Category Archives: Highway Safety

Fatal Distraction: The Dangers When our Eyes Aren’t Faithful to the Road

By Member Jennifer Homendy

In my senior year of college I worked part-time as a “hot walker” for a trainer at a racehorse track. One afternoon, a coworker asked if I wanted to leave for lunch and grab a sandwich at a local deli. The last thing I remember before the crash was getting in her car, pulling the shoulder strap of the seat belt across me, and realizing that the buckle attachment was missing. I remember being worried; it was snowing, but somehow, I rationalized that I’d be fine because we were only going a few miles down a rural road where few cars traveled.

The next thing I remember is waking up in an ambulance and, soon after, arriving at a hospital, where a team of medical professionals were focused on the large, deep gash across the top of my head (and later, a concussion), which apparently occurred when I hit the windshield. These are injuries I never would’ve sustained had I been wearing a seat belt. My most vivid memory from that afternoon was the priest who worked his way between the medical staff to ask who he could contact on my behalf. While writing this blog, I asked my parents about that phone call. As the parent of a tween now, I can’t imagine how devastating it must have been to get a call about their child being involved in a major car crash and needing to get to a hospital that was two states away.

As for my coworker who was wearing a seat belt—she broke her arm when she threw it between me and the dashboard during the crash. Fortunately, the woman who hit us suffered only minor injuries. I found out later that she had taken her eyes off the road to pick up a wallet that fell on the floor of the passenger side of her car. She veered into our lane and hit us head on.

Distractions like the one that resulted in my crash aren’t new, but nearly 30 years later, as we’ve become more connected, our behavior toward them has gotten far worse. The technological advancements over the past couple of decades, in many ways, have improved and enriched our daily lives. Think of all the things we can do that were unimaginable in a pre-smartphone world: we no longer have to drive to the bank to cash a check, wait in line for coffee, or even visit the grocery store. With our time yielded back, we spend endless hours staying connected to others by text or video chats, or by browsing social media—to the point where we (particularly young people) become addicted to our devices.

So, why is this a problem on our roadways? Distractions like eating, reading, shaving, and picking up a wallet while driving are now compounded by our urge to respond to a barrage of phone calls, texts, and alerts on our smartphones—devices that are, in fact, designed to capture our attention. And, not surprisingly, research shows that humans aren’t good at multitasking. As a result, people are dying. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, distracted-driving crashes killed 2,841 people in 2018, including 400 pedestrians and 77 bicyclists who are particularly vulnerable because they don’t stand much of a chance when colliding with a 4,000-pound vehicle.

“Eliminating Distractions” has been on the NTSB’s Most Wanted List of transportation safety improvements since 2013, and it isn’t going anywhere until we see a significant reduction in distracted-driving-related fatalities. States also recognize the problem; some have banned the use of handheld devices altogether, while others have at least banned texting while driving. Short of full cellphone bans, though, drivers can still make calls on speaker, which only results in cognitive distraction.

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I think we all forget how big a responsibility operating a vehicle is and the potential harm that can be caused to us, our loved ones, and others when we allow ourselves to become distracted. Please, let’s all remember that we must remain vigilant while driving. Safe driving requires 100% of a driver’s attention, 100% of the time, so put down the phone or the bagel or the makeup. Let the wallet stay on the floor until you’re parked. No distraction is worth a human life.

Let’s Make This Independence Day Memorable with ZERO Impaired Driving Crashes

By Member Thomas Chapman

This has been a year of continuous and unexpected events.  Never did I expect that just two months after being confirmed as the 46th Board Member of the NTSB, I would be sent home to quarantine and physically distance from my new colleagues – and for a period now approaching 5 months.  Additionally, the news headlines have not let up, both nationally and internationally.  Each seems more surprising than the next.

However, some things remain the same, and not necessarily in a positive sense.  According to the National Safety Council, while the total number of traffic deaths is down, there was a 36.6-percent increase in fatality rates per miles driven in April 2020 (the most recent month for which statistics are available).

Now, as some states are easing their stay-at-home orders, people are tempted to reunite with family and friends.  This reacquired freedom is coinciding with another reason to celebrate our freedoms – Independence Day.  Unfortunately, July 4th is one of the deadliest impaired driving holidays in the United States, according to NHTSA.

