Category Archives: Events

The Silver Bridge Collapse: Don’t Blame the Mothman!

 

By Don Karol

Rumor has it that, just before the December 15, 1967, collapse of the US Highway 35 Bridge in Point Pleasant, West Virginia, a 7-foot-tall monster with large, piercing red eyes and huge, mothlike wings was seen lurking nearby, warning of the impending catastrophe. This “Mothman” was soon blamed for the tragedy in which 46 people died and 9 were injured. Of the 37 vehicles on the bridge at the time of the collapse, 31 fell with it, many plunging into the Ohio River. Fifty years after the collapse of what was then known as the Silver Bridge, paranormal speculation still swirls around the event, perpetuated by movies (like the Mothman Prophecies), legends, and myths. As a civil engineer, though, I put my trust in the laws of physics, materials science, and the findings of the NTSB investigation completed five decades ago, which proved without a doubt that the Mothman wasn’t to blame.

Silver Bridge, Point Pleasant, West Virginia
Section of Silver Bridge, Point Pleasant, West Virginia, that collapsed on December 15, 1967 (source: Herald-Dispatch)

The Silver Bridge collapse was the first significant highway accident investigation in NTSB history. Working with experts from the Federal Highway Administration, the states of West Virginia and Ohio, and leading engineering consulting firms, we determined conclusively that the cause of the collapse was an eyebar fracture in one of the bridge’s suspension chains. The fracture resulted from stress corrosion and corrosion fatigue that had developed over the bridge’s 40-year lifespan. Not surprisingly, no evidence was ever found connecting the Mothman to the failure.

This catastrophic event prompted national concern about the safety of bridges across the United States. President Lyndon B. Johnson ordered all US bridges to undergo safety inspections. Congressional hearings resulted in mandates requiring the US Department of Transportation to develop and implement National Bridge Inspection Standards. In December 1970, landmark legislation was enacted that established national requirements for bridge inspection and evaluation. One would think that these rigorous new inspection standards would take care of bridge failures forever. Unfortunately, during the past half century, that’s not been the case.

1983 bridge collapse in Greenwich CT
A 100-foot-long section of the Interstate 95 bridge over the Mianus River in Greenwich, Connecticut, collapsed June 29, 1983 (source: Bob Child, Associated Press)

On June 28, 1983, a 100-foot-long section of Interstate 95 (Mianus River Bridge) collapsed near Greenwich, Connecticut. Two tractor-semitrailers and two passenger vehicles went down with it, resulting in three fatalities and three serious injuries. We determined that corrosion-induced forces led to lateral displacement of the suspension assembly, which went undetected by the state’s bridge inspection and maintenance programs and ultimately led to the collapse.

On April 5, 1987, tragedy struck again when two spans of the New York State Thruway (Interstate 90) fell about 80 feet into the rain-swollen Schoharie Creek. Four passenger cars and one tractor-semitrailer plunged into the creek, and 10 people were killed. We determined that the New York State Thruway Authority failed to maintain adequate support around the bridge piers, leading to severe erosion in the soil beneath the bridge footings. We also determined that the state’s bridge inspection program was inadequate. Not surprisingly, neither the Mothman nor the Loch Ness Monster was seen in advance of this collapse to forewarn of the impending catastrophe.

1987 bridge collapse near Amsterdam, New York
Divers search for victims in the Schoharie Creek after the New York State Thruway bridge collapsed near Amsterdam, New York, on April 5, 1987 (source: Fred McKinney, Times Union)

Other notable bridge failures we investigated in the late 1980s involved localized flooding and water scouring. One collapse occurred on April 1, 1989, near Covington, Tennessee, when two columns supporting three bridge spans collapsed, sending an 85‑foot section of the US Route 51 bridge 20 feet into the Hatchie River. Five vehicles fell with it, killing eight occupants. Again, our investigation identified deficiencies in the state authority’s bridge oversight. In response to our investigations of these events, additional requirements were developed for periodic underwater inspection of bridges.

