By Nicholas Worrell, Chief, NTSB Safety Advocacy Division
On June 25, I had the opportunity to represent the NTSB at the Route 210 “Dignity of Life” Observance in Prince George’s Country, Maryland, where I have spent most of my adult life. Although the observance had tragic roots, it was good to see some attention paid to the toll taken by crashes in this largely Black area.
After the jubilation of Juneteenth, it was a gut-wrenching reminder of one of our greatest remaining inequities as a nation. Statistics show that Blacks and other minority groups are disproportionately likely to die in crashes.
Total crash deaths skyrocketed to an estimate of almost 43,000 in 2021. If we are to reduce the surging totals, we must also be intentional about our efforts in these underprivileged, underserved, and vulnerable communities.
This solemn and dignified gathering was to remember the irreplaceable, individual human beings who have been lost, and continue to be lost, on Maryland Route 210. Eighty people have died in crashes there between 2007 and the present. One of them was the husband of my NTSB colleague Susan Pipkin. At the event, Susan’s daughter, Diamond, said, “He was just thrown from his motorcycle, and it shook our lives,” as she broke into tears. Like bicyclists and pedestrians, motorcycle riders are vulnerable road users and are overrepresented in fatality statistics nationwide.
Every loss on our roads is a tragedy. Every one of these losses is preventable. And, as I said to the families of the victims, every one of their loved ones was an individual, irreplaceable, had dignity and humanity, and deserved to live.
At the NTSB, we investigate crashes in all modes of transportation. We focus on answering one question, the same question that family members also ask after such a tragedy: Why? Unlike victims’ families and loved ones, though, we must be as objective as possible and look at the same question from an investigator’s point of view. We strive to turn our findings into action by issuing safety recommendations. However, we can only recommend changes—lawmakers, industry, and others must act on them.
I have worked enough with victim and survivor advocates to know that these tragedies are not one-time events. The loss persists and reemerges in so many ways: every time they look across the holiday table to the seat their loved one used to take, every time there is a birthday or a wedding anniversary that they used to celebrate, whenever they go to dial a number to share something with someone who is forever disconnected.
As we approach the Fourth of July holiday, a notoriously dangerous time on our nation’s roads, there’s no better time to take stock of how we’re protecting road users in all communities. This means reflecting on all parts of the system, not just on the behaviors of drivers, pedestrians, cyclists, and riders. We must adopt a Safe System Approach that builds in redundancy so that when one part of the system fails, road users don’t lose their lives. We owe all road users nothing less than our determination that one day, Maryland Route 210 will be another safe road in a safe system, one with zero road deaths and zero serious injuries. And we must ensure that we are making equitable safety investments.
We don’t lose 43,000 faceless statistics every year, we lose 43,000 loved ones. They are irreplaceable. They are precious. The lives of those left behind are shaken, forever changed.
The families I met on June 25 are members of a club none of them ever wanted to join. The best way to honor the life of Mr. Pipkin and the lives of countless others who perished on our roads is to close the door to the club forever.
An early estimate, released this week by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), shows 42,915 people—117 people per day—died on the nation’s roads last year. I, for one, am outraged by these needless deaths. Those victims are mothers and fathers, children and grandparents, friends, and coworkers. They are also often the most vulnerable among us. Where is our collective outrage over these deaths? Zero fatalities is our goal!
Here are a few insights within the data:
Pedestrian fatalities up 13 percent
Motorcyclist fatalities up 9 percent
Bicyclist fatalities up 5 percent
Fatalities in speeding-related crashes up 5 percent
Fatalities in police-reported, alcohol-involvement crashes up 5 percent
Fatalities on urban roads up 16 percent
Fatalities in crashes involving at least one large truck up 13 percent
The NTSB knows what needs to be done. The NTSB has investigated countless crashes, issued thousands of safety recommendations, and identified the data-driven approaches to make our roads safer, to prevent deaths and injuries. The NTSB has highlighted safety improvements on our Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements that can save lives on our roads.
