By Stephanie Shaw, Acting Chief, NTSB Safety Advocacy Division
This week, families and friends will gather to celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday. According to estimates from AAA, nearly 55 million people will travel away from home this year, with about 49 million of them taking to the roads.
As we mark the beginning of the holiday travel season, we want to ensure that everyone arrives safely at their destinations. Unfortunately, travel on our roads can be the riskiest mode of travel during the holiday season.
NTSB investigations continue to highlight actions needed by regulators, legislators, and industry to ensure the safest transportation system for the traveling public. Our Most Wanted List (MWL) identifies specific transportation safety improvements needed across all modes. It includes five road safety improvements that address pervasive problems like speeding, alcohol and other drug impairment, and distraction. The MWL also calls for collision-avoidance and connected vehicle technologies and implementation of a Safe System Approach to better protect all road users.
At the NTSB, we believe that safety is a shared responsibility, so for the traveling public, we’ve highlighted some ways you can keep yourself and others safe, regardless of the travel mode you choose.
Impairment by alcohol and other drugs, unsafe speeds, fatigue, and distraction continue to play major roles in crashes. Here’s what you can do:
Designate a sober driver, or call a taxi, or ridesharing service if your holiday celebrations involve alcohol or other impairing drugs.
Follow safe speeds. In bad weather, safe speeds are often below the designated speed limit. Speeding increases the chance of being involved in a crash and intensifies the severity of crash injuries.
Make sure you’re well rested! A fatigued driver is just as dangerous as one impaired by alcohol or other drugs.
Avoid distractions. Don’t take or make calls or text while driving, even using a hands-free device. Set your navigation system before you start driving. If you’re traveling with others, ask them to navigate.
Motor vehicle crashes are a leading cause of death for teens. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2019, approximately 2,400 teens in the United States aged 13–19 died and about 258,000 were injured in motor vehicle crashes. This means that approximately 7 teens died, and hundreds more were injured, every day due to preventable motor vehicle crashes.
These numbers are staggering and unacceptable.
From our investigations, we know that collision-avoidance technologies—increasingly seen in newer vehicles—can help reduce that number. And a recent Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) study has also found that crash-avoidance features and teen-specific vehicle technologies have the potential to prevent or mitigate up to 75% of all fatal crashes involving teen drivers. Collision-avoidance technologies include features such as automatic emergency braking (AEB), collision warning, and lane departure prevention. These features can serve to warn a driver of an impending crash and stop or slow the vehicle to prevent or mitigate a collision.
To increase awareness about the life-saving capabilities of collision-avoidance technologies among parents, teens, and educators, on March 23, I convened a panel of teen driving safety experts and researchers to explore how collision-avoidance technologies can improve the safety of our teen drivers. Panelists included representatives from the IIHS, Alliance for Automotive Innovation, OFFICIAL Driving Schools, AAA National, and INRIX, as well as investigators from the NTSB.
During this webinar, we discussed the role of vehicle technology in reducing teen traffic crashes and fatalities. We dove deeper into the IIHS’s recent research on collision-avoidance technology and teen driver safety, explored perspectives from educators and the automotive industry, and addressed how vehicle technology, if made standard in all vehicles, can contribute to equitable and accessible safe transportation for all.
I encourage all of you to watch the full recording of our webinar—but especially if you’re a parent, educator, motor vehicle administrator, or highway department of transportation employee.
One point we all agreed on during the webinar, is that these technologies have the potential to dramatically improve safety for teen drivers. However, they need to be broadly accepted and equitable, and the barriers to adoption—such as education, awareness, availability, and affordability—need to be addressed.
Here were some of the key takeaways, as summed up by our panelists:
We need to emphasize education and safe driving behavior. We also need to educate drivers on how these systems function and the role of the driver. It’s important to integrate these technologies into driver skills training to broaden awareness.
We must understand how teens are interacting with collision-avoidance systems. There’s an opportunity for engagement with academics and researchers to dig into the data and look at it from a local level.
More work should be done for equity and access.
