Sleepiness while driving can have serious consequences. The NTSB has investigated numerous crashes in which driver drowsiness played a role. Today marks the first anniversary of one of those crashes.
On March 20, 2016, four teens were traveling home from a weekend trip to South Padre Island, Texas. At about 1:57 pm, the driver lost control of the car, crossed the center median, entered the opposing lanes of traffic, and collided with a truck-tractor semitrailer. The driver was seriously injured and her three friends died. The Board determined that that the driver’s loss of control was due to inattention resulting from her fatigue.
NTSB investigators learned that, in the 24 hours before the crash, the driver had very little opportunity for sleep—only about 5 hours on the morning of the crash.
In a recent AAA Foundation study, many drivers who understood the risks of drowsy driving admitted they had, nonetheless, driven while fatigued. Specifically, the AAA survey found that 96 percent of drivers see drowsy driving as a serious threat and a completely unacceptable behavior; however, among that same group, 3 in 10 admitted to driving when they were so tired that they had a hard time keeping their eyes open.
Lack of sleep slows reaction time and makes us more susceptible to forgetting or overlooking important tasks. A few seconds is all it takes to drift out of the lane or to miss a stopped vehicle ahead.
Although it’s not always possible to predict when you will become drowsy behind the wheel, there are several steps you can take to help avoid this risk. Today, to call attention to the risk posed by driving drowsy, the NTSB is releasing a new Safety Alert, Drowsy Driving Among Young Drivers.
Jana Price, PhD, is a Senior Human Performance Investigator in NTSB’s Office of Highway Safety.
“Raise your hand if you don’t use caution when operating your vehicle.”
Are you raising your hand?
And neither did any of the nearly 700 Loudoun County, Virginia, school bus drivers earlier this week when NTSB Medical Officer Dr. Mary Pat McKay asked this of them.
The point she was making was that most drivers believe they are fit to drive and capable of multi-tasking while driving if need be. But Dr. McKay’s message to bus drivers, who carry a most precious cargo, was that, while we think we may be ready to hit the roads, we may not always be at our best.
She then went on to explain that the labels on over-the-counter and prescription medications too often go unread. Consider, for example, one such warning on the box of an allergy medicine: “Use caution when operating machinery or driving a motor vehicle.”
At the county’s annual back-to-school training event for bus drivers and attendants, Dr. McKay and NTSB Safety Advocates Nicholas Worrell and Stephanie Shaw emphasized the importance of staying medically fit for duty and also reminded them about the dangers of driving distracted.
Dr. McKay presented results from an NTSB study on fatally injured pilots, which showed a significant increase in positive toxicology findings for potentially impairing medications. One big surprise was the increasing use of sedating over-the-counter medicines, such as cold remedies, allergy treatments, and sleep aids.
Each bus driver must ensure he or she is medically fit for work each day; this means being awake and alert and ready to perform in as safe a manner as possible, she said. This also means ensuring that a temporary illness or new medical condition—as well as the treatment of such conditions—will not impair the driver’s perception, judgment, or response time. Dr. McKay urged the drivers to discuss their important job duties with their healthcare providers, ask about the risks any new medications might pose to safe driving, and carefully read the warnings on ALL medications, regardless of whether they are prescribed or over the counter. She emphasized the importance of looking for warnings about effects like sleepiness, drowsiness, or difficulty with coordination.
Most of these medications are not safe to take when driving a school bus, or any vehicle, for that matter—and there is often an alternative with fewer side effects.
Bus drivers also must ensure they remain focused and avoid the temptation of distraction. Advocates Worrell and Shaw discussed specific highway and school bus accidents caused by distracted drivers.
“Distraction does not just include portable electronic devices, and it does not go away just because you have a hands-free headset,” Worrell said. Distraction takes many forms: cognitive (your eyes are on the road but not your thoughts); manual (physically engaged in something other than driving); visual (looking elsewhere instead of where you need to be looking); and auditory (when sounds distract).
School bus drivers bear a heavy responsibility and might experience any one of these types of distractions on any given day: thinking about the next stop prior to getting there, looking too long in the rearview mirror as they monitor kids for trouble, loud talking and noises, trying to discipline kids while driving. These are all potential distractions challenging school bus drivers.