Probably the most memorable bridge collapse we investigated occurred 10 years ago in Minneapolis, Minnesota, when a catastrophic failure occurred in the main span of the deck truss in the Interstate 35W highway bridge. As a result, 1,000 feet of the deck truss collapsed during rush hour, with about 456 feet of the main span falling into the river. A total of 111 vehicles were on the portion of the bridge that collapsed; 13 people died and 145 were injured. We determined that a design error in the gusset plates compromised the bridge’s load capacity, causing it to fail under substantial weight increases. Our investigation prompted the development of additional bridge quality assurance and improved bridge inspection requirements.

2007 bridge collapse in Minneapolis, Minnesota
Interstate 35W bridge over the Mississippi River collapsed in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on August 1, 2007 (source: Peter Matthews, Polaris)

On December 15, as we mark the 50th anniversary of the Silver Bridge collapse, let’s focus on the infrastructure improvements we need still need to make five decades later rather than try to place the blame on mythical creatures like the Mothman. Throughout the NTSB’s history, we have investigated catastrophic bridge collapses with one goal in mind: preventing future tragedies. Despite efforts to continually enhance the quality of bridge inspections, unforeseen disasters continue to occur, highlighting the need to thoroughly inspect and replace bridges before they collapse. Supernatural forces do not bring down bridges; neglect does.

 

Don Karol is a Senior Highway Accident Investigator and National Resource Specialist in the NTSB Office of Highway Safety.

Inspiring Youth Safety Leaders

By Nicholas Worrell, Chief, NTSB Safety Advocacy Division

As an NTSB safety advocate, I serve the American people by promoting safety improvements that will save lives, prevent injuries, and preserve property on the nation’s roadways. I work to end distracted and impaired driving, and I encourage greater use of seat belts and child restraint systems.

One way I get my advocacy message across is by speaking on safety issues. I recently attended the National Black Caucus of State Legislators (NBCSL) Annual Conference in Indianapolis, Indiana. The theme this year was “Racing Towards the Future: Leading in a Time of Change,” though, from a transportation safety perspective, it seems like the future is racing toward us. We are living in an age when everyone, everywhere is connected by technology. In the span of a decade, smartphones have gone from the hot new item to a staple of modern life. But to avoid tragedies, all of us must keep our hands, eyes, and minds on the road—especially our youth, who lack driving experience.

At the conference, I sat on a panel with NBCSL corporate roundtable (CRT) members to address students from Warren Central High School in Indianapolis. Our goal was to educate, empower, and engage the youth on a variety of topics. From my perspective, their race toward the future, and the future’s race toward them, are both givens; the challenge will be for them to lead during changing times. I spoke to them about the significance of making good decisions that would have a positive impact on their lives in years to come. I stressed to them that motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for teenagers, killing more young people every year than suicide, drugs, violence, and alcohol abuse combined. In the last decade, more than 51,000 people between the ages of 15 and 20 died in traffic crashes. That’s nearly 100 people each week! My message, then, was for these youth to act intentionally; to think about consequences up front. Not only are those good leadership habits, but they’re also excellent safe driving strategies.

NBCSL
Nicholas Worrell with Warren Central High School Principal Rich Shepler and students

I encouraged the audience members to become leaders among their peers. Fatigue, impaired driving, and distracted driving are all factors that can endanger young drivers’ lives. A big part of racing towards the future is bringing about widespread change at a pace that matches other changes coming about—like curbing distracted driving at a clip that keeps up with the developing technology. Keeping up with these changes will take time and commitment, and will require three things: good education and outreach, good laws, and good enforcement.