Modern training vehicles at driving schools, preparing instructors to educate teens on these technologies, and better communication between driving schools and parents about the benefits of these technologies could instill the benefits of collision-avoidance technologies and encourage voluntary adoption.
State departments or agencies that provide training curriculum to driving schools should encourage technology use and incorporate it in the training curriculum.
States need to look at their existing graduated driver license law (GDL) and strengthen them to ensure they have a comprehensive GDL program that provides a three-stage graduated process for newly licensed young drivers to gain experience while minimizing risk.
We are heading in the wrong direction with fatalities; we must do more at the federal level, with the new car assessment ratings and research to help us guide the technology forward. These collision-avoidance technologies should be standard in all vehicles.
As a result of our crash investigations, the NTSB has made numerous recommendations to implement and encourage the use of collision-avoidance technologies. The topic is highlighted on our 2021–2022 Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements (MWL), and teen driving safety has been a topic on previous MWLs. We encourage you to check out our webpages on these topics to learn more about our specific recommendations.
May is Global Youth Traffic Safety Month. If you haven’t already done so this month, take the time to learn more about these technologies—for the sake of your teen and the sake of road safety. The IIHS, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and the National Safety Council all offer information on these technologies. What better way to protect our next generation of drivers than to learn more now about these life-saving technologies? As we all work toward achieving zero traffic deaths and serious injuries on our roads, we must remember that it all begins with preparing our teens with the best possible technologies and strategies for preventing roadway crashes.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Motor vehicle crashes are a leading cause of death and injuries in the United States. Early estimates for 2020 show that more than 38,000 people lost their lives in traffic crashes on our nation’s roads. These preventable tragedies are often due to driver mistakes and poor decisions—speeding or driving while impaired, distracted, or fatigued. Collision-avoidance technologies have the potential to mitigate the impact of these mistakes by alerting a driver to impending danger or actively reducing the vehicle’s speed if the driver does not act.
“Require Collision-Avoidance and Connected-Vehicle Technologies on all Vehicles” is on the NTSB’s 2021–2022 Most Wanted List of Safety Improvements to increase public awareness about collision-avoidance systems as a lifesaving technology. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) should develop comprehensive performance standards and mandates for collision-avoidance systems and connected-vehicle technology, and we urge NHTSA to incorporate collision-avoidance system ratings into its New Car Assessment Program (NCAP).
The primary goal of any collision-avoidance technology is to prevent and mitigate the severity of crashes by detecting a conflict, alerting the driver and, when necessary, automatically braking. A standard collision-avoidance system is comprised of two separate technologies that work together to prevent and mitigate crashes: forward collision warning and automatic emergency braking. Forward collision warning assists a driver by presenting an auditory, visual, or haptic warning to the driver before a collision. Typically, once a warning occurs and a driver does not respond, automatic emergency braking autonomously applies the brakes to prevent or mitigate a crash.
According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), an estimated 56 precent of rear‑end crashes that result in injuries could be prevented if passenger vehicles were equipped with a combination of forward collision warning and automatic emergency braking. These technologies can also improve the safety of commercial trucks. The IIHS found that equipping large trucks with both of these systems could eliminate more than 40 percent of crashes in which a large truck rear-ends another vehicle.
Despite the proven safety benefit of collision-avoidance systems, these lifesaving technologies are not required as standard options on passenger vehicles or commercial trucks. NHTSA’s regulatory inaction has delayed the broad deployment of these systems for too long. NHTSA must require forward collision warning and automatic emergency braking on all passenger vehicles and commercial trucks.
Although more collision-avoidance technologies have been deployed into new vehicles recently, forward collision warning and automatic emergency braking performance and reliability vary significantly among vehicle manufacturers and models. Performance standards specify the minimum level of performance for these technologies, and NHTSA has been slow to adopt comprehensive performance standards and criteria to assess these systems. Testing protocols to assess the performance of forward collision-avoidance systems should be expanded to include common obstacles, such as traffic safety hardware, cross-traffic vehicle profiles, and other applicable vehicle shapes or objects found in the highway operating environment. Further, testing protocols should also assess their performance at various speeds that represent the wide range of speed conditions seen in crashes, including high speeds. NHTSA should set robust minimum performance standards for both systems to provide consumers with confidence and certainty of the safety benefits of these technologies.
