Category Archives: Impairment

Help Us Reach Zero:  Adopt All-offender Ignition Interlock Laws

By Leah Walton, NTSB Safety Advocate

In the Spring of this year, I attended the Association of Ignition Interlock Program Administrators (AIIPA) Annual Conference, a gathering of about 130 people all committed to eliminating impaired driving. Attendees included state ignition interlock program administrators, ignition interlock manufacturers, researchers, law enforcement, toxicologists, and representatives from the treatment and criminal justice communities.

It was no surprise that a hot topic of the conference was the early estimates of traffic fatalities for 2021 released the same week by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). The numbers showed a trend in the wrong direction, with an estimated 42,915 people killed in motor vehicle crashes, a 10.5 percent increase from 2020. This number is the highest number of fatalities since 2005. Specifically, fatalities in police-reported, alcohol-involvement crashes were up 5 percent compared to 2020.

A breath ignition interlock device (IID), estimates a driver’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC). It is installed in a vehicle and the driver must provide a breath sample that does not exceed a certain BAC threshold (for instance, .00 BAC or .02 BAC) before the vehicle will start or continue to operate. Installing these devices can be a penalty for drivers convicted of driving while intoxicated (DWI) or driving under the influence (DUI). They allow impaired-driving offenders to continue to operate their vehicles on an ignition interlock restricted license, rather than having their license suspended altogether.

Ignition interlocks have been a piece of the NTSB’s comprehensive solution to eliminate impaired driving since 2000, when we recommended that all 50 states and DC establish a comprehensive program designed to reduce the incidence of alcohol-related crashes and fatalities caused by hard-core drinking drivers, including elements such as those suggested in the NTSB’s Model Program, such as requiring ignition interlocks for high-BAC first offenders and repeat offenders. The issue is still urgent enough that “Prevent Alcohol- and Other Drug-Impaired Driving” is on our 2021–2022 Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements.

In our 2012 Wrong Way Driving report, we found that installing alcohol ignition interlocks on the vehicles of all DWI offenders (first-time and subsequent-time offenders) would reduce crashes caused by alcohol-impaired drivers. Thus, we issued a safety recommendation to 33 states, Puerto Rico, and DC to enact laws to require the use of alcohol IIDs for all individuals convicted of DWI offenses (at the time of publishing the report, 17 states already had a law requiring mandatory IID installation for DWI first offenders).

In May 2012, the NTSB held a forum, Reaching Zero: Actions to Eliminate Substance-Impaired Driving, to identify the most effective, scientifically based actions needed to reach zero crashes associated with substance-impaired driving. In the resulting final report, adopted in May 2013, we discussed all-offender ignition interlock laws as part of a comprehensive strategy to prevent alcohol-impaired driving. Currently, 34 states have all-offender ignition interlock laws.

It’s difficult to quantify how many drivers currently have, an IID in their vehicle. However, in 2022, Mothers Against Drunk driving (MADD) reported that in 14 years (2006–2020), ignition interlocks had stopped 3.78 million drivers with a BAC of 0.08[1] g/dL or higher from starting their vehicles. Requiring ignition interlocks for all offenders is a swift and certain penalty for alcohol-impaired driving. IIDs can be installed on arrested DUI offenders’ vehicles immediately, to ensure they are not driving alcohol-impaired while they await trial. These devices are effective, both at preventing alcohol-impaired driving as well as reducing DUI recidivism. A 2016 California DMV study of the state’s ignition interlock pilot program showed ignition interlocks were associated with a 73 percent lower odds of recidivism compared to license suspension alone for first-time offenders during the first 182 days after conviction.

For more than a decade, the number of alcohol-impaired driving fatalities had become stagnant, with 10,000 people killed every year. Now, those numbers are rising again, with 11,654 impaired driving fatalities in 2020. And, like the fatality numbers, the conversation around impaired driving has stagnated, too. Many people are hopeful that new advanced driver assistance systems, collision-avoidance systems, in-vehicle alcohol detection technologies and automated vehicle technologies will end impaired driving once and for all. We are hopeful, too. But as we know, it takes at least 20 years for new technology to fully penetrate a fleet of vehicles. We cannot—and should not—accept the fully preventable loss of 10,000 lives each year while we wait. We must implement the countermeasures that we have available now that we know work, like IIDs.

