Category Archives: Highway Safety

Getting serious about distracted driving

By Deborah Hersman

Teen texting while drivingRecently, the Governor’s Highway Safety Association (GHSA) released a new report on the effects of distractions, particularly the use of cell phones and texting, while driving. We at the NTSB were pleased to read the report and the valuable recommendations it makes.

After citing several studies, the GHSA concludes that cell phone use increases crash risk, though there is no consensus on the extent of its impact on driving. We agree, however we believe that the significant danger to safety that cell phones pose is greater than the report suggests and affects more than just highway safety. We have investigated numerous accidents, in all modes of transportation, where cell phone use caused injury and loss of life. If not for the cell phone use, some of those accidents were otherwise completely avoidable. And even in accidents when cell phone use was not the primary cause of the investigation, we’ve often found that the cell phone contributed to the tragic results by distracting the operator’s attention at a key moment.

Our society must reach the point that texting or using a cell phone — whether when operating a vessel, a train, or a motor vehicle — is just as unacceptable as drinking and driving.

How many more lives will be lost before our nation corrects its deadly and tacit acceptance of distractions?

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Safety

By Mark Rosekind

Enjoy the holiday weekend responsibly. Don't mix alcohol and driving.

Every year on the Fourth of July, we celebrate life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness with friends and family from across the nation.  As a result, it’s one of the busiest weekends of the year on our roadways. On an average weekend, one-third of all highway deaths involve a driver who is impaired by alcohol.  Unfortunately, during past Fourth of July Weekends, this number increases to 40 percent of all highway fatalities.  

The adverse effects of alcohol, such as slowed reactions, are difficult to detect and people tend to underestimate the extent to which alcohol affects them.  In many cases, drivers do not exhibit the classic signs of extreme drunkenness, and they don’t believe they are drunk.

This Fourth of July, make the appropriate arrangements so that you do not drink and drive.  Ensure that you, your family, and all of those celebrating the Fourth with you are safe, responsible, and able to continue to enjoy the gift of freedom our forefathers made possible for all of us.

Member Mark RosekindMark Rosekind, Ph.D., is a Member of the National Transportation Safety Board. He is a frequent contributor to the NTSB blog.

Technology Drives Safety Improvements on the Road

By Debbie Hersman

The Jetsons Flying Car, from the Hanna-Barbera cartoonAs a child, I watched The Jetsons, that futuristic family with a robot maid named Rosie, an oven that instantly produced a fully cooked dinner on demand, and an automated flying car that often saved George from his own absent-mindedness.  Rosie and the oven were nice conveniences, but the flying car kept the Jetsons safer.

Today, years later, I’m in Michigan touring the proving grounds of the Big Three automakers and other manufacturers in the automotive world.  I am seeing firsthand the technology that may bring us closer to the Jetsons’ flying car and help make driving safer.  Things like adaptive cruise control, collision warning systems, blind spot detection, and lane departure warning systems can alert drivers to dangers they do not recognize.  Some technologies, such as active braking and ESC, can even help compensate for a driver’s inability to identify stopped traffic ahead or negotiate a sharp curve while moving too fast, which can lead to a deadly rollover.

The automotive industry has made many advances in passenger vehicle safety.  Especially encouraging is the fact that some of the technology is also being tested on large trucks, buses, and other commercial vehicles.  Too often, the NTSB investigates accidents in which these technologies, if installed on large trucks, could have prevented a tragedy on the highway.

Just like George Jetson, we will all make mistakes.  While new automotive technologies are designed to assist the driver, rather than replace the driver, if they are widely deployed across the fleet, they have the potential to drive down the number of fatalities on our highways by bridging the gap between the human, the environment, and the machine.

Be Safe on Ride to Work Day

By Christopher Hart

Today, June 20, is Ride to Work Day for motorcyclists. This is the day that motorcycle riders across the country showcase the many benefits and pleasures of commuting on motorcyclists. On the Ride to Work website there’s a video that Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, member of the Congressional Motorcycle Safety Caucus, made several years ago about Ride to Work day.  A biker, she talks about the fuel efficiency of motorcycles, the importance of being aware of vehicles on the road, and she says that motorcyclists should wear “proper motorcycle-specific safety gear.” That gear includes DOT-compliant helmets, which, as I have said before, and will say again:  Save lives.

Enjoy your commute and be sure to enjoy it safely with a helmet.

Christopher A. Hart was sworn in as a Member of the NTSB on August 12, 2009 and designated by the President for a two-year term as Vice Chairman of the Board on August 18. Member Hart joined the Board after a long career in transportation safety, including a previous term as a Member of the NTSB.

Driving into a Safer Future

By Debbie Hersman

Google autonomous car software
Google is using advanced technologies to test a self-driving vehicle

Last week, I visited Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., to see Google’s self-driving car. This is one of those things where you really do have to see it to believe it.

The autonomous car sees much more than the driver can — thanks to 360-degree perception (no more blind spots!). Better still, the automated algorithmic driver never gets sleepy, distracted, or drunk.