The NTSB has long advocated for our safety recommendations to end alcohol and drug impaired driving  – over the 4th of July weekend and every day.  We have recommended many changes to strengthen impaired driving laws.  However, ultimately, impaired driving is the result of the personal choice of getting behind the wheel after consuming alcohol or drugs.

Like many others, my family and I will be celebrating this holiday, but we all have a responsibility to celebrate responsibly.  In March, many states reported that they experienced zero impaired driving fatalities over the St. Patrick’s Day weekend.  For the upcoming Independence Day weekend, I challenge you to repeat that history.  Let’s make this another holiday where we celebrate zero impaired driving fatalities.  If you choose to consume alcohol or drugs, also choose a designated, sober driver.  Remember that impairment begins with the first drink or dose.  And buzzed driving is drunk driving.

Choose to drive sober or designate a sober driver.  Impaired driving is 100% preventable!

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This July 4, Travel Safely—Don’t Put Unnecessary Strain on First Responders and Hospital Staff

By Dolline Hatchett, Director, NTSB Office of Safety Recommendations and Communications

COVID-19 has affected every American, and the NTSB has adapted to respond to the effects of the pandemic. As the agency’s Director of Safety Recommendations and Communications (SRC), I know how important it is to keep the industry, elected officials, and the advocacy community briefed on transportation safety; that’s why I decided to take advantage of this platform to try to reach as many of my fellow citizens as possible.

As we approach the July 4th weekend, with travelers expected to hit the roadways even in the midst of a pandemic, it’s important to remind the traveling public to drive safely. Motor vehicle crashes continue to constitute a chronic national health care crisis, resulting in 35,000 or more deaths and millions of injuries each year. Highway crashes create an enormous demand for medical services, year in and year out. At the same time, an emergent crisis, like COVID-19, demands those same resources, and they start to get stretched thin.

SRC works not only to inform, but also to advocate for safer personal transportation choices. Although much of the country has been shut down for the past few months, the agency continues to craft and track safety recommendations, and it’s up to my office to publicize safety advances when we close recommendations.

Throughout the lockdown, SRC has continued to facilitate communication with state and national policy makers, upon request, about transportation safety issues that are relevant to legislation they may be considering. The difference these days is that the office responds to these requests in writing, rather than in face-to-face testimony. We’ve also responded to requests from federal congressional staff to provide information on our recommendations to help them develop a surface transportation bill. And of course, we continue to make safety publications available to the public and to respond to queries about ongoing investigations.

But perhaps the most innovative response we’ve had during this pandemic is our Safety Reminder campaign, which launched just before Memorial Day with a public service announcement. This outreach was important; surprisingly, while most of the country was on lockdown leading up to Memorial Day weekend, a nationwide speeding trend emerged. We decided to proactively remind the public about safe transportation across all modes as the nation began to re-open.

I believe it’s important to re-emphasize safe road travel ahead of the July 4th weekend, especially because stay-at-home orders have eased throughout the country, and we may see even more road travelers this holiday weekend than we did over Memorial Day weekend. Despite  being away from our physical offices, SRC continues to keep the public informed of the agency’s work as we advocate for safety improvements across all modes of transportation. We’re the conduit between the technical expertise at the agency and our stakeholders—the traveling public, lawmakers, and industry—and it’s up to us to effectively communicate the vital safety improvements that come out of our investigations, reports, and studies. There’s no better time to convey that important information than now, just before a holiday weekend during which many Americans will be taking to the roads, perhaps for the first time in months.

So, before the start of the holiday weekend, when you’re picking out your mask and planning socially distant celebrations, remember how your actions behind the wheel relate to this pandemic and those directly affected by it. Don’t drive impaired. Don’t drive distracted or fatigued. Don’t speed. Whether you’re a passenger or a driver, always wear your seatbelt.

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Let’s work together to avoid further strain on our health care system; every ambulance not called, every unit of blood not transfused, every bed in an emergency department not filled because of a crash, is one more resource made available to fight our emergent crisis.

 

When it Comes Down to You and a Train, You Won’t Win!

By Member Jennifer Homendy

It seems like it should be obvious that you should never gamble with safety, but, for some reason, people often do when it comes to trains.