NBCSL 2
Nicholas Worrell joins National Black Caucus of State Legislators corporate roundtable members with Warren Central High School students

The race toward the future must be a race on the Road to Zero Fatalities; however, racing toward the future is more than giving teens a driver’s license or a car. As the CRT members discussed at the conference, today’s teens must meet tomorrow’s challenges with values like responsibility, commitment, passion, initiative, focus, action, persistence, growth, character, goals, gratitude, servitude, and courage, among other things. Racing toward the future will require a great deal of toil, and our youth will benefit from applying the lessons learned before them. Along with my colleagues on the panel, I offered my best advice and my own story to help guide them.

In 2016, we lost more than 37,000 lives on our nation’s roads. As we race toward 2018, what changes will we make to help prevent accidents, injuries, and fatalities? What steps can each of us take to prepare our youth for a brighter future? What stepping stones can we lay for students like those at Warren Central High?

Whether you teach students, mentor younger colleagues, or serve as an example to children, younger family members, or your peers, you, too, can lead during a time of change. The future is racing toward us; the time to prepare the next generation is now.

Disconnect this Thanksgiving

By Chairman Robert L. Sumwalt

Before the roads become packed with young adults returning from college, out-of-town visitors arriving, and last-minute trips to the store for that missing item in Aunt Ida’s stuffing, I wanted to get in a few words about focusing on the drive this Thanksgiving.

If you’re driving, put down the phone. Better yet, put it in the glove compartment, or, if you’re driving with others, hand the phone over to someone you trust.

There’s still time before you get on the road to make arrangements; you don’t have to try to settle things while you drive. If you’re driving home from college, make sure that your parents know to leave a message if they call because you’re not answering the phone while driving. And say your goodbyes to your peers at school and not while you drive. Let your friends know in advance that the driver is out of contact until the drive is over, end of story. No texts, no tweets, no e-mails, no calls.

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Chairman Sumwalt talks with survivor advocates at the Act to End Deadly Distractions roundtable 

For you parents: As a parent myself, I know how much we worry. But don’t call your children while they’re driving. Distracting them from the driving task can cause far more heartache than not knowing exactly where they are and how they’re getting along.

Back on the home front: If you need to call back to your house to see if you forgot to stock up on something for the guests, do it from the store parking lot. If you’re a guest on the way and you need to tell your hosts your progress, do it from a rest area.

Thanksgiving is a joyous American holiday, and it kicks off our festive holiday season. While we’re gathering with friends and family to give thanks for all we’ve got, let’s not open ourselves up to a terrible loss.

Mom, dad, kids, sis, boyfriend, girlfriend, fiancée, spouse, buddy… I won’t take your call and I won’t answer your text while I’m on the road. Our connection doesn’t depend on our tweets, text messages, photos, or phone conversations while driving; it’s in our hearts, not our heart emojis. It’s far better to lose the electronic representation of a loved one for a few minutes or hours than to lose a loved one—or cause somebody else to lose a loved one—forever.

Last April, StopDistractions.org, Drive Smart VA, and the National Safety Council worked with the NTSB to present a roundtable, “Act to End Deadly Distractions.” The roundtable brought together survivor advocates with other experts to tell their stories and share tools they’re using in their fight against distracted driving. Some of the survivor advocates at this roundtable will see empty seats this year at the Thanksgiving table. As one of the participants put it, “this isn’t a club any of us wanted to be in. We don’t want to be here; we want to be home with our loved ones . . . that was taken from us.”

Thousands of people “join the club” of distracted driving survivors or victims every year. But this Thanksgiving, we can all act to lower this number and get home safely to our loved ones by disconnecting while we’re driving.

Click on the link to see a few moments from the “Act to End Deadly Distractions” roundtable (just not while you’re driving).

 

Travelers, Put Safety First this Holiday Season

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By Chairman Robert L. Sumwalt

At the NTSB, we’ve investigated many tragic transportation accidents that could have been prevented with some planning, forethought, and good decision making. As we mark the beginning of the holiday travel season, we want to encourage all Americans to make it their goal to arrive safely at their destinations, so we’ve boiled down some lessons we’ve learned that the traveling public can use.