Despite all the challenges school bus drivers face, it’s important to note that school buses are still the safest vehicles on the roads. That’s just one of the reminders the NTSB will be bringing to Loudoun County parents and the general public next week when it hosts a press event and safety demonstrations in coordination with Loudoun County Public Schools, Youth of Virginia Speak Out, Safe Kids Fairfax County, Virginia Safe Routes to School, and the Loudon County Sheriff’s Office. Students who walk, bicycle, drive, or are driven to school also need to know how to do so as safely as possible.
The NTSB message to school bus drivers is to go to work fit for duty, to operate with caution all the time, and to stay focused on the driving task.
The same message can save lives in the family car.
Today, I stood side-by-side with more than 5,000 students and educators from around the country to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Family, Community and Career Leaders of America (FCCLA). We cheered, chanted, and danced at a rally on the National Mall in Washington, DC, to show our support for this organization, which has made a difference in our communities by helping to shape future leaders.
FCCLA is a nonprofit national career and technical student organization for young men and women in Family and Consumer Sciences education through grade 12. I was delighted to join them today to inspire and be inspired by some of our nation’s youngest leaders—who will ultimately help change the culture of public health and highway safety.
As the first public health scientist appointed to the NTSB, it was especially exciting to speak on behalf of the NTSB about prevention—using the knowledge we learn from tragedies to prevent future crashes.
Youth highway safety has long been a concern for the NTSB and for me personally. The concerns we face in preventing injuries and fatalities on our roads are becoming a public health issue, “an epidemic on wheels,” and I wanted to share that message with the FCCLA youth.
More young people die in crashes every year than from any other cause. In fact, more than 50,000 young people have died on our roads in the last decade.
Transportation safety should be important in everyone’s life. I walk or bike and use the metro each day as I travel to and from work. Maybe, like me, you took public transportation to work this morning. Or maybe you drove your children to camp, you went boating for the holiday weekend, or you plan to fly for your annual family vacation. Whatever the case, our health depends on safe transportation.
And safe transportation depends on us.
When I was a junior in high school, about the same age as some of the FCCLA youth I met today, I decided to spend a summer volunteering to build latrines in Paraguay. While I was walking along a dirt road with some of the elementary school kids from our village, we had to jump aside as large vehicles roared past. That is when I began to realize the importance of safe transportation.
Today’s youth have an important role in changing our driving habits and how we see our health. Leaders like those at the rally have a huge voice and one that they should continue to use to speak up for safety. They’re the most connected generation ever. They are connected to the whole world and can spread the message about road safety like no other generation has. We all must do our part— hold each other accountable, set good examples, and speak out to policymakers about the importance of safe roads for everyone.
FCCLA’s theme speaks to a well-established truth: Together We Are Healthy. Together, we can encourage each other to make healthy choices as individuals, and together, we also can advocate for healthy policies. Together, we must bring awareness to the public health issue of transportation safety by changing our safety culture.
There is an African proverb that I think is especially fitting on the 70th anniversary of the FCCLA:
“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go TOGETHER.”
I am confident that these young people will go far and make our communities, our nation, and our world a safer, healthier, and better place. Happy 70th Anniversary, FCCLA!
Annually, for the past seven years, the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety has issued its Traffic Safety Culture Index. And, as in past years, the 2014 Traffic Safety Culture Indexhas found that U.S. licensed drivers still have a “do as I say, not as I do” attitude when it comes to dangerous driving behaviors.
As a father, I try to set a good example for my children when it comes to driving. I try to drive in the manner I hope they will drive. I believe that nothing is more confusing than people who give good advice yet set bad examples.
As a professional working to reduce the crashes that lead to deaths and injuries on our roadways, the idea of my children driving is terrifying. I imagine it terrifies most parents. And with good reason: the leading cause of death for our children is motor vehicle crashes. More children between the ages of 15 and 20 die in motor vehicle crashes than by suicide, drugs, violence, and alcohol combined.
May 1st kicks off Global Youth Traffic Safety Month. This is a month dedicated to reducing the preventable deaths of youth around the world. And let there be no doubt that crashes are preventable. I had the honor of addressing young men and women from the National Collegiate Prep School, in Washington, DC, who were excited to get involved in and learn more about how they can reduce and prevent injuries and fatalities on our roadways.