Last spring, I visited our regional office in Alaska, and on the way to a meeting, I stopped along the road near Turnagain Arm. Just beyond the parking lot was a fence, some train tracks, and a stunning shoreline overlooking the bay. Signs were posted along the fence, warning visitors not to cross the tracks. On that day—and I’m sure many others—the warnings were ignored. The fence was cut, people were crawling underneath to get to the shoreline, and several families were taking pictures on the tracks. It was a familiar scene. I’ve witnessed the same risky behavior on train tracks and at crossings near my home, and, let me tell you, when it’s between you and a train, you won’t win! Trains weigh tons, they’re moving faster than you think, sometimes you won’t hear them (even though you think you will), and they can take over a mile to come to a stop. Don’t risk it!

Railroads have always had the right of way, and they often existed before the communities that grew around them. Roughly a century before commercial airports began connecting a network of American cities, and long before the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 established the Interstate Highway System, the first steam engine railroads were created to transport passengers and freight in the United States. Railroads were foundational to our country, pushing westward and growing throughout the industrial revolution. As trains transported more and more passengers and commerce across a young nation expanding its territory, cities and small towns grew alongside the tracks. This history is why we now see so many highway-rail grade crossings in the United States.

Grade crossing safety has been a challenge for decades. Fatalities and injuries resulting from collisions at grade crossings occur all over the United States and are particularly problematic in densely populated urban areas that surround at-grade tracks. States and local governments are primarily responsible for the decisions that make crossings safer, including upgrades to warning signals and infrastructure improvements, such as roadway redesigns, crossing consolidations, and grade separations. But these projects are expensive for states and local governments, and they often require funding from oversubscribed federal grant programs.

In 2008, following an audit by the US Department of Transportation’s (DOT’s) Inspector General, Congress required the DOT to identify the 10 states with the highest number of grade crossing collisions and direct those states to develop action plans identifying specific solutions for improving safety at crossings, particularly crossings where multiple accidents had occurred or that were at high risk for accidents. Those states were Alabama, California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Ohio, and Texas.

In 2015, the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act extended the mandate to all states. The law also required the DOT to develop a model grade-crossing action plan and distribute it to the states to help focus their efforts. This requirement was in response to two NTSB safety recommendations (H-12-60 and -61) issued following a grade crossing collision we investigated on June 24, 2011, in Miriam, Nevada, which tragically took the lives of a truck driver, a train conductor, and four train passengers.

Despite implementation of these recommendations, as well as many others, and the tremendous actions of railroads and state and local governments in partnership with the federal government, grade crossing collisions and the rate at which they occur have increased over the past decade. Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) data show that there were 2,216 grade crossing incidents in 2019, up from 2,052 in 2010. The rate of incidents per million train miles also increased from 2.911 to 3.273 over the same time period, while fatalities at grade crossings grew from 261 to 293.

Those figures don’t even include trespassers on train tracks, like those I saw in Alaska. Trespasser incidents (not at grade crossings) have increased from 788 in 2010 to 1,092 in 2019. Deaths and injuries have soared from a total of 801 to 1,122 over the last decade. This is tragic, and, as a society, we can—and must—do better.

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The NTSB continues to investigate grade crossing collisions and recommend safety enhancements, such as infrastructure upgrades and better signage at crossings. We’ve held public forums and worked alongside the FRA, Operation Lifesaver, railroads, and rail labor to raise public awareness about safety at grade crossings and the need to stay off the tracks. But, ultimately, it’s our responsibility to always be vigilant and take safety seriously. Drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians must obey warning signs and signals, stay off the tracks, stop and look both ways at passive crossings, and avoid distractions. Trying to beat an oncoming train is reckless and deadly.

Teen Drivers: Don’t Take Your Return to the Road for Granted

By: Nicholas Worrell, Chief, Office of Safety Advocacy

We recently announced the launch of a new #SafetyReminder campaign to provide the traveling public with a few friendly reminders as unprecedented stay-at-home restrictions are eased and we slowly resume air, rail, road, and marine travel.

During this return to “normalcy,” we’re especially concerned about young drivers. That’s why we partnered with Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD) to host a virtual get together to reach out to teen drivers and their parents.

It’s an understatement to say that 2020’s young drivers have seen a lot in a short time. Like the rest of us, teens have done their part to slow the spread of the coronavirus through self-quarantine, protecting both themselves and others. Now that the country is slowly reopening, it’s time to return our focus to what’s most deadly to young drivers and their peers. It’s time to think not only about socially distancing ourselves, but also about isolating our cars from hazards like vulnerable road users, roadside obstacles, and even other cars. It’s time for a reminder about the biggest threat to teens’ lives: traffic crashes.