New Car Assessment Program
The NCAP is a government resource, developed by NHTSA, that evaluates and rates the crashworthiness of all passenger vehicles. Consumers rely on NHTSA’s vehicle safety ratings to make informed purchasing decisions for their safety and that of their loved ones. The NCAP has been an effective tool for informing the public about a vehicle’s crashworthiness; however, the current NCAP does not rate collision-avoidance technologies such as forward collision warning and automatic emergency braking. This allows a vehicle without collision-avoidance technology to achieve the same safety rating as a vehicle equipped with a highly effective collision‑avoidance system.
The NTSB recommends that NHTSA expand the NCAP to rate collision-avoidance technology performance. Such a rating can inform the public about a vehicle’s capacity to prevent and mitigate crashes, as well as differentiate collision-avoidance systems based on their performance. Incorporating collision-avoidance system ratings into the NCAP also provides an incentive for vehicle manufacturers to equip new vehicles with forward collision-avoidance systems, which can speed up deployment of such systems into all vehicles.
One of the most promising lifesaving collision-avoidance technologies being researched and developed for nearly three decades is connected-vehicle technology. This technology does not rely on radar or cameras but on direct communication between vehicles, called vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communications. This technology also allows vehicles to communicate with infrastructure and vulnerable road users such as pedestrians—collectively known as vehicle-to-everything communications (V2X).
The NTSB’s investigations have found that V2X communications-based technology could address many crash scenarios, including many intersection crashes. Additionally, connected-vehicle technology increases the safety and visibility of vulnerable road users by alerting drivers to the presence of pedestrians, bicyclists, and motorcyclists that may be outside a driver’s or vehicle‑based sensor’s field of observation.
However, connected-vehicle technology depends on an available communications spectrum. Currently, the entire program is at risk due to a recent decision by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to allow shared use of a wireless communications band previously dedicated solely for transportation safety. We are concerned that sharing this spectrum could compromise successful connected-vehicle technology deployment. The NTSB urges the FCC and others to overcome this communications challenge so connected-vehicle technology can be deployed widely and securely.
Every day we lose more than 100 lives in preventable traffic crashes on our nation’s roads. Humans make mistakes that lead to crashes, but technology can mitigate those mistakes, avoiding death and serious injuries. Collision-avoidance technologies assist drivers by alerting a driver to an impending crash and automatically stopping the vehicle if the driver does not act. This proven, lifesaving technology is available today.
Tragically, regulatory inaction has slowed both deployment and broad availability of these technologies. The NTSB calls on the NHTSA to:
require forward collision warning and automatic emergency braking on all passenger vehicles and commercial trucks,
adopt comprehensive performance standards and criteria to assess these systems, and
expand the NCAP to rate the performance of collision-avoidance technologies.
I recently participated in my first NTSB Board meeting as a member. We deliberated the findings of a crash involving a Tesla that drove into a gore area and struck a crash attenuator on a highway in Mountain View, California, killing the driver. Although this investigation was focused on level 2 automation safety issues, we also discussed the building blocks of autonomous vehicles—collision avoidance systems (CAS). In this crash, the vehicle was equipped with forward collision warning (FCW) and automatic emergency braking (AEB), elements of a CAS, but they were not designed for this kind of collision. Additionally, we discussed how testing protocols for CAS should be more demanding, and that one way to do that is through the National Highway Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) New Car Assessment Program (NCAP), its 5-star safety rating system for new automobiles. During the Board meeting, we highlighted vehicle rating systems in other countries, especially the European NCAP (Euro NCAP), and how they could—and should—be a model for the United States.
We believe a robust NCAP is vitally important for safety. A rating system helps manufacturers assess a vehicle’s crashworthiness, which is critical, but the NCAP can also be a great tool for consumers to assess which vehicles have advanced safety technologies and provide a guide for how they work. Additionally, such a rating system gives manufacturers an incentive to improve performance. A rating system that regularly increases the criteria for achieving a top score and promotes competition, compels automakers to continually improve the technology.