We don’t need more guidance, we don’t need pilot programs, we need action. Action by regulators. Action by lawmakers and states. Action by manufacturers. Action by road designers and engineers. Action by all road users. We need to adopt the Safe System Approach and share the responsibility for safety.
Speed increases the likelihood of a crash and injury severity when a crash occurs. Speeding contributes to about one-third of all traffic-related crash fatalities. States must set safe speeds. Speeds that ensure that when a crash happens—because they will—whether you are inside or outside a vehicle, you will survive. States’ decades-old, one-size-fits-all approach for setting speed limits based on the speed of vehicles is senseless, focused on drivers rather than all road users, and is just leading to increasing speed limits across the U.S. And State Departments of Transportation reliance on education over proven countermeasures like implementation of speed safety cameras is ineffective.
Since 1995, the NTSB has issued more than 25 safety recommendations to the US Department of Transportation modal agencies and vehicle manufacturers on the need to develop performance standards for collision avoidance technologies and to make them standard in all vehicles. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: nearly 30 years later, we’re still waiting.
Prominently bolded on NHTSA’s homepage is the phrase “Safe cars save lives.” However, the safest cars are still only for those who can afford them. NHTSA must act to implement NTSB safety recommendations and mandate that vehicle safety technology be standard equipment on all vehicles. Safety isn’t a luxury. NHTSA must also update the New Car Assessment Program, ASAP, to push auto manufacturers to implement, and drive consumer demand for, the safest technologies in vehicles.
The nation’s roads were designed to efficiently move motor vehicles; they weren’t designed for the safe mobility of all road users. We have made no progress in recent years to prevent deaths among those who walk, bike, and roll on our nation’s roads. States must adopt the Safe System Approach and make infrastructure investments and improvements that prioritize the safety for vulnerable road users.
However, I’m increasingly concerned that many in the highway safety community don’t know how the Safe System Approach differs from the traditional, flawed approach of the 3E’s: education, enforcement, engineering. In other words, is this becoming just an “inside the beltway” term? We cannot let this moment pass us by. We need to ditch our overreliance on ineffective education and enforcement campaigns to address increasing death and look to much better, long-term solutions.
Safe Road Users
The NTSB cannot make safety recommendations to individual road users. Making safe choices is only something we can encourage and advocate for. We’ve seen individual choices contribute to the cause of countless highway crashes or severity of injuries. Distraction while driving or walking. Speeding. Impaired driving. Not buckling seat belts or wearing protective gear like helmets. All these choices have resulted in the devastating loss of life. We implore all road users to make safe choices to protect themselves and others. Many of the fatalities on our roadways would be prevented if safe choices were made every trip, every time.
The Safe System Approach accepts that crashes will happen, but that they should not be deadly. We must ensure that in the event of a crash, those involved have efficient access to the care and resources they need to live and recover. Our first responders—law enforcement, EMS, fire, and 911 personnel—need appropriate resources to serve our communities and respond to crashes. Law enforcement, EMS, and fire personnel need safe working environments free of the risk of secondary crashes.
A key principle of the Safe System Approach is shared responsibility. The entire system, our current approach to traffic safety, is failing all road users. We all—government, auto makers, policy makers, law enforcement, planners, engineers and, yes, road users—are failing. We must do better. I know that if we all come to the safety table and work together to implement the strategies that we know are successful, we can reach zero and save lives, both inside and outside vehicles.
We have the tools to reverse the trend. Now we need everyone to act. Lives depend on it!
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.
By Nicholas Worrell, Chief, NTSB Safety Advocacy Division
More people are dying in crashes since the pandemic began. Deaths on our roads increased from 36,096 in in 2019 to 38,824 in 2020, and to an estimated 31,720 in the first 9 months of 2021, a further 12% increase. At that rate of increase, fatalities will be well over 40,000 for the full year.
Our roads have become more dangerous, and Americans know it. A new study from Nationwide finds that, compared with 2020, more than three quarters of respondents think drivers are more aggressive, drive faster, and are more reckless. “Even more frightening,” says Nationwide, “more than a third of drivers (34%) believe it is safe to hold your phone while driving—whether that is to make a call, send a text, or use navigation.”