Parents have always passed the car keys to the next generation with trembling hands, and for good reason. Unintentional injuries are the leading cause of death for every age group between 1 and 44. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of fatal injury for people between the ages of 15 and 44. So, when it’s time to return to the road, we all need to be aware of the “danger zones” for young drivers:

  1. Inexperience
  2. Driving with teen passengers
  3. Nighttime driving
  4. Not using seat belts
  5. Distraction
  6. Drowsiness
  7. Impairment
  8. Reckless driving

Although it’s good for young drivers—and their parents—to refresh their knowledge of all the danger zones, they should be aware that our recent isolation may have increased risk in certain danger zone categories. For example, stay-at-home orders have hampered new drivers’ ability to gain experience and start to internalize many of the actions that will become second nature with more time behind the wheel. Any skills even the most seasoned driver had before lockdown will be rusty; that’s compounded for new drivers who have had far less time to practice behind the wheel. Beyond that, young drivers may not weigh risk as carefully as their adult counterparts, and the excitement of getting back on the road may easily manifest as risky behavior.

Here’s another consideration that teens and their parents might overlook: driving with teen passengers not only makes it harder for teen drivers to keep their concentration on the road, but it also flies in the face of social distancing. We understand that it’s been a long time since we’ve gotten together with people outside our homes, and teen drivers are probably the most eager of anyone to reunite with their friends. But reunions don’t belong in the same car, where distraction can be as contagious as a virus. Nothing good is going to come from getting behind the wheel if those reunions involve illegal use of alcohol or other drugs, or they go late into the night, or a driver is running on little sleep.

While distraction from passengers is one risk to avoid, driving while distracted by personal electronic devices—which was deadly before the pandemic—is potentially even deadlier now, given how accustomed we’ve become to practicing virtual contact. The always-connected world that helped us be resilient during this isolating time can also make us vulnerable to danger if we continue that constant connection while behind the wheel. No call, no text, no update, is worth a human life.

Even age-old risky behaviors, like speeding, that have always been a pitfall for young drivers pose an increased danger following isolation. The roads have been emptier for months, and some drivers have taken advantage, driving unimpeded at breakneck speed. Even on nearly empty roads, drivers need to leave the lead foot at home and keep an eye out for those who treat the less-crowded roads like their personal speedways. Most importantly, drivers need to make sure they—and their passengers—are always using seat belts, in case the high-risk driver in the next lane makes a bad decision.

Teens, for all your admirable resilience in the face of today’s challenges, you are still our most vulnerable and inexperienced road users. You’re going to be a great generation of adults before long; let us help make sure you make it there.

Parents and guardians, don’t send your teens back out on the road unprepared. Talk to your teens about the key components of driving and set the example for safe driving. A study by Liberty Mutual and SADD found that parents are setting a poor example for teens by engaging in unsafe driving behaviors, such as texting and driving, and are not listening to their kids’ warnings. Forty-one percent of teens say their parents continue these unsafe behaviors even after their teens ask them to stop, and 28 percent of teens say their parents justify unsafe behavior.  Take a moment to consider how to keep your young drivers safe, how to help them make good choices, and what example you’re setting. Take time to outline the key risks of driving. If you need a reminder, visit the websites of expert organizations like NHTSA and the CDC. And remember: your example is the most powerful instructor. Teens learn by example.

It’s been said that insisting on one’s rights without accepting one’s responsibilities is not freedom but adolescence. As somebody who works in youth safety outreach, I assure you, that’s an insult to today’s adolescents, who have used their voices and actions to demonstrate that they understand the role of conscience, mindfulness, and selfless service. I have no doubt this resilient group—many of whom gave up rites of passage, like prom and in-person graduation, to self-quarantine and protect those around them—can come back to the driving task with a renewed understanding of their profound responsibilities behind the wheel.

Our virtual joint event with SADD will take place on May 27, 2020, and we want to hear from parents and youth about the challenges and successes of returning to the road. We’ll also discuss resources that everyone can use to promote safer driving, whether they’re talking to peers, parents, or teens.

NTSB & SADD Transportation Safety Youth Leader Check-in

Teens, take care as you reenter the roadway. Don’t let your freedom from isolation end in unnecessary injury or death—for you or those around you. I know it will feel amazing to get back to some kind of normal, but don’t let your sacrifices of the past few months be in vain.