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.
This annual observance provides a time to reflect on the real people behind the statistics: mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, colleagues, best friends, and neighbors.
It’s a time to support those who’ve lost a loved one to the public health crisis on our roads.
And it’s a time to act, starting with NTSB recommendations.
Lessons from Tragedy
Since last year’s World Day of Remembrance, the NTSB has made 26 new recommendations to improve road safety. All remain open.
Where did these recommendations come from? They are the result of rigorous NTSB investigations into devastating crashes, outlined below. Each one is a lesson from tragedy, which is why we don’t rest until a recommendation is implemented.
At the NTSB, we believe the most meaningful thing we can do for victims of traffic violence is to advocate for our safety recommendations.
In other words: we choose to honor the victims with action.
Here are just some of the victims we’re remembering today — along with the recommended safety improvements to best honor their memory.
Today we remember two people who were killed and seven who were injured in a Belton, SC, crash between an SUV and a bus carrying disabled passengers. The actions we demand on their behalf include the following:
Ban nonemergency use of portable electronic devices, like cellphones, for all drivers.
Recruit cellphone manufacturers in the fight against distracted driving; they should automatically disable distracting functions when a vehicle is in motion.
Provide annual safety training for people employed to transport wheelchair users.
Develop a side-impact protection standard for new, medium-size buses, regardless of weight — and require compliance.
We should honor the victims of the Pennsylvania Turnpike crash that injured 50 people and killed five others — including a nine-year-old child — by taking the following actions:
Develop performance standards for advanced speed-limiting technology, connected-vehicle technology, and collision-avoidance systems — and require their use on new vehicles, as appropriate.
Require newly manufactured heavy vehicles to have onboard video event recorders.
Deploy connected-vehicle technology nationwide.
Take a comprehensive approach to eliminate speeding. Among other measures, this means thinking long and hard about the 85th percentile approach and using speed safety cameras, which includes working to remove restrictions against them.
Here’s what we must do to honor the three people who were killed and the 18 who were injured when a bus overturned in Pala Mesa, California:
Require all new buses to meet a roof strength standard.
Sponsor research into safe tire tread depths for commercial vehicles.
Require seat belt use.
The best way to remember the victims of the Decatur, Tennessee, school bus crash that injured 14 people and killed two people, including a 7-year-old child, is to take the following steps:
Make lap-shoulder belts mandatory in new school buses.
Require lane-departure prevention systems on heavy vehicles.
And what about the nine people who died in a head-on crash in Avenal, California, on New Year’s Day — seven of whom were children? We must implement the following NTSB recommendations in their memory:
Encourage vehicle manufacturers to combat alcohol-impaired driving by accelerating progress on advanced impaired driving prevention technology and finding new ways to use existing technology, like driver monitoring systems.
Incentivize vehicle manufacturers and consumers to adopt intelligent speed adaptation (ISA) systems. One way to achieve this is to include ISA in the New Car Assessment Program. Notably, ISA became mandatory in July 2022 for all new models of vehicles introduced in the European Union.
Develop a common standard of practice for drug toxicology testing by state officials.
Remember. Support. Act.
Even as we advocate for our safety recommendations, more crashes are occurring daily — which means more investigations. The work continues.
And yet, we cannot let the magnitude of the road safety crisis deter us.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.