April is Alcohol Awareness Month. First introduced in 1987 by the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, Inc., this time is set aside to increase public awareness for alcohol-related issues and to encourage communities to focus on ways to address this public health problem. In 2016, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), 10,497 people across the United States were killed by drivers with blood alcohol concentrations (BACs) of .08 g/dL or higher. That means that every 50 minutes, a person is killed in an alcohol-impaired crash in the United States.
At the NTSB, we find this tragic and unacceptable, because every one of these crashes is preventable.
Next week, the Lifesavers National Conference on Highway Safety Priorities will take place in San Antonio, Texas. More than 2,000 highway safety professionals from across the United States will gather to meet, learn, and share their proven-effective programs to increase the safety of America’s roadways, including implementing impaired driving prevention programs, improving enforcement strategies, and encouraging legislative changes. I’m especially excited to be attending the conference this year, not only because it’s being hosted in my home state, but also because I will be speaking on a panel focused on lowering the illegal BAC from .08 to .05 percent in states across our nation. A take-home message that I hope all Lifesavers attendees will remember is that a .05 BAC is a broad prevention strategy which deters even drivers with high BACs from getting behind the wheel.
Reducing drinking and driving deaths takes a comprehensive approach, and lowering the illegal BAC limit is just one part of the impaired-driving-prevention equation. Other important solutions can be found below, through our past blogs, safety recommendations, and efforts to address alcohol-impaired driving. With one-third of all traffic fatalities related to impaired driving, and more than 10,000 American lives lost every year, our work is far from over.
We have accomplished a great deal when it comes to reducing alcohol-impaired driving, but there is much more to be done to save lives and prevent injuries. The way I see it, the solution—this month and every month—is simple: if we separate drinking from driving, we will save lives.
April is Distracted Driving Awareness Month, a time set aside to raise awareness about the dangers surrounding distracted driving. We continue to see far too many crashes in all transportation modes involving cognitive, visual, and manual distraction. Almost every driver has a portable electronic device, and if those devices are used while a person is driving, they pose a significant risk—not only to that driver, but to the public, as well.
Although distraction has always had the potential to interfere with vehicle operation, new technologies have made it easier to become distracted, and therefore easier to become a risk to ourselves or others. William James wrote in 1892 that “All our life, so far as it has definite form, is but a mass of habits.” Today, constant connectivity has become a mass of habits for many. But when it comes to driving, our eyes, minds, and hands should be on the driving task.
Distraction causes thousands of lives to be lost every year on our roads and it contributes to hundreds of thousands of injuries. We began calling for a ban on driver use of portable electronic devices in 2011. See the links below for some of the other steps we’ve taken to raise awareness about distracted driving and facilitate solutions.
The ability to multitask is a myth. Humans cannot operate a vehicle while doing other things without risking the safety of themselves and those around them. Hands-free is not risk free—research shows a driver’s level of cognitive distraction is about equal for hands-free or hand-held communication.
Changing attitudes and behavior takes a sustained awareness effort, better laws, and high‑visibility enforcement of those laws. This combined approach has resulted in widespread seat belt use and gains against drunk driving. We’ve begun to make an impact on the distracted driving habit using these techniques, and you can do your part just by disconnecting for the drive.
The NTSB is releasing a series of blogs highlighting the progress the transportation community is making in each mode to advance issues on our 2017–2018 Most Wanted List. This series sheds light on the progress made and what needs to be done going forward to improve transportation safety. This is the second post of the series.
We’re now midway through the 2017–2018 Most Wanted List cycle, and we’re eager to learn how this year will measure up to previous years. The past 2 years have resulted in an increase in highway traffic fatalities—from 32,000 roadway deaths per year in 2014 to more than 37,000 in 2016—so clearly, improvements are vital. We checked in with stakeholders on the progress they’re making to address the most pressing issues, and they’ve updated us on their successes and struggles. Here’s where we stand.