Distraction occurs when drivers divert their attention away from the driving task. Personal electronic devices, such as cell phones and tablets, are among the culprits, though activities such as grooming and eating contribute as well.
Visual distraction is taking your eyes off the road—for example, to glance down at a twitter feed. Manual distraction is taking your hands away from the vehicle controls, such as when you text or search for a phone contact. Cognitive distraction degrades driving when your mind is not on the road. Even if you use your phone hands-free, you are subject to cognitive distraction—mentally focusing on something other than the driving task.
Last year, NTSB Vice Chairman Bruce Landsberg announced the launch of the National Distracted Driving Coalition to unite the many individuals and organizations that are working for change, so that member organizations can focus on their own strengths, while developing common resources to avoid duplication of efforts.
Passionate individuals and organizations, responsible companies and legislatures, the academic community, and government agencies have begun to make an impact on distracted driving behaviors and strengthening distracted driving laws across the nation.
But anybody who drives can do their part just by disconnecting for the drive.
Be the boss of your devices, not the other way around. And be a boss in general. Plan for how and when you will take calls—not while driving—and let people know your plan. Let people know that you’ll be on the road, or you’ll be on your phone, but not both. Because no call, no text, no update is worth a human life.
Connect with us
Follow us on the Web and Twitter to learn more about this month’s advocacy engagement to eliminate distracted driving.
“N555$$, call the tower. N555$$ call the tower…your gear isn’t down!”
As a newly minted certified flight instructor (CFI) in the early 90s, I loved reading the latest addition of Flight Training magazine. I’ll never forget reading a funny quip about a pilot who was on final approach to land at a controlled airport and forgot to extend his landing gear. The control tower tried to contact the pilot numerous times to warn him, but he never responded and landed gear up. Once the pilot realized what happened and came to a stop on the runway, he called the tower and learned that the tower had tried to contact him several times. The pilot responded, “Sorry, I didn’t hear you because there was a horn going off in the cockpit!” To this day, whenever I fly a retractable gear airplane, I always think of that story. I’ve only had one gear-up landing in my 33 years of flying, and that was due to mechanical failure that prevented the gear from extending. I can say from experience: landing gear‑up involves a lot of loud scraping noises, a shortened roll out, and an even shorter step out of the airplane.
As part of my duties as a regional NTSB investigator, I take “phone duty” for the entire eastern region of the Unites States during on-call periods. As the duty officer, I receive all the incident and accident notifications from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) or directly from pilots, and I’m surprised by the amount of gear-up landings we process. Now, some of these are due to mechanical issues like I experienced, but most of them are due to pilots (who admit) they either got complacent or distracted (or both!) and simply forgot to extend the gear.
Gear-up landings usually don’t result in serious injuries to pilots and passengers, but they are a big ego buster. They also cost a lot of money in unnecessary damage to the airplane’s propellers, engines, structure, antennae, and skin. Often a mechanic needs to be hired to remove skin so the damage can be better evaluated. More money! And, if the damage is substantial, you’ll also be dealing with an “accident” as defined by 49 Code of Federal Regulations 830.2, and you’ll not only be getting a call from your local FAA inspector, but also from your friendly NTSB investigator. Nobody has time for that!
So, how do you make sure you never forget to put your gear down?
Use your BEFORE LANDING checklist—it’s there for a reason!
Repeat your GUMPS check (gas, undercarriage, mixture, propeller, seat belts and switches) OUT LOUD several times before you land.
Visually (if possible) confirm the gear is extended.
Stay ALERT and FOCUSED on flying (configuring) the airplane in the traffic pattern. AVOID unnecessary conversation and MAINTAIN situational awareness. Traffic patterns can get hectic, and things can happen fast.
Do some online research for articles about avoiding gear-up landings. There are some good articles and case studies out there written by CFIs and highly experienced pilots.