Sharing my experiences with crash investigations and educating youth about some of the major concerns of driving—such as distracted, drugged, and impaired driving—and the importance of seat belt use was a thrill. Unfortunately, the world of crash investigation is full of sad stories, which I often share to help bring light to these issues. Take the case of the North Texas teen driver who fell asleep at the wheel of the family’s SUV on their way to Disney World. He was driving the family late at night after school, and the vehicle went off the road and flipped over. His parents and three siblings died. Although the NTSB ultimately did not launch to this crash, it is still a good reminder of the dangers of fatigued driving.
When it comes to our teens, we focus a lot on texting while driving—and rightly so—but fatigue is a very real problem too.
I believe that the young men and women who gathered today at the National College Prep School will be at the forefront of changing the attitudes of their peers who may act irresponsibly while driving. We too, as adults, must make the commitment to change our attitudes—from “do as I say, not as I do. If we don’t want our children to text and drive, we must not text and drive. If we want our children to be rested when driving, we must be rested. If we want our children to wear seatbelts, we must wear seatbelts.
We owe it to our children to set a good example, to show them the safe, responsible way to behave behind the wheel. We have to show them that driving is a privilege that can lead to tragic consequences if they don’t act responsibly.
At the NTSB’s March 31 Roundtable — Disconnect from Deadly Distractions— an interesting discussion emerged about the “addictive” nature of staying connected through our personal electronic devices (PEDs). “There is nothing more interesting to the human brain than other people,” stated Dr. Paul Atchley. He explained that dopamine is one of the brain’s reward chemicals that produces positive feelings and sensations. “There is nothing more rewarding than the opportunity to talk to someone else,” said Dr. Atchley. Because connecting with others produces a release of dopamine into the brain’s midsection, it is very difficult for us to ignore the urge to connect with others.
Andrea Brands of AT&T followed-up on that point by mentioning a survey the company conducted last year through Dr. David Greenfield, founder of The Center for Internet and Technology Addiction. They found that 74% of the 1004 people surveyed admitted to engaging in texting or checking social media while driving. A large percentage of the survey respondents rationalized that behavior even though they knew it was dangerous — a true sign of addictive behavior, said Ms. Brands.
Dr. Greenfield stated in a November 2014 interview, “We compulsively check our phones because every time we get an update through text, email or social media, we experience an elevation of dopamine, which is a neurochemical in the brain that makes us feel happy. If that desire for a dopamine fix leads us to check our phones while we’re driving, a simple text can turn deadly.”
Whether we call it addictive, compulsive, or just a habit, the fact remains that using a PED while operating any vehicle is dangerous business. It can be deadly.
Nowhere was this fact more apparent than in the NTSB’s investigation of the August 5, 2010, multi-vehicle crash near Gray Summit, Missouri. In this accident, a 19-year-old pickup truck driver slammed into the back of a stopped tractor trailer, setting up a chain reaction crash involving two school buses following behind. In the thirteen minutes immediately before the crash, the 19-year-old driver sent and received 11 text messages on his phone. The tragic result of his choice to drive distracted was the loss not only of his own life, but also the life of a 15-year-old student aboard one of the buses.
The NTSB is very concerned with distractions in all modes of transportation. Please, give yourself the permission to disconnect from deadly distractions. Break the addiction, and save lives.
Memorial Day Weekend is upon us, the moment I publicly longed for in my winter blog. It’s been a long winter, and it’s great to get the bike back on the road and feel the open air. This weekend always features some outstanding events where riders reconnect with some old buddies, meet new ones, enjoy the road together, and come back with some stories to tell.
But in 2012 we lost almost 5,000 riders nationwide, 13 people each day who won’t be able to make new memories and share old stories. I am not okay with that – and here’s why.
