When I started my career with Mothers Against Drunk Driving 20 years ago, I never imagined I would still be advocating to eliminate impaired driving in 2019. I wasn’t so naïve to believe we’d have flying cars by now, but I did think that, surely in 20 years, Americans would shift their attitudes and behaviors to routinely separate drinking and driving. After all, impaired driving is 100% preventable with smart choices and planning for a sober ride home.
We should have zero fatalities when it comes to impaired driving, and yet, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reports that over 10,000 people die in alcohol-impaired driving crashes every year. That means one-third of all traffic fatalities are caused by impaired driving. What’s more, those numbers are limited to alcohol impairment at the 0.08-percent BAC level or higher. If we include all alcohol-involved fatalities, that statistic increases to over 12,000.
As if that number wasn’t bad enough, it doesn’t even include other drug-impaired driving. We don’t have accurate statistics for those yet because there’s currently no common standard of practice for drug toxicology testing (although NHTSA is making progress toward implementing this NTSB recommendation).
Impairment is impairment, regardless of if someone is impaired by alcohol, marijuana (for recreational or medical use), illicit drugs, or even prescription or over-the-counter medications.
Instead of seeing that attitude and behavior shift I had hoped for years ago, today, an estimated 14.8 million drivers report that, in the past 30 days, they got behind the wheel within 1 hour after using marijuana, according to a recent AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety survey. The AAA survey also revealed that 70% of Americans think it’s unlikely a driver will get caught by police for driving while high on marijuana. Those folks are in for a sad surprise, as more law enforcement officers are being trained in the Advanced Roadside Impaired Driving Enforcement (ARIDE) and the Drug Evaluation and Classification (DEC) programs, and many are being certified as drug recognition experts (DREs). This means traffic officers have been specifically trained to detect and identify impairment—by alcohol or other drugs—with a high level of accuracy.
The 4th of July is one of the deadliest holiday periods of the year when it comes to impaired-driving crashes. But it doesn’t have to be. Drive sober. Choose—or volunteer to be—a designated driver. Use a ride-sharing app or public transportation. There’s never an excuse to drive impaired by alcohol or other drugs. Don’t drive high this 4th of July.
By Nicholas Worrell, Chief, NTSB Safety Advocacy Division
Author and leadership expert John Maxwell once said, “Everything rises and falls on leadership.” Leadership is at the core of all we do, whether it’s in our professional organizations, community groups, or personal lives. Success depends on sound leadership.
Earlier this week, I represented the NTSB to more than 200 members of Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD). SADD’s mission to empower, engage, mobilize, and change is the very essence of youth leadership, and that leadership is desperately needed. The number one cause of death in teens ages 15 to 19 remains motor vehicle crashes. It’s fitting that I would speak at SADD during the 100 Deadliest Days of Summer, where we lose hundreds of teens on our roads to motor vehicle crashes. In order to save lives, it will require a change in our attitudes toward safety, and that’s a lesson best taught at an early age.
The SADD students I spoke to had already taken a major step toward this shift in thinking, simply by attending the event. Our nation’s youth must learn not only how to practice safe behavior, but also how to become the next generation of safety leaders. With that in mind and understanding that strong leadership begins with self, I urged the SADD attendees to develop their own internal leadership qualities, stressing that increased knowledge of self would help them to empower others.
As a safety advocate, I know that a big part of my job is to provide support to those who will one day fill my shoes. I used my opportunity with SADD to plant the seeds that will yield the world’s future safety advocates. It’s important that today’s adults—professional safety specialists or not—work together to train, grow, and prepare today’s youth to be strong, effective leaders that we can one day confidently hand the baton to in the name of safety.
As a motorcyclist, I know there’s a lot that goes into being a safe rider. There’s training and experience that help build and sharpen our riding skills. There’s equipment designed to help us avoid crashes and equipment designed to protect us when things go wrong. There are awareness campaigns to remind us that distraction, impairment, and speed kill. And there are reports and safety recommendations, developed from our investigations, that often make headlines and create discussion within our community.
We recently completed our investigation of a fatal motorcycle and pickup truck crash that happened during the September 10, 2017, “Toy Run” group ride in Augusta, Maine. Unless you’re an avid NTSB report reader or live in Maine, this report likely didn’t catch your eye, and that’s unfortunate because the probable cause speaks to the foundation of every good ride—from your lone-wolf escape, to the Saturday pick-up ride, to the organized chapter ride—every good ride starts with a good plan.