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:

  • 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 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 newly released video, survivor-advocates share their stories of personal loss—and the changes they’re working for now: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7jNYECrlzGU&feature=youtube.
  • 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

The NTSB has made recommendations 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 the 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.

No matter how you travel, you deserve the benefits of the lessons we’ve learned through our investigations, but you need to play an active part to take advantage of them. This holiday season, make a commitment to put safety first.

 

Thank You for Your Service  

By Nicholas Worrell, Chief, NTSB Safety Advocacy Division

As we honor our veterans this week, I’d first like to acknowledge the many veterans who continue to serve the public here at the NTSB. Thank you for your service. I, too, began my public service in the armed forces as a member of the US Marine Corps. Like many of my NTSB colleagues, my focus then was—and remains—protecting American lives.

And to all American veterans, on behalf of the whole NTSB, thank you for your service. You were ready to stand your post and, if necessary, engage the enemy to protect your country.

A little more than a year ago, I had an opportunity to speak to sailors aboard the USS George Washington about road safety, which, I’ll admit, sounds strange. After all, why do sailors aboard a ship need to hear about road safety? The answer is because today’s military is working hard to stop an epidemic of vehicle crash deaths among its personnel, both off and on duty. For many years, the number of active duty personnel dying in crashes on our roads rivaled the number dying in our wars. Adding in American civilians, we lose over 37,000 Americans on our roads each year. Unintentional roadway injuries are the most likely cause of death for Americans, from childhood through middle age.

USS Washington
Nicholas Worrell talks with sailors about the USS George Washington

On the George Washington, I urged active duty personnel to “stay frosty” (alert) on US roads because, to me, something that kills tens of thousands of Americans a year must be seen as an enemy. This enemy’s three favorite tactics are impairment, distraction, and fatigue. Using the values drilled into me as a Marine—honor, courage, and commitment—I’m working to encourage others to counter these enemy tactics. I’m teaching my fellow citizens that it’s not okay to drink a six‑pack and get on your bike. It’s not okay to take phone calls—handheld or handsfree—while you’re behind the wheel. It’s not okay to drive without any sleep. If you do, you’re as good as collaborating with the enemy.

Body armor and up-armored vehicles keep soldiers and Marines safer, even when they’re in harm’s way. But what keeps you safe from the enemy on the roads at home?

A full FMVSS-218–compliant helmet.

Consistent use of your restraints.

Age-appropriate child car seats.

This is your body armor on the roads; your up-armor for your POV.

For many of us who have transitioned out of the military, our service values still drive us. We know that if there’s an enemy afoot, we are called to confront it. And, for Americans who never wore the uniform, improving road safety can be your chance to serve our country.

This Veterans Day, let’s thank our veterans by keeping each other safe on the roads that they served to defend.

Why Teen Driver Safety Week Should be Every Week

By: Nicholas Worrell, Chief, NTSB Safety Advocacy Division

Driving is a privilege that gives us the freedom to go where we want, when we want, with whom we want. The benefits of driving are especially attractive to teenagers. Driving is a milestone for teens, but with great power and freedom comes great responsibility.

Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death among teenagers; more teens die in crashes than from drug/alcohol abuse, violence, or disease. In 2016, more than 3,600 teenagers died on our highways, a 4 percent increase from 2015. To address these tragic statistics, the third week of October was designated by Congress as National Teen Driver Safety Week. During this week, advocates, government agencies, communities, and educators aim to promote teen driver safety and eliminate a preventable tragic problem. Especially during this week, we all need to come together to keep simple mistakes from impacting the future of our country.