Reduce Fatigue-Related Accidents
Expand recorder use to enhance safety
Strengthen occupant protection
End alcohol and other drug impairment in transportation
Require medical fitness for duty
Install Collision Avoidance Technologies
Collision avoidance technologies can reduce the number of deaths and injuries on the nation’s roadways now. Today, automatic emergency braking (AEB) and forward collision warning systems already work to reduce rear-end crashes in equipped vehicles, and we’ve been working to encourage industry and vehicle manufacturers to adopt such systems. In 2017, we cohosted a roundtable with the National Safety Council on commercial vehicle (heavy-duty truck) use of advanced collision avoidance technologies and learned that truck manufacturers are beginning to see high customer demand for forward collision avoidance systems on their trucks. During the roundtable, one manufacturer indicated they were making the technologies standard on their trucks, while another mentioned that over 60 percent of their customers purchase vehicles with technology. In addition, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is making progress on evaluation and testing collision avoidance technologies. We continue to advocate for connected vehicle technology because these technologies can further aid in collision avoidance, especially in situations where vehicle resident sensors are weak. Safety should never be considered a barrier to innovation, but rather, an integral component of it.
End Impairment in Transportation
In 2017, we saw progress on reducing alcohol impairment in transportation. Utah became the first state in the nation to pass a law setting a .05 percent blood alcohol content per se limit, and Nebraska and Oklahoma passed all-offender ignition interlock laws. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) published a final rule establishing the Commercial Driver’s License Drug and Alcohol Clearinghouse, and NHTSA developed training programs addressing the full range of responses to alcohol impairment, from enforcement through adjudication. Yet, we still need more states to strengthen their impaired driving laws and enforcement. We also need improved “place of last drink” (POLD) data to help law enforcement officers deter future violations, and we need better methods to measure impairment by drugs other than alcohol.
Require Medical Fitness, Reduce Fatigue-Related Accidents
In terms of medical fitness, we’ve criticized both the FMCSA and the Federal Railroad Administration because they have withdrawn their advance notice of proposed rulemaking regarding obstructive sleep apnea, which could have led to a rulemaking to address this important issue for people in safety-critical positions. In the highway mode, untreated moderate‑to-severe sleep apnea disqualifies drivers from operating large commercial vehicles because it affects driving safety, yet clear guidance is needed to assist medical examiners in identifying the condition. Nevertheless, the FMCSA has made notable progress by developing a National Registry of Certified Medical Examiners that lists all medical professionals who are qualified to certify drivers. This is a step in the right direction.
The FMCSA took another important step to improve safety when it implemented the electronic logging device (ELD) rule in December 2017. The rule requires the use of technology to automatically track driving and duty time. The NTSB advocated for such devices for many years because they enable better enforcement of hours-of-service regulations and can lead to reductions in drowsy driving among truck and bus drivers.
Our roundtable earlier this year, “Act to End Deadly Distractions,” brought together survivor advocates and experts throughout industry and government to discuss progress on state laws. We are beginning to see states consider legislation that would completely ban the use of hand-held devices, which highlight manual and visual distraction, but public awareness of the cognitive distraction that can result from hands-free device use remains very low.
Strengthen Occupant Protection
The good news this year on occupant protection is that motorcoaches are now built with lap and shoulder belts for all passenger seating positions. Now we’re focusing on all motorcoach passengers properly using those belts and using them every time they ride. We are urging primary enforcement of seat belt laws for all vehicles, including large buses equipped with belts, at every seating position, and we’re calling for safety briefings on motorcoaches similar to those delivered on commercial flights that explain seat belts and other safety features. As for passenger vehicles, some states, such as Massachusetts and New Hampshire, are considering joining the 34 states that already have primary enforcement of mandatory seat belt laws. Primary enforcement of mandatory seat belt laws is proven to increase seat belt use and, thereby, reduce the number of deaths and injuries on the roads. Regarding motorcycles, we are concerned that some states are repealing their helmet laws, because we know reduced helmet use will lead to more traumatic brain injuries and deaths.
Critical topics that touch on these highway safety issues are speeding and roadway infrastructure. Our recent safety study on speeding establishes what many of us already know but may not always apply: speeding increases the risk and severity of a crash. Here again, along with other safety recommendations, we’ve identified available technologies that can save lives but are not currently in use. The importance of infrastructure was highlighted recently by our highway accident report on a motorcoach collision that killed 2 people and injured 14 others. An unrepaired crash attenuator, an unmarked gore area, and out-of-compliance signage were cited in the report, in addition to the lack of seat belt use by most of the occupants.
Expand Recorder Use
Finally, we continue to urge all large highway vehicles be required to be equipped with recorders that capture a standard set of parameters. Event data recorders are vital investigative tools in every transportation mode—they help us do our job better and faster by providing valuable information after a crash so we can figure out what went wrong and make recommendations that prevent future injuries and deaths. Unfortunately, in crashes involving large trucks or buses, we are often left with limited data from the vehicle about the crash. We learn much more from passenger vehicles in crashes than from trucks and buses because of the standards NHTSA has developed (no such standards exist for trucks or buses). These standards are critical for large-vehicle operators, who can use recorders to train their drivers and increase safety.
