Category Archives: Highway Safety

Williston and Beyond

By Member Christopher A. Hart

A car that is fully controlled by a computer doesn’t get drowsy or distracted. It doesn’t get drunk or impaired by other drugs. If it’s instructed not to go above the speed limit, it won’t. Human error, which is at least partly responsible for 94% of today’s highway crashes, can largely be eliminated if the human driver becomes just another passenger. And with the unacceptable carnage of more than 37,000 deaths in motor vehicle crashes in 2016 alone, we can use all the help we can get. There’s no question that the potential benefits of autonomous vehicles are nothing short of phenomenal.

Getting there, however, will not be as easy as many people think. We recently held a Board meeting to consider the crash in 2016 of a partially automated Tesla into a tractor‑trailer near Williston, Florida. The driver wasn’t paying attention to the road as he should’ve been, and the system allowed the driver to use its “Autopilot” feature in places where it wasn’t designed to operate. The automation system used torque on the steering wheel as a proxy for driver engagement and alerted the driver if too much time passed without detectable movement on the wheel, but the driver treated the alerts as nuisances, dutifully applying torque each time the alert sounded before taking his hands off the wheel again. Although the driver was ultimately responsible for the resulting crash in which he tragically lost his life, the automation allowed him to make unsafe choices.

2015 Tesla Model S 70D car involved in the May 7, 2016, Williston, Florida crash
2015 Tesla Model S 70D car involved in the May 7, 2016, Williston, Florida crash

Flash back to 1914. An airplane flies past reviewing stands full of spectators. The pilot holds his hands high in the air to demonstrate that the airplane is flying itself. The plane makes another pass, then another. According to aviation lore, by the third pass, the pilot, Lawrence Sperry, is walking on the wings. Sperry was showing off his entry in an international aviation safety exhibition: the world’s first primitive autopilot, the gyroscopic stabilizer. It allowed a plane to fly straight and level without pilot input for short periods at a time.

In the years since, aircraft automation has become much more sophisticated. In addition, planes now have systems that sense terrain, they use GPS to know where they are, and they employ a vehicle-to-vehicle technology called a traffic collision avoidance system to help them avoid other planes. Thanks, in large measure to these technologies, aviation has become much safer. Yet, in 2013, nearly 100 years after Sperry’s demonstration, Asiana Flight 214, with more than 300 people on board, approached San Francisco International Airport too low and too slow and crashed into a seawall, killing three passengers.

Fire damage to the fuselage of Asiana flight 214
Fire damage to the fuselage of Asiana Flight 214

The Asiana crash demonstrated automation confusion: the pilot thought that the auto‑throttle was maintaining the speed he selected, but he had inadvertently and unknowingly caused the auto‑throttle to become inactive. It also demonstrated that, due to longstanding overreliance on the automation, the pilot’s manual flying skills had degraded so much that he was uneasy about landing the plane manually on a 2‑mile‑long runway (that’s a long runway!) on a beautiful, clear day.

We’ve investigated automation-related accidents in all modes of transportation. In fact, our investigators see accident after accident involving problems with the interface between the automation and the human operator; we also see far too often that humans are not reliable about passively monitoring automation. And in cases like the Asiana crash, we see that humans get rusty when they don’t use their skills.

The Williston crash showed error types that are not surprising with what’s called level 2 automation. The human driver was responsible for monitoring the environment, but the automation allowed him to shirk this responsibility. This result was foreseeable, given the unfortunate use of the moniker “Autopilot,” which may suggest to the ordinary driver that the car can fully control itself (as compared with pilots, who know that they must still be engaged even when their airplane is operating on autopilot). Thus, one lesson learned is that if the automation should only be usable in certain circumstances, it should be “geo-fenced” so that it will work only in those circumstances instead of depending on the driver to decide appropriately.

What can we expect as our cars move beyond level 2? The aviation experience has demonstrated that as automation increases, so do the challenges. As automation becomes more complicated, drivers are less likely to understand it, and as automation becomes more reliable, drivers will become more complacent, less skillful, and less vigilant to potential failures. As a result, if a failure occurs in a more complicated and reliable system, the likelihood increases that most drivers will not be able to recover successfully from the failure.

In the Asiana investigation, we found that the airline used the available automation as fully and as often as possible. After the crash, we recommended that the airline require more manual flying, both in training and in line operations—not because we’re against technology, but because we see what can happen when pilots lose their skills because they’re not using them.

Then there’s the question of removing the driver altogether. Airliners will have pilots for the foreseeable future because aviation experts have not yet developed a “graceful exit” regarding failure of the automation or what to do if it encounters unanticipated circumstances. Similarly, drivers will be in the picture until the industry develops a graceful exit for their automation failing or encountering unanticipated circumstances . . . and unanticipated circumstances are certainly abundant on our streets and highways.

In every one of our investigations, we study the human, the machine, and the environment. Even across modes, humans and their interactions with automation are a common denominator in an accident’s probable cause. For 50 years, we’ve been finding answers to help the transportation industry save lives, and when our recommendations are put into practice, the industry and the public generally realize safety benefits. We are excited about the opportunities to use the lessons we’ve learned over these many years to help the transportation industry move toward safer vehicles, regardless of who (or what) is operating them.

We’ve come a long way since Lawrence Sperry’s gyroscopic stabilizer, but as accidents like Asiana and Williston show, we’ve still got a way to go before automation can significantly reduce fatalities on our streets and highways. We look forward to continuing to work with vehicle manufacturers to help them develop safer and more reliable automated transportation.

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.

 

¿Qué se puede hacer para mejorar la seguridad del transporte de los trabajadores agrícolas migratorios?

