Category Archives: Distraction

Eyes on The Road, Hands on the Wheel, Mind on One Task

By Nicholas Worrell, Chief, Safety Advocacy Division

On April 3, I represented the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) at an event kicking off Distracted Driving Awareness Month and California Teen Driver Safety Week, in Sacramento. I challenged California to lead the nation in acting on NTSB’s 2011 recommendation to ban the nonemergency driver use of portable electronic devices that do not support the driving task. So far, many states have banned driver use of handheld phones, and all but three have banned texting and driving. But none go as far as our recommendation demands.

Sacramento CA - Press Conference
NTSB Chief of Safety Advocacy, Nicholas Worrell (at podium) addresses media at the April 3, 2019, Distracted Driving Awareness Month kick-off event in Sacramento, CA.

Since the Sacramento event, I’ve spoken about the recommendation to radio and television outlets in the Golden State, some with call-in segments, and I’ve read the comments on news websites covering my kickoff remarks. I’ve learned a lot about what most troubles (and impresses) people about the proposal:

  • Many gave examples of their experiences with dangerous distracted driving behavior on the road and supported the safety recommendation.
  • Some pointed out their personal ability to multitask (an ability at odds with the science of distraction).
  • Some disparaged the danger compared to other distractions (eg, people eating or putting on their makeup).
  • Some asked how the law can be enforced. Indeed, this is certainly a challenge, but one that could be addressed with technology, especially if device-makers get on board. California already bans all nonemergency use of these devices for young drivers and bus drivers, so there’s precedent.
  • Finally, many pointed to technology solutions, and I believe that they’re spot-on. In fact, in response to the same crash that spawned our proposed cell phone ban, we also issued a recommendation encouraging the Consumer Electronics Association to work with its members to disable drivers’ cell phones while driving (except for emergency use, and for use in support of the driving task). We would love to have a meaningful dialogue with device manufacturers through the CEA.

Distracted(4).jpgWhen you talk on a cell phone or become engaged with phone operations, your mind is not on the driving task. Have you ever shushed a passenger while you try to decide if you’re at your freeway exit? How about missed a turn or blown past a stopped school bus while having a conversation on your Bluetooth-enabled, hands-free smartphone? It turns out that we can’t really multitask. We slow down as we disengage from one task and engage in another. It even takes us longer to disengage and reengage our visual focus, to say nothing of completing a competing cognitive task. To experience this lag, just run through the first 10 letters of the alphabet out loud as quickly as you can. Then do the same with the numbers 1 to 10. Then try them together: A-1, B-2, and so on. Do you slow down when “multitasking”? Most people do.

People are quick to admit that manual and visual distraction can cause crashes, but few understand that cognitive distraction can be just as significant.

The NTSB believes that California should apply its cell-phone ban for bus drivers and novice drivers to the general driver population. We also believe that California is the perfect state to lead the charge to develop technology that will help end this deadly problem.

As we learn more about the science of distraction and distracted driving, it becomes more and more obvious that, as distractions are eliminated, Californian lives will be saved.

Eliminate Distractions

By Vice Chairman Bruce Landsberg

The NTSB has investigated distraction-linked crashes in all modes of transportation. Our 2017 distracted driving roundtable, “Act to End Deadly Distraction,” made one thing very clear:

We don’t feel these losses in a statistical table. We feel them at the dinner table. We also don’t call them “accidents” because they are totally predictable.

More than 100 people die every day on our roads and highways, nine or ten of them per day in distraction-involved crashes alone. More than 1,000 people per day—391,000 in one year—are injured in distraction-involved crashes. And it’s certain that this number is greatly under-counted. Many of these injuries are life-altering, disfiguring and permanently crippling. My apologies for being graphic – but ask anyone who’s been involved whether the distraction that caused the crash was worth it.

Listen to stories told in our 2017 roundtable by survivor advocates. Or, simply ask around. It won’t take long to find someone with a story of a friend, business colleague or loved one lost to a distracted driver.

What too many of these crashes have in common is a portable electronic device – the universal cell phone. When the NTSB made its first recommendation about driver distraction by “wireless telephone” in 2003, cell phones were primarily just that: tools for making voice calls. Although some cell phones had keypads, the word “texting” does not appear in that early report.

In 2011, the NTSB recommended that the states ban non-emergency driver use of all portable electronic devices that did not support the driving task. To date, no state’s laws have gone that far. Why?

