhattan, seriously injuring four passengers; 75 passengers and one deckhand sustained minor injuries.
  • In 2018, a fire aboard the small passenger vessel Island Lady killed one passenger and injured 14 others.
  • In 2019, the Conception tragedy claimed 34 lives.

The USCG initiated steps in January 2021 to implement our SMS recommendation by publishing an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPRM). In the ANPRM, the Coast Guard discussed that the NTSB “has identified issues associated with failed safety management and oversight as the probable cause or a contributing factor in some of the most serious casualties involving U.S. passenger vessels.”

That was over 18 months ago. We’ve been calling for such a requirement for almost 20 years. We will persist for as long as it takes.

I look forward to working with Admiral Linda Fagan in her new role as Commandant and call on the USCG to prioritize the rulemaking in the weeks and months ahead.

The Work Ahead

When it comes to safety, time is of the essence. That’s why we fight so hard for NTSB recommendations: to improve passenger vessel safety and save lives.

On the third anniversary of the Conception disaster, I’m calling on the USCG to act on the 21 open NTSB passenger vessel recommendations.

Doing so can’t undo past tragedy — but it can prevent similar suffering for other families.

I can think of no better way to honor the memory of the 34 Conception victims, whose loved ones we hold in our hearts today.

Episode 50: NTSB Executive Officer Erik Strickland

In this episode of Behind-the-Scene @NTSB, we celebrate the 50th episode with NTSB Executive Officer Erik Strickland and Safety Advocacy Division Chief Nicholas Worrell to talk about the genesis for the podcast, reflect on the interviews with Board Members and staff since the podcast was launched in 2017, and look to the future as we continue to talk with the people and share the work of the NTSB.

Subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google PlayStitcher, or your favorite podcast platform.

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

Back-to-School Safety: Keeping Children Safe In and Around the School Bus

By Stephanie Shaw, NTSB Safety Advocate

Like many parents, I send my daughter to school on a school bus because I know that it’s the safest way for her to get to and from school. In fact, students are 70 times more likely to get to school safely when taking the school bus than when traveling by car, even if the bus doesn’t have seat belts.

Although my daughter is safe on her school bus, I know that she could be safer. Like many school buses across the country, my daughter’s bus is not equipped with seat belts; however, lap/shoulder belts, especially when properly worn, provide the highest level of protection for children in the event of a crash.

At the NTSB, we believe that every child needs that added protection, and we recommended that states require that all new school buses be equipped with lap/shoulder belts for all passenger seating positions.

Check out our 2016 school bus safety video featuring the NTSB’s Dr. Kris Poland, who explains compartmentalization, talks about a few of our crash investigations, and discusses the added safety benefit of lap/shoulder belts in school buses.

NTSB School Bus Safety video

Lap/shoulder belts are not the only safety feature that we recommend for improving school bus safety. Unfortunately, our investigations have shown that children need to be better protected outside the school bus, too. Every state has a law making it illegal to pass a school bus that’s stopped to load or unload passengers with its red lights flashing and stop arm extended. Far too many drivers simply choose to ignore the law for their own convenience and put children at risk.

Annually, the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services conducts a survey on illegal school bus passings. Data from the most recent survey showed that in a single day, 95,319 drivers passed school buses illegally during the 2018–2019 school year. In 2018, we saw the deadly consequences of such a choice when a pickup truck driver failed to stop for a stopped school bus that had its red warning lights and stop arm activated. The pickup truck struck children crossing the road to board the stopped bus. Our complete highway investigation report, including our recommendations for stop-arm cameras, is available on the investigations page of our website.

To better protect children in and around school buses, we have also recommended that new school buses be equipped with:

To learn more about our school bus crash investigations and safety recommendations, visit our school bus safety web page.

Before setting out for the bus stop, parents should refresh their knowledge of safe school bus practices, and then talk about safety with their children. Children should be reminded to sit facing forward in their seat when the vehicle is in motion, to buckle up if the bus is equipped with seat belts, and to be aware of traffic on the roads when it’s time to step on or off the bus. Drivers must be alert, slow down, obey the school bus laws in their state, and watch for children walking in the street near bus stops and where there are no sidewalks. And, if anyone has concerns about a bus driver’s behavior, they should report it to the school principal or bus company.

Over the next few weeks, nearly 50 million children will head back to school; more than 20 million of them will ride on a school bus. Although there’s much to be done to make school bus transportation even safer, it’s still the safest way for children to get to and from school.