The Most Wanted List midpoint mark allows us to reflect as well as plan and set new goals for the upcoming year. Although we have a long way to go to reach zero fatalities on our roadways, the efforts highlighted above, innovative partnerships and strategies, and bold actions to advance our recommendations are what we need to make America’s roadways fatality-free.
Dr. Robert Molloy is the Director of the NTSB’s Office of Highway Safety.
Super Bowl Sunday is almost here! Are you rooting for the Patriots or the Eagles? Some of my earliest memories of the Super Bowl are of my three older brothers watching Tony Dorsett and Roger Staubach play (maybe it was all their boyish yelling at the TV that left such a strong impression on me!). Even though their beloved Cowboys haven’t made the playoffs in many years, my brothers still love the Super Bowl.
As for me, I have to admit, one of my favorite parts of Super Bowl weekend is all the food and drinks. If drinking alcohol figures in your Super Bowl plans, just remember to also plan to get home safely afterwards. If you’re with friends or family, help them make a plan, too, so that no one attempts to drive after drinking. Being safe doesn’t mean you can’t have a good time; it simply means making sure you have a safe ride home so you aren’t killed or injured—and so that you don’t kill or injure someone else—in a car crash after the big game. You can call a sober friend, have a designated driver, take public transportation, use a taxi or rideshare service, or simply stay over at your host’s house—you have a lot of options to separate drinking from driving!
If you follow stats, you probably know that Super Bowl LII marks only the 3rd time in history that the two teams are ranked in the top 5 for both offense and defense (one of the others was Super Bowl XIII, when I’m sure my brothers were upset that the Steelers defeated the Cowboys). Unlike football stats, though, we can all be angry about the stats for alcohol-impaired driving deaths. More than 10,000 people die in the United States every year in a crash where someone was drinking and driving—that’s almost 30 deaths every day. Super Bowl Sunday is one of the deadliest days of the year, with a 41 percent increase in deaths, which is more than the increase in deaths on New Year’s Eve.
But these deadly stats don’t have to come true this year. We can do something about it by simply separating our drinking from our driving. In these days of instant information and constant technology, we can easily call a friend, get a rideshare, find out the public transportation schedule . . . if you have a phone, you have a ride. Choose one: drink or drive. Not both. It’s really that simple, and it may save your life.
Two of my friends are vacationing in Utah and will be watching the game from there. Did you know that Utah just passed a law to lower their illegal per se blood alcohol concentration (BAC) limit from .08 BAC to.05 BAC? Lowering BAC limits is a safety recommendation we made several years ago as part of our Reaching Zero report, and it’s also highlighted as an effective safety measure in the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine’s report, Getting to Zero Alcohol-Impaired Driving Fatalities, an independent study that was published a few weeks ago. Even at .05 BAC, your coordination is compromised, you have difficulty steering, and your visual functions decline (actually, visual abilities decline starting at .02 BAC). All states have at least a .08 BAC law, but the .05 law in Utah will help further reduce the number of drunk drivers at all BAC levels, even high BACs. I’m glad my friends in Utah will be safer this Super Bowl Sunday, but what about people in other states and territories? Impairment has once again made the NTSB’s Most Wanted List, and we continue to work to save those 10,000+ lives that are lost every year across our nation in alcohol-impaired driving crashes.
This year, as we get ready for our Super Bowl celebrations, let’s not forget to separate our drinking from our driving, and remind our friends and family to do the same. Like my brothers, you’re probably making plans to watch the game this Sunday—at home, at a party, in a sports bar . . . or maybe you’re one of the lucky fans who will be watching live in Minneapolis. No matter where you will be for the game, don’t forget to make plans for a safe and sober ride afterwards.
And, regardless of whether you’re rooting for the Patriots or the Eagles, remember that all of us at the NTSB will be rooting for you to get home safely this Super Bowl Sunday.
*Did you know? The term ‘hail mary’ gained popularity when quarterback Roger Staubach described his 50-yard touchdown pass to Drew Pearson to beat the Minnesota Vikings in the closing seconds of a 1975 NFC playoff game. A ‘hail mary’ pass is unlikely to be completed, but the successful pass will have game-changing consequences – hence the reference to prayer. You throw a ‘hail mary’ when failure is not an option, but success is vanishingly unlikely.