Por Jennifer Morrison

Este Domingo pasado marcó el aniversario del choque de carretera más mortífero de la historia de Estados Unidos. Hace cincuenta y cuatro años, el 17 de septiembre de 1963, un autobús improvisado que transportaba 58 trabajadores agrícolas migratorios chocó con un tren de carga cerca de la ciudad de Chualar, California (consulte la figura 1) 32 personas murieron y 25 sufrieron lesiones. Los trabajadores que venían en el autobús estaban regresando de un campo de trabajo después de una jornada de diez horas recolectando apio en el Valle Salinas. Los pasajeros se transportaban en dos bancos largos colocados a lo largo de un camión de plataforma que estaba cubierto con un toldo.

LA Times Headline
Titular e imagen del ejemplar del 18 de septiembre de 1963 de Los Angeles Times. En ese momento se creía que solo 27 personas habían perdido la vida pero el número de víctimas ascendió a 32.

Otro choque mortal de trabajadores agrícolas migrantes ocurrió en la década de 1970. El 15 de enero de 1974, la Junta para la seguridad del transporte nacional (National Transportation Security Board, NTSB) investigó un choque que involucró 46 trabajadores agrícolas migrantes cerca de Blythe, California. Un autobús de trabajadores agrícolas que viajaba por una carretera rural no pudo tomar una curva de la carretera y cayó al fondo de una zanja de desagüe. El autobús quedó apoyado en su lado izquierdo, parcialmente sumergido. Murieron diecinueve de sus ocupantes, incluyendo el chofer. En la mitad del último siglo se han efectuado numerosas mejoras en la seguridad del transporte y sin embargo ocurren choques catastróficos y la seguridad de los trabajadores agrícolas migrantes continúa siendo un problema.

Específicamente, durante el período de ocho meses desde noviembre de 2015 hasta julio de 2016, la NTSB investigó tres choques con numerosas muertes en los cuales 16 personas murieron y otros 57 resultaron lesionados. La mayoría de los fallecidos y lesionados eran trabajadores agrícolas migrantes que se transportaban hacia o desde granjas. La finalidad de nuestra investigación sobre estos choques es conocer sobre estas tragedias y responder la pregunta importante: ¿Qué se puede hacer para mejorar la seguridad del transporte de los trabajadores agrícolas migrantes?

Esta semana la NTSB abrirá el expediente público de 1,125 páginas de información documentando nuestra investigación en curso sobre el choque del 2 de julio de 2016 cerca de St. Marks, Florida. El choque involucró un autobús de trabajadores agrícolas que transportaba más de 30 personas desde una granja en Georgia a Belle Glade, Florida. El autobús no se detuvo en la intersección de la carretera estatal 363 y la autopista US 98, la cual estaba marcada con un cartel de señal de pare y una luz intermitente en rojo de señal de “pare”, y este fue impactado por un vehículo de tipo combinado de semirremolque con tractor de remolque. Después del choque se produjo un incendio y el chofer del camión y tres pasajeros del autobús perecieron (Consulte la figura 2).

El 28 de noviembre de 2017, la NTSB llevará a cabo una reunión pública de la junta para discutir las conclusiones de la investigación del choque de St. Marks, su causa probable y las recomendaciones de seguridad destinadas a prevenir choques futuros.  En la reunión la NTSB también revisará las circunstancias de los choques de Little Rock, Arkansas y Ruther Glen, Virginia (Consulte la figura 2).

Investigation Images
(Parte superior) Autobús y camión involucrados en el choque de St. Marks, Florida en su etapa final (Fuente:  Patrulla de carreteras de Florida). (Parte inferior izquierda)  Autobús involucrado en el choque de Little Rock, Arkansas mostrando la porción de la parte posterior faltante y el techo dañado.  (Parte inferior derecha) Camioneta para 15 pasajeros involucrada en el choque Ruther Glen, Virginia mostrando el techo deformado.

El choque de Little Rock ocurrió el 6 de noviembre de 2015, cuando un autobús que transportaba 20 trabajadores agrícolas desde Michigan a Texas se salió de la Interestatal 40 y chocó con una barrera de concreto.  El choque con la barrera ocasionó que el autobús se montara en el costado de la barrera y el techo del autobús impactara la columna de un puente que apoyaba el viaducto de la autopista. Como resultado del choque, 6 pasajeros del autobús perecieron.

El choque de Ruther Glen ocurrió el 8 de junio de 2016, cuando una camioneta para 15 pasajeros que transportaba 16 ocupantes, la mayoría de los cuales eran trabajadores agrícolas migrantes, se salió de la Interestatal 95. La camioneta se desplazó hacia la derecha por todos los canales de circulación e impactó a otro carro de pasajeros antes de volcarse varias veces.  Seis de los pasajeros de la camioneta salieron impelidos y fallecieron.

Al examinar la supervisión de los transportistas federales y estatales que participan en el transporte de trabajadores agrícolas, los mecanismos de las regulaciones de seguridad, la divulgación y la educación de la comunidad agrícola y las mejores prácticas de los estados individuales, esperamos desarrollar recomendaciones de seguridad para mejorar la seguridad del transporte de los trabajadores agrícolas migratorios y evitar tragedias futuras.

Asista a la reunión del 28 de noviembre de 2017, en persona o mírela en la transmisión por la web donde se tratarán las investigaciones de los choques de St. Marks y otros con las propuestas a la pregunta: ¿Qué se puede hacer para mejorar la seguridad del transporte de los trabajadores agrícolas migratorios?

Jennifer Morrison es una investigadora encargada de la oficina de la NTSB para la seguridad en las carreteras