Google is working on this project to make driving safer, more efficient, and more pleasurable. I saw for myself as the car negotiated Bayshore Freeway — how it was able to avoid other vehicles, how it slowed and sped up with the flow of traffic, and how, when necessary, it turned control of the vehicle to the human driver. It was quite amazing.

As Google’s Distinguished Software Engineer Sebastian Thrun has said, “While this project is very much in the experimental stage, it provides a glimpse of what transportation might look like in the future thanks to advanced computer science.”

Earlier this week, however, I saw what transportation can look like today at the 22nd Enhanced Safety of Vehicles Conference.  I appreciated NHTSA Administrator Strickland’s invitation to talk about the NTSB’s recommendations regarding how technology can improve safety in commercial vehicles.  The NTSB has investigated a number of fatal crashes involving buses and heavy trucks that could have been prevented with the use of forward-collision warning systems or electronic stability control.

While NHTSA and the automobile manufacturers have done a great deal to improve safety in our personal vehicles, it is sad, but true, that my six-year-old mini-van has more safety technology than most commercial vehicles on our roads today. These are safety improvements that are currently available.

I will continue watching Google to see what is possible in the car of tomorrow, but we do not have to wait for the self-driving car to save lives on our roads. We can do that now by moving forward with off-the-shelf technology in the largest and heaviest vehicles on the road.

The Urgent Need for Safer Bus Transportation

By Robert Sumwalt

I-95 bus accident
Photo Credit: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst

Once again bus transportation is tragically in the news. Early on Tuesday morning, a motorcoach crashed near Doswell, Virginia. The motorcoach was traveling from North Carolina to New York City on I-95 when it crashed at about 4:55 a.m. There were four fatalities and a number of people are being treated for mild to serious injuries.

The NTSB launched a Go-Team to investigate the crash. Peter Kotowski is Investigator-in-Charge. Board Member Earl Weener accompanied the team to serve as NTSB’s principal spokesman during the on-scene phase of the investigation.

This accident follows on the heels of three other East Coast motorcoach accidents. These accidents — in New York City, New Jersey, and New Hampshire — claimed 17 lives and injured 87 people. The NTSB is investigating the March 12 fatal accident on I-95 in the Bronx and we are reviewing the safety performance of the companies whose motorcoaches crashed in New Jersey on March 14 and in New Hampshire on March 22.

The NTSB has issued many motorcoach safety recommendations based on our accident investigations. Three of those issues are on our Most Wanted List:

Improved occupant protection – including stronger roofs, window emergency exit redesign, and standards for passenger seating compartments.

Better Government oversight of operators – to ensure that both the operational status of vehicles and their drivers are safe.

Implementing advanced vehicle technologies – to prevent accidents from occurring in the first place, including lane-departure warning, electronic stability control, and forward-collision warning systems.

Unfortunately, there has been no sense of urgency on these recommendations, some of which are nearly ten years old. The result? We continue to investigate accidents where the same things happen.

Last month, I chaired an NTSB public forum to review motorcoach and truck safety. As I said then, clearly, progress has been made in improving highway safety since the Board last held a motor carrier forum in 1999. But, there is much more work to be done to avoid tragic accidents such as the one on Tuesday morning in Virginia.

Member Robert Sumwalt Robert L. Sumwalt has been a Member of the NTSB since 2006. He is a frequent contributor to the blog.

Buckle Up for Safety

By Earl Weener

Click It or TicketWith the start of the summer driving season soon upon us, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is once again kicking off its annual Click It or Ticket campaign to coincide with the Memorial Day holiday period, May 23 through June 5.  Begun in 1993, this campaign is now a national mobilization effort to encourage the use of seat belts as a way of reducing highway fatalities.   

What surprises me is the continued need for such a campaign.  Seat belts have been around since the 1950s, yet nearly one in six Americans still fail to regularly use one when motoring. In fact, with a use rate of approximately 85%, the U.S. trails other industrialized countries, such as Australia and Canada where rates stand at well over 90%.

From my work at the NTSB, I know motor vehicle crashes are responsible for more deaths annually in the U.S., than in all other transportation modes combined. Yet, one of the greatest defenses to this risk, and also the simplest thing to do, is put on a seat belt when you climb into a vehicle.  Since 1975, NHTSA estimates that over 267,000 lives have been saved due to seat belt use.

As an airplane pilot, I would never consider flying without wearing my seat belt.  The forces experienced during turbulence, in hard landings, or during a survivable crash are simply too significant for the body to manage without a restraint.  As an engineer, I know the laws of physics don’t change when I get into a car, truck or SUV, so I never drive my car without wearing a seat belt either.  Bottom line:  Seat belts have a proven track record, so be safe and buckle up!

Honorable Earl F. WeenerEarl F. Weener, Ph.D., took the oath of office as a Member of the National Transportation Safety Board on June 30, 2010. Dr. Weener is a licensed pilot and flight instructor who has dedicated his entire career to the field of aviation safety.