While at the AIIPA conference, I had the opportunity to address the attendees. I shared that I started my highway safety career with MADD in 2001, and at that time, I could not imagine that in 20 years I would still be here advocating for countermeasures to eliminate impaired driving. I thought that by 2022, surely people would learn to make smart choices and designate a sober driver. Unfortunately, we have made very little progress. That can change if all states adopt all-offender ignition interlock laws. We could finally make meaningful progress toward eliminating this dangerous behavior that ends in so many completely preventable tragedies.  


[1] NTSB recommends that all 50 states, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia lower their legal BAC limit to .05 percent g/dL or lower. In 2018, Utah became the first state with a BAC limit of .05 percent.

We Need to Change the Bike Safety Conversation

By Chair Jennifer Homendy

This is the second in a three-part series examining the safety of vulnerable road users, as new federal data show a rise in traffic deaths among motorcyclists, bicyclists, and pedestrians last year. Read the first post.

I love nearly everything about bicycles, from riding around Virginia to creating art for the NTSB office with old parts. I say “nearly” everything because U.S. roads are far too dangerous for bicyclists — and it’s getting worse.

Wall art by Chair Homendy from bicycle parts hangs at NTSB headquarters

On World Bicycle Day, I’m calling on every road user to help change the conversation.

Outdated Thinking is Deadly

Bicycles have been around for two centuries. But that’s no excuse for our safety approach to be stuck in the past, as it currently is.

We have to stop telling bicyclists not to get injured. We have to let go of the idea that educating bike riders will solve the problem. This type of thinking is too narrow to stem the public health crisis on our roads — and clinging to it is proving to be deadly.

Chair Homendy on a bike ride with NTSB team member Ivan Cheung

Of course, we implore all road users to make safe choices to protect themselves and others. But we’re missing the bigger picture when we only focus on individuals’ actions. It’s certainly not how we get to our goal of zero traffic deaths!

Instead, we should be talking about how the entire system is failing to protect bicyclists and other vulnerable road users, such as pedestrians and motorcyclists. This means asking new questions such as the following:

  • Are vehicles equipped with technology to prevent crashes with bicyclists?
  • Are drivers traveling at speeds that would make it unlikely for a bicyclist to survive a crash?
  • Is the road itself designed to prevent crashes and protect bicyclists?
  • If a crash does occur, how effective was the emergency response in its goal of saving lives and treating injuries?  

These questions help us “zoom out” and see that we can’t solve our road safety crisis by focusing solely on individual road users. We also have to consider safe vehicles, safe speeds, safe roads, and post-crash care. That’s why Protect Vulnerable Road Users through a Safe System Approach is on the NTSB’s Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements. 

In a truly Safe System, the safety burden is shared by all, from individual road users to traffic safety and highway engineers, regulators, vehicle manufacturers, and more. Absolutely everyone is responsible for preventing crashes.

Because even one death is one too many.

Tragically, the stakes have never been higher. According to data released last month by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), 985 cyclists died on our roads last year — a 5% increase over 2020 levels. Combined with the 9% increase in motorcycle deaths and the 13% jump in pedestrian deaths, you can see how dire the situation is for vulnerable road users.

We have to do better. And that means considering all components of a Safe System. The best place to start is with the implementation of NTSB safety recommendations.

Here are just some of the ways we could make streets safe for all road users:

  • Invest in bike- and pedestrian-friendly infrastructure, like separated bike lanes and safety treatments at intersections. The recent infrastructure law presents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make such lifesaving investments.
  • Reduce speeds, especially in areas where there are a lot of vulnerable road users, like bicyclists. This can be accomplished through infrastructure improvements, like road diets; granting local jurisdictions the authority to set safe speeds for their own community and implement speed safety camera programs; and requiring auto manufacturers to install advanced speed-limiting technology on vehicles.
  • Require in-vehicle technologies, such as automatic emergency braking, that can help prevent crashes before they occur — and not just crashes with other cars and trucks, but with bicyclists, pedestrians, and motorcyclists as well.
  • Require large vehicles to be equipped with visibility-enhancement systems to better detect cyclists and pedestrians in their blind spots.
  • Prevent impaired driving, which leads to one in four traffic fatalities. NHTSA should require vehicles to come equipped with technology that will detect and prevent drunk driving. States should lower the per se blood alcohol content (BAC) to .05, an action only Utah has taken (with proven success!). States should also implement laws requiring all drivers convicted of alcohol-impaired driving to use an interlock device.
  • Require front, side, and rear underride guards on newly manufactured trucks to protect cyclists and pedestrians from going beneath large trucks.
  • Collect and analyze data, including hospital data, on the level of bicycling activity, crashes, and injuries. State and local leaders should use this data to design countermeasures and evaluate outcomes to measure effectiveness. How do you know if a project or program is successful if you aren’t tracking progress?

My Next Project — And the Nation’s 

My next bike project has already begun. I’m restoring an old Sears Spaceliner that I picked up at my local thrift shop. And I’m planning a few rides with the Washington Area Bicyclist Association.

I’m also using World Bicycle Day as an opportunity to assign you a project of your own: Join NTSB in changing the bike safety conversation. Ask new questions. Stop putting the entire safety burden on bicyclists. Embrace the Safe System approach.

The lives of vulnerable road users depend on it.

Motorcycle Safety Is Everyone’s Responsibility

By Chair Jennifer Homendy

This is the first in a three-part series examining the safety of vulnerable road users, as new federal data show a rise in traffic deaths among motorcyclists, bicyclists, and pedestrians last year.

When it comes to learning, I’m one of those people who doesn’t just want to read about something — I want to experience it firsthand whenever possible.

That’s why I got my motorcycle endorsement.

In fact, enrolling in the training course was one of the first things I did when I became an NTSB Board Member back in 2018. I wanted to feel the thrill of operating a motorcycle, learn from my classmates about their love of riding, and gain a deeper understanding of the safety risks all riders face.

Most of all, I wanted to become a more effective safety advocate.

Photo of Chair Jennifer Homendy at a Wheels Up Motorcycle Training Course, in Fredericksburg, VA.

A Tragic New Record

Motorcyclists — motorcycle riders and their passengers — have the highest risk of fatal injury among all motor vehicle users. A major reason is that motorcycles afford riders less protection in a crash.

This means, for every mile they traveled in 2020, the average motorcyclist’s risk of death in a traffic crash was 28 times greater than that of a passenger car occupant.

The picture is only getting bleaker. New data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) show that 6,101 motorcyclists died on our roads last year. Not only is this an all-time high — it’s a 9% increase from 2020, which held the previous record.

That means the last two years are the deadliest on record for motorcyclists in the United States.

What Needs to be Done

We know what needs to happen to save motorcyclists’ lives.

First and foremost, we need to adopt the Safe System approach to protect  vulnerable road users, such as motorcyclists, bicyclists and pedestrians. It’s so important that it’s on our 2021-2022 Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements.

A Safe System addresses all aspects of traffic safety: road users, vehicles, speeds, roads, and post-crash care. We must make better safety investments, from road treatments, vehicle design, and collision-avoidance systems to strong traffic safety laws to mitigate risk and save lives for all road users.

But what does that mean in practice? The first step is to change the way we think and talk about safety. When it comes to motorcycle safety, it means we must stop spending so much time talking about what riders should do to mitigate their risk.

It’s not only unfair to put the full safety responsibility on motorcyclists, but it’s also ineffective. In a truly safe system, no individual road user’s action or inaction can cost them their life; there are redundancies built in so that if one part fails, a person is still protected.

The NTSB took a deep dive into motorcycle safety with our 2018 research report, which has specific recommendations to protect motorcyclists. And, because motorcyclists are at such risk in crashes with passenger vehicles, we should also heed NTSB recommendations in our reports on speeding and substance-impaired driving.

Combined, these three reports have 50 safety recommendations — that’s 50 opportunities for regulators, states, policymakers, manufacturers, and associations to save lives on our roads.