Today, the NTSB joined the National Organizations for Youth Safety (NOYS) and students from Maryland and Virginia high schools for NOYS’ Youth Interactive Traffic Safety Lab. The event provided hands-on activities for students to learn about a variety of driving safety issues—from auto maintenance and work zone navigation to distracted and impaired driving. Traffic safety experts and community leaders spoke with students about what it means to be a “responsible” driver and the very real consequences of complacency. In a pre-event press conference, NTSB’s Kris Poland, PhD; Maryland’s First Lady Yumi Hogan; Maryland Motor Vehicle Administrator Christine Nizer; and NOYS Interim Executive Director April Rai reminded teens that, while motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for teens, these crashes are preventable. One key message to teens: you have the power to change this reality.

Students also had the opportunity to talk with NTSB investigators and safety advocates to learn about our crash investigations and the safety recommendations we’ve made to improve safety for all road users—especially our recommendations for preventing teen driving crashes and their resulting injuries and deaths.

While events like the NOYS Safety Lab helps to arm students with some of the tools needed to make the right choice, we need the help of parents, other influencing adults, school officials, local government, and community leaders to help make the biggest impact. Parents, in particular, play a critical role. They should have a meaningful discussion with their new driver about the key components of driving and the thinking behind certain driving decisions. Parents must take time to outline the risks associated with driving, such as distractions, fatigue (due either from lack of sleep or fatiguing medications), other impairments, and speeding. Sometimes, making safety a priority requires establishing new priorities in the household and a shift in “family culture.” The best way to promote safety is to practice safety and treat it seriously through education, discussion, and role modeling.

 At the NTSB, we strive every day to advocate safety in the many modes of transportation. Our Most Wanted List of transportation safety improvements is designed to address our most critical safety issues. We are successful when people engage, learn strategies to improve the lives of themselves and those around them, and execute these strategies to save lives and prevent injuries. I urge you to become an advocate—not only this week, but every week—for driving safely.

 

If you have any questions about teen driving or NTSB advocacy activities in this area, email SafetyAdvocacy@NTSB.gov. We also encourage you to follow us on Twitter @NTSB and Facebook and Instagram @NTSBgov.

 

 

International Advocacy to Prepare and Prevent

By Nicholas Worrell

I recently had the privilege of speaking in Manchester, England, at the National Safer Roads Partnerships Conference. The United Kingdom has some of the lowest road-user fatality rates in the world. While our annual vehicle miles traveled vary greatly, on a typical day, about 109 road users are killed on America’s roadways, while only 5 Britons lose their lives the same way. But, as I reminded the conference audience, even one fatality is still too many.

This was a unique opportunity to represent the NTSB because the audience was mainly British law enforcement officers, and the British tradition of “policing by consent” was tailor‑made for a prevention-focused discussion. Policing by consent means that, because most people want law and order, the goal should be to prevent crime rather than focus on punishing perpetrators. Our Safety Advocacy Division operates with much the same philosophy, working to prevent transportation accidents by encouraging stakeholders to implement the agency’s recommendations. We also explain road safety to vulnerable populations, such as young drivers, to bring lifesaving information to the traveling public, and we share our findings with colleagues.

We know that, as we face coming challenges in road safety, prevention opportunities abound. Our recent speeding study noted the value of a “safe system” approach, which depends on layers of safety in a given road environment and recognizes preventive uses of technology, such as automated speed enforcement. Our recent investigation into the fatal crash of a partially automated vehicle allowed us to consider the double-edged sword of automation. Our investigations have shown that, as vehicles rely more and more on automated sensors, they also collect more data, which should be gathered in a standard format and reported when vehicles with enabled control systems crash.

The world is changing, crash factors are changing, and our tools are changing. The data that cars themselves can provide about crashes is expanding. As I told the law enforcement officers in Manchester, the NTSB has learned that everything an accident can tell us is worth our attention. We are conscious that every safety lesson learned is worth retelling, both to spur acceptance of our recommendations and to prepare ourselves, our colleagues, and the public for the challenges of a fast-approaching future. By sharing lessons learned across borders, we improve our chances at reaching zero transportation fatalities worldwide.

 

Nicholas Worrell is Chief of the NTSB Safety Advocacy Division.