And since drivers look to the law for guidance, no state’s drivers have gone so far as to voluntarily stop driving while visually, manually, and/or cognitively distracted. Why?

Now, a second 2011 NTSB safety recommendation is becoming steadily more feasible: Safety Recommendation H-11-47. We recommended that CTIA—the wireless association, and the Consumer Electronics Association, encourage the development of technology that can disable portable electronic devices within reach of the driver when a vehicle is in motion (with the ability to permit emergency use of the device while the vehicle is in motion, and the capability of identifying occupant seating position so that passengers can use their devices).

Unfortunately, the recommendation has not been adopted, despite smartphones and apps that will allow the driver to opt out of calls and texts while driving. So, why hasn’t there been more action on this recommendation?

The best safety solution is always to design out the problem. Rather than just encourage people to do the right thing, don’t give them the opportunity to do the wrong thing… and possibly take a life or maim someone.

Don’t misunderstand, we endorse a solid tech solution, but such a solution won’t work in every situation. It must be a belt-and-suspenders effort, together with the familiar three-legged stool of highway safety (awareness, tough laws, and high-visibility enforcement).

This year many more loved ones will be lost to distraction, but surveys tell us that most people think distracted driving is a bad idea. Until, that is, we have to put our own phone down. Hypocritical? It couldn’t possibly happen to me – I’m too good a driver! The numbers prove otherwise.

Time, tide and tech wait for no man or woman, to coin a phrase. By the end of today a thousand more families will be dealing with tremendous loss and pain.

This month, the NTSB will host its third Roundtable on Distracted Driving: Perspectives from the Trucking Industry. During the roundtable, members of the trucking community, victim advocacy groups, the business community and legislators will come together to discuss the problem of distracted driving and potential countermeasures. We also hope to hear about new efforts to close Safety Recommendation H-11-47.

To kickoff Distracted Driving Awareness Month, on April 3, we will also host, with Impact Teen Drivers and the California Highway Patrol, the Western States Teen Safe Driving Roundtable to talk about the state of teen driving and the proven strategies for preventing teen-driving related crashes.  Now, what are you going to do about it?

Why?

By Nicholas Worrell, Chief, NTSB Safety Advocacy Division

Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to address more than 150 driver educators at the Dori Saves Lives Driver Education Conference, a meeting at which I first spoke in 2015. The conference is named for Dori Slosberg, who died in a 1996 traffic crash along with four other teens. She was only 14.

2019 Dori Slosberg Foundatin Event
Nicholas Worrell, Chief, NTSB Safety Advocacy Division, addresses attendees at the 2019 Dori Saves Lives Driver Education Conference

Today, more than 20 years later, motor vehicle crashes remain the leading cause of death for young people ages 5­–24. That’s why the work of the Dori Slosberg Foundation and others around the nation is so important.

Compared with earlier generations, Millennials are quick to look at the world as they find it and ask why? This is a good habit; you can’t improve in any endeavor—from education, to manufacturing, to transportation safety—without looking at the status quo and asking why things are the way they are.

We know why young drivers are involved in crashes—most often because of inexperience, distraction, speed, and impairment. And we also know that those risky behaviors are often coupled with low seat belt use rates. So why are young drivers getting behind the wheel impaired or driving distracted? How can policy address risks like inexperience and speed in this age group? Some of the most important voices in traffic safety are young survivor advocates who have refined the raw why? of intolerable loss into the thoughtful and lifesaving why? of policy change.

At the conference, I welcomed the last of the millennials to the traffic safety fight in their new roles as young driver educators. I asked them to never stop asking “why,” just as the NTSB never stops asking that same question to determine probable causes of transportation accidents and crashes. And I challenged them to act on the proven solutions that will prevent traffic crashes—comprehensive laws, education, and enforcement.

Last month, we released our 2019­–2020 Most Wanted List, which includes some of these proven solutions.

For previous blogs about outreach to Dori Saves Lives and driver educators, visit:

 

Most Highway Crashes Are Not Accidents

By Vice Chairman Bruce Landsberg

Traffic crashes that claim the lives of one, two, . . . maybe even five people don’t seem that severe. Would there be more urgency to address highway safety if per-crash fatalities were higher? Suppose a family member or a friend was the one killed or injured? Typically, it’s not until someone we love is hurt that we realize most highway crashes are not accidents at all, but are thoroughly preventable. “Accidents,” on the other hand, are unforeseen and unpredictable.