As we close out Motorcycle Safety Awareness Month and head into the deadly days of summer, now’s the perfect moment to implement NTSB safety recommendations.

The Time is Now

Getting my motorcycle endorsement helped me see the road from a rider’s perspective. It also deepened my resolve to ensure every motorcycle rider and passenger is safe on our roads.

But you don’t need to have firsthand experience to understand how dire the situation is. After all, we set a tragic new record for motorcyclist deaths last year. 

We can’t wait another day. The families of the 6,101 riders we lost last year deserve action.

Where is the Outrage? Road Users Deserve Better

By Chair Jennifer Homendy

42,915

16-year high

10.5-percent increase

An early estimate, released this week by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), shows 42,915 people—117 people per day—died on the nation’s roads last year. I, for one, am outraged by these needless deaths. Those victims are mothers and fathers, children and grandparents, friends, and coworkers. They are also often the most vulnerable among us. Where is our collective outrage over these deaths? Zero fatalities is our goal!

Here are a few insights within the data:

  • Pedestrian fatalities up 13 percent
  • Motorcyclist fatalities up 9 percent
  • Bicyclist fatalities up 5 percent
  • Fatalities in speeding-related crashes up 5 percent
  • Fatalities in police-reported, alcohol-involvement crashes up 5 percent
  • Fatalities on urban roads up 16 percent
  • Fatalities in crashes involving at least one large truck up 13 percent

The NTSB knows what needs to be done. The NTSB has investigated countless crashes, issued thousands of safety recommendations, and identified the data-driven approaches to make our roads safer, to prevent deaths and injuries. The NTSB has highlighted safety improvements on our Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements that can save lives on our roads.

We don’t need more guidance, we don’t need pilot programs, we need action. Action by regulators. Action by lawmakers and states. Action by manufacturers. Action by road designers and engineers. Action by all road users. We need to adopt the Safe System Approach and share the responsibility for safety.

Safe Speeds

Speed increases the likelihood of a crash and injury severity when a crash occurs. Speeding contributes to about one-third of all traffic-related crash fatalities. States must set safe speeds. Speeds that ensure that when a crash happens—because they will—whether you are inside or outside a vehicle, you will survive. States’ decades-old, one-size-fits-all approach for setting speed limits based on the speed of vehicles is senseless, focused on drivers rather than all road users, and is just leading to increasing speed limits across the U.S. And State Departments of Transportation reliance on education over proven countermeasures like implementation of speed safety cameras is ineffective.

Safe Vehicles

Since 1995, the NTSB has issued more than 25 safety recommendations to the US Department of Transportation modal agencies and vehicle manufacturers on the need to develop performance standards for collision avoidance technologies and to make them standard in all vehicles. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: nearly 30 years later, we’re still waiting.

Prominently bolded on NHTSA’s homepage is the phrase “Safe cars save lives.” However, the safest cars are still only for those who can afford them. NHTSA must act to implement NTSB safety recommendations and mandate that vehicle safety technology be standard equipment on all vehicles. Safety isn’t a luxury. NHTSA must also update the New Car Assessment Program, ASAP, to push auto manufacturers to implement, and drive consumer demand for, the safest technologies in vehicles.

Safe Roads

The nation’s roads were designed to efficiently move motor vehicles; they weren’t designed for the safe mobility of all road users. We have made no progress in recent years to prevent deaths among those who walk, bike, and roll on our nation’s roads. States must adopt the Safe System Approach and make infrastructure investments and improvements that prioritize the safety for vulnerable road users.

However, I’m increasingly concerned that many in the highway safety community don’t know how the Safe System Approach differs from the traditional, flawed approach of the 3E’s: education, enforcement, engineering. In other words, is this becoming just an “inside the beltway” term? We cannot let this moment pass us by. We need to ditch our overreliance on ineffective education and enforcement campaigns to address increasing death and look to much better, long-term solutions.