We launched Safety Compass in March 2011 to provide you an inside-out view of the investigative and advocacy efforts we’re engaged in and the important safety issues we’re focused on. As we close out 2017, we want to say “thank you” to you, our readers. Thank you for your interest in the work we do and for sharing our safety messages and recommendations for improving transportation safety.
From teens and sleep to drones, autonomous vehicles to our investigative processes, we’ve given you an inside look at the NTSB and highlighted our comprehensive approach to improving transportation safety across all modes and for all people.
To wrap up the year, here’s a list of some of our most popular blogs of 2017:
Last month, we released data revealing that 2,030 more people died in transportation accidents in 2016 than in 2015. Of those fatalities, 95 percent occurred on the nation’s roadways. Many of those deaths were completely preventable! As we approach 2018, we call on each of you to help us reverse the trend of increasing transportation fatalities, especially on our roadways. Continue to read our blog, see the lessons we’ve learned through our investigations, and share the safety recommendations we’ve made to prevent transportation accidents and crashes, deaths, and injuries.
We encourage you to keep up not only with our blogs, but with other NTSB materials. Sign up to be on our Constant Contact list. Follow us on Facebook (@NTSBgov), Instagram (@NTSBgov), LinkedIn (@NTSB), and Twitter (@NTSB). And in case you missed it, we launched a podcast in 2017, too! Check out Behind-the-Scene @NTSB wherever you get your podcasts. If you’d like to suggest a blog topic, e-mail SafetyAdvocacy@ntsb.gov.
As 2017 comes to an end, we again extend our gratitude to you for working with us to improve transportation safety. We wish you safe travels this holiday season and in 2018.
Many Americans are now well into holiday shopping—some may already have finished. Kids have made up their wish lists and excitement is building around what gifts will be arriving. Every year, there seems to be a new trending gift that flies off the shelves. Whether it’s the latest stuffed animal or a remote-controlled toy, the joyous looks on the faces of children who open these gifts are priceless.
One trend that is never joyous, especially around the holidays, that no one wants to be a part of, is the increasing number of impaired driving deaths. This number has been trending upward over the past few years; what’s even sadder is that it could—and should—be zero. Impaired driving fatalities are 100% preventable.
According to NHTSA, over 150 more people died in alcohol-impaired-driving crashes in 2016 than in 2015 (10,320 to 10,497). That was an increase of 1.7%. And, sadly, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, 1 out of 5 motor vehicle deaths of children involve an alcohol‑impaired driver, most often someone driving the child.
December has been designated National Impaired Driving Prevention Month to draw attention to the problem of drunk and drugged driving and how it can be prevented. Between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, Americans attend holiday celebrations of all kinds. Many involve alcohol, and often the amount of alcohol individuals consume isn’t monitored. This can lead to impaired driving if plans for a sober ride home aren’t made in advance.
At the NTSB, we have issued specific recommendations that, if implemented, could save you or someone you know from an impaired driver. Policies such as all-offender ignition interlocks, .05 (or below) per se blood alcohol concentration limits, and high-visibility enforcement campaigns can prevent impaired driving.
These policy actions aim for broad acceptance of a personal choice: Drink or drive, but don’t do both. The same goes for drugs, whether illicit or legal. We can simply decide that driving should be separated from drinking (and the use of other drugs). Impairment and driving should never mix. If you’re planning to drink, plan to have a sober ride home. If you’re driving, take that responsibility seriously; be the sober ride for others and don’t drink at all! Also if you’ve driven somewhere and then later decide to drink, use public transportation, call a taxi (or a friend), or use a ride app to get home safely. It’s pretty simple: If you have a phone (and often even if you don’t), you have a ride. We each have the power to eliminate impaired driving if we choose to never get behind the wheel when we are impaired.
If any of this sounds to you like advice from the Grinch, think for a moment about what sober driving would mean, not just for this holiday, but every day. More than 10,000 people die each year because someone drives impaired. Imagine the joy never stolen from family celebrations if all of us made—and kept—plans to have a sober ride home during the holidays. Imagine the pain we could spare families not just during the holidays, but every day. Imagine how many families would remain intact and who wouldn’t have to suffer through the holidays remembering loved ones who were lost at the hands of an impaired driver.
On behalf of the NTSB, please have a safe—and joyful—holiday.
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.
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.
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.
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.