Fatal crashes can often be attributed to the all-too-human failings of trying to get somewhere just a bit quicker than traffic or road conditions will safely allow, not planning for alternative transportation after a few drinks, being distracted by a text message, or choosing to get behind the wheel after a night of too little sleep. We know how to stop this—the solutions aren’t new or complicated. The NTSB has been advocating for effective countermeasures for decades. Last month, we issued our 2019­–2020 Most Wanted List of transportation safety improvements, which highlights the actions needed to prevent transportation accidents and crashes. Guess what’s on the list? Distraction, fatigue, and medical fitness. Speed and impairment are also included.

MWL List

All drivers—private and commercial—are supposed to be medically fit to drive. Professional drivers who are prone to seizures, who may be suffering from undiagnosed diabetes, or who are at risk of another sudden-onset, incapacitating illness shouldn’t be operating big rigs or motor coaches until they’re treated and under a physician’s care. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) has made some progress in improving its medical oversight system, but too many drivers continue to obtain licenses despite medically disqualifying conditions. Is this acceptable?

Fatigue is another huge problem on our roads. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, in 2015, 90,000 police-reported crashes, which led to an estimated 41,000 people injured, involved drowsy drivers. In 2017, nearly 800 fatalities resulted from drowsy driving, and these numbers are certainly and significantly undercounted. Undiagnosed obstructive sleep apnea affects both professional drivers and the public at large. Drivers who aren’t sleeping well should see a physician about underlying causes of insomnia. Fatigue is proven to have the same deadly effects as alcohol consumption.

Finally, distraction! It’s been conclusively proven that humans are lousy multitaskers, and our ability to self-assess our skills to the contrary is likewise flawed. (I’m really good, and if you don’t believe it, just ask me!) Studies have consistently shown that mobile phone use also leads to about the same level of impairment as—you guessed it—too much alcohol (the NTSB has recommended that all states lower legal DUI levels to .05 percent blood alcohol concentration). Texting while driving can increase the crash risk up to 22 times. In 2016, more than 3,100 fatal crashes involving distraction occurred on US roadways (again, this number is likely much underreported). In this age of constant connection, it’s beyond time to ask ourselves, is it worth the cost?

And it’s not just portable devices that are causing distraction, either. Auto manufacturers want to sell the most fun-to-drive products with the best infotainment systems. But too much button pushing and menu navigation means too much heads-down time in complex traffic environments. Let’s use our technology and knowledge to stop the carnage.

A balance of regulation and common sense is needed on both sides of the regulatory divide. Ultimately, it comes down to the cost of human life versus the cost of doing business. It all depends on who’s doing the calculation, but the real cost of lives lost, and collateral damage go well beyond insurance settlements and lawsuits.  Is that phone call, text, minutes saved, or extra drink truly worth it? The upside is minimal, the downside horrendous—possibly life-ending or financially ruinous. But it won’t happen to you or anyone you know, right?

By midnight tonight, another 100 friends, neighbors, and family members will have died on our roads. In just one day, several thousand more will have been badly injured, many with no full recovery. This statistic will repeat every day this year, and the next, and the next. And not one person in those crashes, whether they were at fault or innocent victims, started out that day thinking it would be their last. So, what are you going to do about it?

 

 

 

Add a Day of Remembrance for a Balanced Holiday Season

By Chairman Robert L. Sumwalt

Every year, I hear that the holiday season has gotten too long—that holiday music, commercials, and sales begin too early. Traditionally, the season starts on Thanksgiving, the fourth Thursday of November.

 

I think the season should actually start even earlier this year—on the third Sunday in November, World Day of Remembrance for Road Traffic Victims. Why? Because to truly give thanks for what we have, we have to imagine losing it. Around the world, about 1.3 million people lose their lives in automobile crashes every year; 20 to 50 million more survive a crash with injuries, many of which are life-altering. Here in the United States, annual traffic deaths number around 37,000—more than 100 a day—and a motor vehicle crash is the single most likely way for a teen to die.

WDR-Logo-FB

If you’ve lost somebody to a crash, you probably need no special reminder. Your loved one will be missed at the holiday dinner table, on the way to the home of a friend or out-of-town relative, and throughout the holidays. But for the rest of us, the Day of Remembrance is a time to think of those needlessly lost on our roads.