Safe Road Users

The NTSB cannot make safety recommendations to individual road users. Making safe choices is only something we can encourage and advocate for. We’ve seen individual choices contribute to the cause of countless highway crashes or severity of injuries. Distraction while driving or walking. Speeding. Impaired driving. Not buckling seat belts or wearing protective gear like helmets. All these choices have resulted in the devastating loss of life. We implore all road users to make safe choices to protect themselves and others. Many of the fatalities on our roadways would be prevented if safe choices were made every trip, every time.

Postcrash Care

The Safe System Approach accepts that crashes will happen, but that they should not be deadly. We must ensure that in the event of a crash, those involved have efficient access to the care and resources they need to live and recover. Our first responders—law enforcement, EMS, fire, and 911 personnel—need appropriate resources to serve our communities and respond to crashes. Law enforcement, EMS, and fire personnel need safe working environments free of the risk of secondary crashes.

A key principle of the Safe System Approach is shared responsibility. The entire system, our current approach to traffic safety, is failing all road users. We all—government, auto makers, policy makers, law enforcement, planners, engineers and, yes, road users—are failing. We must do better. I know that if we all come to the safety table and work together to implement the strategies that we know are successful, we can reach zero and save lives, both inside and outside vehicles.​

We have the tools to reverse the trend. Now we need everyone to act. Lives depend on it!

The 2021-2022 MWL After One Year: Noticeable Progress But Few Closed Recommendations

By Kathryn Catania, Acting Director, NTSB Office of Safety Recommendations and Communications

Since the unveiling a year ago of the 2021-2022 cycle of the NTSB’s Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements, we have seen increased awareness and discussion of safety items, high levels of engagement from the public, and incremental progress toward implementation of many recommendations.

In the past year, the NTSB has already successfully closed eight safety recommendations associated with this MWL cycle. But that is not enough. There are 167 other key recommendations that, if implemented, would save lives, and prevent injuries.

Soon after the unveiling of the MWL last year, NTSB Board members and staff sprang into action to educate, engage, and amplify the critical safety messages of our 10 safety improvements. Here’s a quick look by mode, starting with Highway, which makes up 5 of our 10 safety improvements. 

Highway

In recent years, we have increasingly expressed our highway safety goals in the language of the Safe System Approach—the very approach that we use in our own safety investigations. (We first discussed the approach in our 2017 report on reducing speeding.)

The Safe System Approach views every aspect of the crash as an opportunity to interrupt the series of events leading to it, and an opportunity to mitigate the harm that the crash does. People make mistakes, but safe roads, safe vehicles, safe road users, safe speeds, and post-crash care can combine to prevent the crash entirely, or failing that, to prevent the deaths or serious injuries of road users.

This paradigm shift applies to each of the highway safety improvements on the MWL, and is mentioned by name in “Protect Vulnerable Road Users Through a Safe System Approach,”

Between May 2021 and February 2022, we produced seven virtual roundtables to explain the approach and call for its adoption.  National and international experts discussed the approach and shared their successes and challenges. More than 1,000 advocates, regulators, academics, and others attended our webinars.

Included in the series hosted by Chair Homendy was a Safe Speeds Roundtable that explored the “Implement a Comprehensive Strategy to Eliminate Speeding-Related Crashes” safety improvement. Additionally, a “Behind the Scene @NTSB” podcast featured discussion on speeding and vulnerable road users.

In 2021, the Department of Transportation and Congress incorporated the approach into the DOT’s National Roadway Safety Strategy and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, respectively.

Will the new model result in lifesaving protections? Only final, and positive, closure of our recommendations will answer that. But the signs are very good, with the alignment of Congress, the DOT, and the road safety community.

Our MWL safety improvement, “Require Collision-Avoidance and Connected-Vehicle Technologies on all Vehicles,” could result in far superior situational awareness on our roads… if sufficient spectrum is available for the safety improvement.

Vehicle to everything (V2X) technology can save lives but has been delayed, and might be reduced or stopped, due to FCC rulings limiting the spectrum for safety operations. We released a four-part video series in which Member Graham interviewed some of the leading experts in V2X technologies—including academics, researchers, automakers, and policymakers—to discuss what can be done to find a way forward to deployment. 