The US NCAP currently only provides crashworthiness (occupant protection) ratings; it doesn’t rate advanced safety technologies, such as FCW or AEB. These technologies are already on our roadways today and American consumers have no resources available to them to evaluate the effectiveness of collision avoidance technologies. Some consumers may even be totally unaware what CAS their automobiles come with.
In May 2015, the NTSB released a report touting the benefits of CAS and recommended that NHTSA expand the NCAP 5-star rating system to include a scale that rates CAS technology such as FCW performance. It also recommended it include the ratings on the legally required Monroney label, a window sticker that provides official data about the vehicle to consumers. We were pleased to see that, shortly after the report was released, NHTSA proposed a rule for testing procedures that would be similar to the more comprehensive testing done by European regulators. More importantly, NHTSA proposed expanding the NCAP 5-star rating to include a CAS rating, as well as pedestrian protection rating. Unfortunately, NHTSA has yet to publish a final rule to make this proposal a reality. It has issued several requests for comments regarding various aspects of testing protocols, but hasn’t moved forward to implement expansion.
The Euro NCAP, which was developed in 2009—nearly 15 years after the US NCAP—offers crashworthiness ratings as well as ratings on pedestrian protection (including cyclists) and driver-assistance and crash-avoidance technologies. Its safety assist rating for CAS is determined from tests of AEB, lane keeping, seat belt warnings, speed warning systems, and others. Euro NCAP ratings are displayed with the consumer in mind, with easy to read and compare pictures, diagrams and tables. There is currently no federal resource for rating CAS for US consumers
The Euro NCAP, as well as organizations in Australia and Japan, recognizes what we have long known: that car-to-car rear impacts are among the most frequent crash types, making it critical to rate technologies that address these safety issues. NHTSA has established test protocols and performance specifications for FCW and AEB as part of the US NCAP. For example, if a vehicle model is equipped with FCW or AEB, and has passed NHTSA’s minimum testing protocols, NHTSA’s website will state that such a vehicle may be equipped with those features; however, that only indicates that those systems have met NHTSA’s minimum performance criteria, and the vehicle only receives a pass or fail grade. CAS that meet the performance specifications are listed only as “recommended safety technologies” in the US NCAP. We know that various FCWs differ greatly in their performance—this pass/fail rating is not enough.
Additionally, although the US NCAP and the Euro NCAP use similar scenarios in their test protocols, the Euro NCAP uses a variety of targets, such as vehicles, bicyclists, and pedestrians; tests at a greater range of speeds; and, most importantly, rates system performance. Our Mountain View report recommends that the US NCAP be expanded even further to test forward collision avoidance systems performance using common obstacles, such as traffic safety hardware, cross-traffic vehicle profiles, and other applicable vehicle shapes or objects found in the highway operating environment.
Without a US NCAP to rate collision avoidance technologies, US consumers have had to turn to insurance research organizations for this kind of information. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), for example, offers consumers vehicle reviews and ratings and issues its top safety picks. IIHS tests evaluate two aspects of safety: crashworthiness (how well a vehicle protects its occupants in a crash) and crash avoidance and mitigation (technology that can prevent a crash or lessen its severity). This is a great first step for consumers in the United States, but we need our regulators to step up and do the same.
The US NCAP has fallen behind its counterparts with respect to the safety information it provides to American consumers about CAS. We know that CAS can be very effective and can save lives, making it even more important to educate consumers about these critical technologies—their benefits as well as their limitations. That’s why this issue has been on the NTSB Most Wanted List for several years now.
We urge NHTSA to again become a global leader by incorporating CAS and other safety performance measures in the US NCAP, and by adopting testing protocols for CAS in commercial vehicles and requiring them on all new heavy vehicles. European and other international organizations have figured out the importance of offering these expansive rating systems to help save lives and improve transportation safety. It’s time for the United States to catch up.