About 3,000 motorcyclists gathered at the Augusta Civic Center to participate in the 36th annual United Bikers of Maine Toy Run on the day of the crash. The intended route had the herd in staggered formation entering I-95 from exit 112B, traveling to exit 113, where they would leave the highway to proceed east on Route 3/202, then south on Route 32, to reach their final destination of Windsor Fairgrounds.
After entering I-95 and for reasons that could not be determined, a 2007 Harley-Davidson XL 1200 suddenly moved out of the right lane, traveled across the center lane, and entered the left lane in front of a 2008 Ford F250 pickup truck. The pickup truck driver attempted an evasive maneuver but collided with the motorcycle, losing control of the vehicle, due in part to the truck having “collected” the Harley. The truck veered to the right, traveling across the center and right lanes and striking four other motorcycles. The truck and the 2007 Harley traveled through the guardrail, where the truck came to rest on its passenger side and the Harley on its right side in a ditch beside the pickup. Two motorcyclists died as a result of the crash. One motorcyclist and the pickup truck passenger suffered serious injuries, while the driver and four other motorcyclists suffered minor injuries. The motorcyclists involved in the crash were not United Bikers of Maine members, and the motorcyclist who died was not wearing a helmet as required.
We determined that the probable cause of the crash was the motorcycle operator’s unsafe maneuver in moving in front of the pickup truck. Contributing to this crash was the failure of the city of Augusta Police Department and the Toy Run event organizer, United Bikers of Maine, to identify and mitigate the risks associated with routing a group ride onto an interstate without providing supplemental traffic control or state police oversight.
Unfortunately, this wasn’t the first time we addressed route planning for special events on streets and highways. In 2012, we investigated a crash in Midland, Texas, involving a parade float and freight train, where the city of Midland and the parade organizer failed to identify and mitigate the risks associated with routing a parade through a highway-railroad grade crossing.
In the case of the Maine motorcycle crash, we found that the event organizers and local authorities similarly failed in planning and communication. We concluded that appropriate risk assessment, involving all stakeholders, most likely would have resulted in the rerouting of the Toy Run event, so that it did not involve the interstate. Had the route remained unchanged, effective traffic control countermeasures could have been applied to increase safety. We also determined that using secondary roadways with lower speed limits for the event route, or at least providing additional oversight, including a traffic plan, and imposing adequate temporary traffic control countermeasures, would have been far more likely to result in a safe event.
Right about now you’re likely asking, “So how does this apply to me? My pick-up ride is about one percent of the 3,000-rider event in Maine.” Valid point. Your lone-wolf ride or pick-up ride doesn’t require coordination with local or state authorities. But your ride—just like an event ride—requires planning for safety. You need to plan your rides to “identify and mitigate the risks” associated with them.
I tend to ride a lot by myself, and although I allow myself to “explore” the countryside of the region, I at least let someone know what general area I plan to be in, when I plan to return, and if I’m planning any stops along the way. If I do a detailed turn-by-turn route plan, I’ll share that too, noting allowances for the occasional missed turn.
If I lead a pick-up ride, I do a safety brief before we go kickstands up, detailing the route, communications, hand signals, what to do if we get separated, and what to do if someone has an emergency. I try not to take my friends on roads I’ve not traveled, so I can communicate to them what to expect and highlight any potential hazards or unusual road conditions. I check weather, traffic, and other relevant environmental factors to ensure good situational awareness.
To some readers, I’m sure this sounds like overpreparation. I disagree. The moments spent going over a plan help trigger all the other safety behaviors we need to employ to keep ourselves safe on our rides.
There is a wise saying related to planning: “Nobody plans to fail, but many fail to plan.” Applying good planning principals to your rides will help you keep safety at the forefront of your activities, and is one more way to mitigate the risks we face every time we saddle up.
By Nicholas Worrell, Chief, Safety Advocacy Division
Around the world, about 1.25 million people lose their lives every year in motor vehicle crashes. That’s roughly the entire population of Dallas, Texas. Others—20–50 million—are injured or disabled. That’s about the equivalent of injuring everybody in a medium-sized country, like Spain (46 million) or Ukraine (44 million).