In progress toward Eliminating Distracted Driving,  Vice Chairman Landsberg and staff joined government officials, industry, academia, insurers, and transportation safety advocates to announce the launch of a new National Distracted Driving Coalition. This is the first such broad national coalition on distracted driving.

We kept working with states considering lowering their BAC limit from .08 to .05 or lower, to help Prevent Alcohol- and Other Drug-Impairment. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has now evaluated the results from Utah, which has made the change to .05. Not surprisingly, the lower threshold prevented drinking and driving and saved lives. NHTSA’s study showed that the state’s fatal crash rate dropped by 19.8% in 2019, the first year under the lower legal limit, and the fatality rate decreased by 18.3%.

Aviation

To highlight our two aviation MWL safety items, “Require and Verify the Effectiveness of Safety Management Systems in all Revenue Passenger-Carrying Aviation Operations” and “​Install Crash-Resistant Recorders and Establish Flight Data Monitoring Programs,” we met with operators and pilots from the Helicopter Association International, General Aviation Manufacturers Association, and National Business Aviation Association, among others. In webinars, podcasts, and at in-person national conferences, Board members talked with Part 135 and Part 91 operators and pilots to identify challenges. Our outreach meetings alone reached more than 1,500 operators nationwide.

Marine

With an increasing number of deadly fishing vessel accidents in recent years, Office of Marine Safety Director Morgan Turrell and Chair Homendy hosted a virtual roundtable on improving fishing vessel safety that was viewed by over 1,000 people. Panelists discussed what can be done to address commercial fishing safety, implement NTSB safety recommendations, and improve the safety of fishing operations in the United States.

Pipeline and Hazardous Materials

Our MWL calls for pipeline and hazardous materials (hazmat) stakeholders to “Improve Pipeline Leak Detection and Mitigation” by equipping all pipeline systems with leak-detection systems and automatic shutoff or remote-control valves. These valves allow for quick detection and mitigation.

Additionally, we produced a video featuring Member Michael Graham and Hazardous Materials Investigator Rachael Gunaratnam, which explores cases in which odorants failed as a natural gas leak-detection strategy, and promotes both required natural gas leak detectors, and voluntary adoption of such detectors until they are required.

Rail

To highlight the dangers to rail roadway workers and to help Improve Rail Worker Safety, Member Tom Chapman wrote a blog on rail worker safety, discussing how the railroad regulators—the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), and the Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration (PHMSA)— are in the best position to make change.

We also completed our investigation of the April 24, 2018, accident in which an Amtrak rail watchman was killed in Bowie, Maryland. As a result of this investigation, we called on the FRA and Amtrak to put an immediate end to the use of train approach warning (TAW) systems as the sole method of on-track safety in areas covered by positive train control.

To mark the anniversary of the January 2017 train collision in Edgemont, South Dakota, we also issued a media statement again urging railroads to act to better protect rail roadway workers.

Looking ahead

We are pleased by the engagement of so many of our safety advocacy partners, industry groups, and associations in the past year, to promote our recommendations and highlight transportation safety concerns. Also, we acknowledge that many industry groups and operators are making voluntary efforts to improve safety, including on some of our recommendations. However, without mandates, many others may not act.

We remain disappointed by the lack of movement by regulators to implement the safety recommendations associated with our MWL. While there has been some progress during this first year, much more needs to be done to implement the 167 remaining safety recommendations associated with the current list. The longer these authorities wait to implement our recommendations, the greater the risk to the traveling public. Safety delayed is safety denied.

The NTSB will not stand by quietly and watch as regulators, industry, and other recommendation recipients ignore and dismiss our safety recommendations—and neither should the public. As NTSB Chair Homendy expressed in recent remarks to the largest highway safety gathering in the U.S, “The horrific toll of people who’ve died on our roads and their families… millions of people who were injured… are counting on us to “fight like hell” for the next family. To give a voice to those who no longer have one.” 

All our lives are on the line, and no death in transportation is acceptable. It is our mission to advocate for the changes outlined in our safety recommendations which, if implemented, will save lives.

Safety is a shared responsibility. We all play a role in getting us to zero transportation deaths. The NTSB cannot do this alone. We need each of you, individually and collectively, to help us advocate for these critical safety improvements.