For several years my buddies and I, from various rider clubs, have packed our bikes, hitched our trailers, and taken that long journey from Washington, DC to Myrtle Beach Bike Week to enjoy a week of riding and fun. I can hear the patient if ominous deep idle of the Harleys, the buzzing roar of Suzukis, and every now and then the signature sound of a Ducati dry clutch. I can feel as much as hear the bikes, all sizes, colors and shapes, thundering through the streets. And I can see the smiles on every rider’s face, smiles that look like relief from Old Man Winter. I can feel the cool breeze hitting my face as I cruise the stretch of Atlantic Street with riders I’ve known for years.
And I want to see each and every one of them the next year. I don’t want our group missing any of those bikes’ sounds, or any of those faces I’ve gotten used to seeing.
In the Washington area, every year Rolling Thunder brings hundreds of thousands of bikes roaring through the streets in commemoration of servicemen and women who have sacrificed for our freedom. The dedicated bikers at Rolling Thunder ride in remembrance of those who gave everything to protect us.
With all that they sacrifice for us, it’s a shame when we don’t protect ourselves.
As a United States Marine Corps veteran (OORAH), I am not shy about standing up for one more noble cause: motorcycle safety. (Repeat after me: “This is my bike. There are many like it, but this one is mine…”) And I want everyone to realize that motorcycle safety isn’t just riders’ business – it’s everybody’s.
So here are some of the dangers and safety measures we should all take into consideration during this Memorial Week and the rest of the summer.
Drivers: Share the Road and Pay Attention. For riders one of the biggest concerns is for drivers who are not focused on the task at hand. The distracted driver who simply can’t wait to place that call, send that text or update that Facebook posting, and the impaired driver who is too intoxicated to focus on the road, endanger everybody, but riders have less protection. If you ask most riders their number one concern, they’ll say “lack of respect by drivers” (or perhaps stronger words to that effect). So listen up drivers: share the road, don’t drive distracted, and don’t drive impaired.
Riders: There’s a time and a place. Too many of us have done it, even though we shouldn’t have; we’ve taken those corners a little too fast, or performed a trick on a crowed highway. There is a time and place for those types of stunts, and it’s not where you’re taking risks with the lives of other riders or drivers.
You’re not invincible. Gear up. Long-time riders will tell you that road-rash is no fun, and it can get way worse than that. I am amazed every time I see riders in shorts and a tee shirt, not realizing that at any moment they can take a fall from a simple pebble or piece of gravel in the street. Then there are riders who would never drive without a seat belt but ride without a helmet. A helmet is your best defense against head injuries when, not if, you fall off the bike. Helmets are estimated to be 37-percent effective in preventing fatal injuries to motorcycle operators and 41-percent for motorcycle passengers.
If you still have to gear up, get it done now, so the rest of the summer is a safe one.
Ride for a Cause. Safety first. I’ve been waiting all winter to ride, but I’m not gunning the engine the first chance I get. I’m going to ride at safe speeds. I’ll be in a DOT-compliant helmet. And you won’t find me drinking and riding, because those two are a bad mix. If you live to ride, like me, you also have to ride to live.
Riders, respect the road and the power of your bike. And drivers, have a little consideration for the riders; put away the distractions and keep your eye out for that rider sharing the road with you.
Nicholas Worrell is a Safety Advocate in the NTSB Office of Communications.
Practical jokers around the world are rejoicing today–a day dedicated to them! They’ve been planning for weeks and some even months for ways to fool their family, friends, co-workers, maybe anyone that crosses their path today in the name of fun. For me, however, April Fool’s Day is a reminder of the more serious type of foolish decisions people make that can lead to criminal behavior with sometimes deadly consequences.
In my years at the Board, I have a met victims of distracted and impaired driving crashes. I have heard their stories about how some of their happiest days became their worst days. Graduation days on which loved ones were killed. Days with friends at an amusement park that ended with many of those friends dying. The lingering scars-both physical and emotional-could have been prevented had someone not made the choice to use a cell phone while driving or get behind the wheel after drinking.
April Fool’s pranks are typically harmless and fun, but distracted and impaired driving is not harmless, not fun, and more than foolish. Every year, tens of thousands of lives are tragically taken or altered forever because drivers failed to consider the consequences of their actions. When people choose to drive impaired or distracted, that foolishness can become criminal and result in the deaths and injuries of mothers, fathers, children, co-workers, grandparents and friends. This April Fool’s Day, remember: don’t be a fool . be safe behind the wheel!