May is Global Youth Traffic Safety Month (GYTSM), and May 6–12, 2019, marks the Fifth United Nations Global Road Safety Week. These events draw attention to the need for stronger road safety leadership to help achieve a set of global goals. International governments have set an ambitious goal to reduce by half the number of deaths and injuries from road traffic accidents globally by 2020.
On behalf of the NTSB, during this GYTSM, I’ll join with advocates and road safety experts from around the world to launch action through the ongoing campaign “Save Lives—#SpeakUp.” The campaign “provides an opportunity for civil society to generate demands for strong leadership for road safety, especially around concrete, evidence‑based interventions.” From May 8 to 10, I’ll also have the opportunity to speak to an audience of public transportation agencies from throughout the Caribbean region, as well as road transportation professionals and academics from around the world, at the 8th annual Caribbean Regional Congress of the International Road Federation in Georgetown, Guyana. As a Caribbean native, I am especially looking forward to discussing the NTSB’s lessons learned, recommendations, and advocacy efforts with professionals there.
One of the big messages I hope to get across is that ending road crashes and their resulting injuries and fatalities worldwide will require a cultural shift, and that shift must begin with young people, who are more likely to die in a motor vehicle crash than any other age group. More people between the ages of 15 and 29 lose their lives in crashes than from HIV/AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis, and homicide combined. GYTSM is a time to encourage this demographic to take the mantel and fight to change those statistics.
Would you like to add your voice to the conversation happening this week around Global Road Safety Week? Join the Youth For Road Safety global youth Twitter chat on Friday, May 10, 2019, from 15:00–16:00 GMT (10:00–11:00 EST), follow @Yours_YforRS and use the hashtag #SpeakUpForRoadSafety.
The United States continues to be one of the world’s leaders in drunk-driving deaths. One of the reasons for this shameful distinction is that US drivers are allowed to operate motor vehicles with more alcohol in their system than is permitted in most other countries.
One state in the nation is an exception to this rule: Utah, which became the first state to lower the threshold for drunk driving from .08 percent blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to .05 percent BAC, joining more than 100 countries that have a limit of .05 percent or lower. In 1983, Utah was also the first state to lead the nation in lowering the threshold from .10 percent to .08 percent BAC.
Currently, California and Michigan legislators are considering whether to adopt a .05‑percent law that will save hundreds of lives and prevent thousands of life-altering injuries over the coming years. On April 3, NTSB Safety Advocate Leah Walton added her voice to the growing chorus calling for a lower BAC limit in California, for the same reasons that I spoke in favor of a similar law in Michigan on March 20, and for the same reasons that the NTSB advocated in support of Utah’s .05 law, which went into effect December 30, 2018. (New York is also considering such a move.) All three laws satisfy our 2013 safety recommendation to lower the legal BAC limit to .05 percent or lower. All three laws will separate drinking from driving, and, by doing so, all three laws will save lives.
Let me be clear: we aren’t trying to stop people from drinking; we’re working to stop people from drinking and driving. Our goal is to save lives, and our concerns are justified. In the past 10 years, more than 100,000 people have died in alcohol-involved crashes in the United States. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 10,874 people died in driving-under-the-influence crashes in 2017, the last full year on record. Clearly, .08-percent limits just aren’t working.
Reducing the legal BAC limit for driving is a broad deterrent that lowers the incidence of crashes and crash deaths at all BAC levels, not just those in the narrow range between .05 and .079 percent. It’s estimated that lowering the legal BAC limit in every state would likely reduce the number of fatal alcohol-related crashes by 11 percent, potentially saving up to 1,790 lives a year.
It’s noteworthy that even countries with higher alcohol consumption per capita than the United States set their BAC limits at .05 percent or lower. It’s not that people in these countries don’t drink; they just don’t drink and drive.
Growing up, my parents taught me not to drink and drive. It was just that simple. I never once heard anyone tell me it was OK to “only drive a little drunk.” My parents never lectured me that I could drink and drive as long as I kept my BAC below a certain limit.
And that’s the goal of the .05-percent movement—separating drinking from driving. You can drink responsibly. You can drive responsibly. But no one can responsibly drink and drive.
Our goal is not to propose a new target number of drinks to have before driving; rather, it’s for people to plan to either drink or drive. But never to do both.
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.
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.
When 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.
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?