I encourage us all to go beyond remembering those lost in highway crashes, to thinking of victims of transportation accidents in all modes who won’t be joining family and friends this holiday season. Before we give thanks next Thursday, let’s take a moment to remember those who have been lost, and then take steps to make our own holiday travel safer.

By Car

Fatigue, impairment by alcohol and other drugs, and distraction continue to play major roles in highway crashes. Here’s what you can do to keep yourself and those around you safe on the road.

  • If your holiday celebrations involve alcohol, ask a friend or family member to be your designated driver, or call a taxi or ridesharing service.
  • In a crash, seat belts (and proper child restraints) are your best protection. Always make sure that you and all of your passengers are buckled up or buckled in!
  • Make sure to use the right restraint for child passengers, and be sure it’s installed correctly. If you have doubts, ask a Certified Child Passenger Safety Technician.
  • Make sure you’re well rested! A fatigued driver is just as dangerous as one impaired by alcohol or other drugs.
  • Avoid distractions. In this video, survivor-advocates share their stories of personal loss—and the changes they’re working for now.
  • Don’t take or make calls 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.

By Bus or Train

We’ve made recommendations to regulators and industry to improve passenger rail and motorcoach operations and vehicle crashworthiness, but travelers should know what to do in an emergency.

  • Pay attention to safety briefings and know where the nearest emergency exit is. If it’s a window or roof hatch, make sure you know how to use it.
  • If you’re unsure of where the exits are or how to use them, or if you didn’t receive a safety briefing, ask your driver or train conductor to brief you.
  • Always use restraints when they’re available!

By Air or Sea

Airline and water travel have become incredibly safe, but these tips can help keep you and your loved ones safe in an emergency.

  • When flying, make sure that you and your traveling companions have your own seats—even children under age 2.
  • Don’t forget your child’s car seat. The label will usually tell you whether your child car seat is certified for airplane use; the owner’s manual always has this information.
  • If you don’t know the rules for using a child’s car seat on your flight, call the airline and ask what you need to know.
  • Pay close attention to the safety briefing! Airline and marine accidents have become very rare, but you and your family can be safer by being prepared.
  • Whether you’re on an airplane or a boat, know where to find the nearest flotation device.

This holiday season, no matter how you plan to get where you’re going, remember that, for many, this time of year is a time of loss. Honor survivors and remember traffic crash victims by doing your best to make sure you—and those around you—make only happy memories on your holiday travels.

Back-to-School Safety Series: Eyes on the Road, Hands on the Wheel, Minds on What Matters

By Nicholas Worrell, Chief, Safety Advocacy Division

 Parents and teens, please read this blog together (not while you’re driving!).

Driving fast with a sport carWhen you hear “distracted driving,” you probably immediately think of the endless “don’t text and drive” campaigns across the nation each year. This is not without good reason—texting and driving is certainly one of the deadliest forms of distraction. Reading or responding to a text takes your eyes from the road for 5 seconds. If you’re traveling at 55 mph, that’s enough time to drive the entire length of a football field.

Today’s teens have grown up with near-constant access to social media. Some teens text and drive, even though they acknowledge it’s dangerous. According to a recent AAA poll, 94% of teen drivers acknowledge the dangers of texting and driving, but 35% admitted to doing it anyway. Modern teens are often inseparable from their phones. It’s hard to think of a scenario in which a teen isn’t pulling out a device to text, take a selfie, or access social media. Most of the time, this is a minor annoyance to those competing for a teen’s attention, but this habit playing out behind the wheel could kill someone.

Distracted driving can be as deadly as driving impaired—the law supports this fact. New laws are being implemented across the nation to curb distracted driving; for example, an Oregon law that went into effect July 1st punishes distracted drivers with consequences akin to those incurred by DUI offenders. And, like many of the other topics we’ve covered in our Back-to-School Safety Series—impairment, drowsy driving, and seat belts—“Eliminate Distractions” is on our Most Wanted List of transportation safety improvements.

But what many fail to realize is that distracted driving is more harmful for teens than DUI—teens who text and drive are involved in 6 times more car accidents than their drunk‑driving counterparts, making it statistically even more dangerous to drive distracted than to drink and drive (and that’s saying something, considering the common knowledge that drinking and driving is an often fatal, horrible idea). Distracted driving kills more teens than drunk driving. A 20-year-old’s reaction time while talking on a cell phone is equal to the reaction time of 70-year-old. Texting while driving increases crash risk 23 times over for drivers of all ages. Texting while driving now accounts for 1.6 million crashes a year—that’s 25% of all car crashes. It’s a bigger issue than a few typed words on a little cell phone screen would seem.

As we mentioned in our introductory blog, if children grow up watching their parents drive distracted without major incident, they’ll see the danger as slight and the behavior as acceptable. But what your children don’t know is that whether it’s the first time or the fiftieth, at any moment the statistics can catch up to you. The good news is that 62 percent of teens say they don’t text and drive when their parents remind them not to—so, starting now, remind your kids about the dangers of distracted driving, and then practice what you preach.

Take a moment now and talk about it. Make a family rule on distraction and hold each other accountable.

Ten Years Later: Remembering Chatsworth With Action

By  Member Jennifer Homendy

Ten years ago today, September 12, 2008, a Metrolink commuter train filled with passengers in Chatsworth, California, collided head-on with a Union Pacific freight train. The collision took the lives of 25 people and injured 102 others. The cause: A texting engineer. A human operator making a human error.

On this 10th anniversary, we offer our condolences to all those who lost loved ones or were injured in the Chatsworth tragedy.

 

Photo of the Collision of Metrolink Train 111 With
Union Pacific

Although I was not a Member of the National Transportation Safety Board at that time, I was working tirelessly as the Staff Director of the Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials in the U.S. House of Representatives to mandate implementation of technology, called positive train control (PTC), which could have prevented the Chatsworth accident from occurring.

PTC is designed to automatically stop a train when a human operator fails to. Human error is the leading cause of all train accidents. Frustratingly, the NTSB has been recommending that railroads implement PTC to address human error-caused accidents for nearly 50 years.

In the wake of the Chatsworth collision and a number of others investigated by the NTSB, Congress passed the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008, which required freight, intercity passenger, and commuter railroads to implement PTC by the end of 2015. As the deadline approached, Congress extended it to 2018, with the possibility of further extensions until 2020. Now, as the new deadline approaches, PTC is still not fully implemented.

We know from railroad reports to the Federal Railroad Administration, the agency charged with regulating the railroads, that PTC is operational on only a small fraction of the railroad network.

Accidents, however, continue to occur. Since 2008, the NTSB has investigated 22 accidents that could have been prevented by PTC. Together, these accidents have resulted in 29 deaths, more than 500 injuries, and more than $190 million in property damage.

Tomorrow, Chairman Sumwalt will testify on Capitol Hill regarding the need to finish the job without further delay. Regrettably, nothing that the NTSB does can turn back the clock and change a tragic outcome; we can only urge that others be spared such an outcome in the future.

As the newest Member of the NTSB, I will continue to advocate for full implementation of PTC and for the safety recommendations we made as a result of the Chatsworth crash so that a similar tragedy is prevented in the future.

In the meantime, there is something you can do as we remember Chatsworth: eliminate distractions while operating a vehicle. Distraction continues to play a significant role in accidents.

Distracted driving kills thousands and injures hundreds of thousands every year. On the railroads, PTC is an effective backstop in case an operator is distracted, fatigued, impaired, or otherwise unable to take the right action. But operators must still adhere to strict procedures to minimize the chance of an accident.

On the highways, collision avoidance systems—forward collision warning systems and automatic emergency braking—are beginning to play a similar role to PTC. We think that these systems should be on every car, and we are working toward that outcome. But even without a collision avoidance system, you can take control by doing the right thing. Don’t send a text, make a call, or update your social media while driving. Strict laws aimed at preventing the use of portable electronic devices while driving and high-visibility enforcement can help, but ultimately, it’s up to each driver to drive attentively.

As we mark the 10th anniversary of the Chatsworth collision, we still have a long way to go to ensure the same kind of accident doesn’t happen again. But there are things we can do. We can insist railroads complete PTC implementation on all their tracks. We can choose vehicles with collision avoidance systems, and we can refuse to drive distracted.

Fatal collisions don’t end on impact; they echo through communities for years after the moment of a crash. But there can be hope as well as mourning in the echoes—hope for change that will prevent future tragedies. It will take all of us in transportation—professionals and the general public—to ensure the lessons learned from the Chatsworth tragedy result in that change.