Category Archives: Impairment

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.

Kicking off National Distracted Driving Awareness Month

By Nicholas Worrell, Chief, NTSB Safety Advocacy Division

More people are dying in crashes since the pandemic began. Deaths on our roads increased from 36,096 in in 2019 to 38,824 in 2020, and to an estimated 31,720 in the first 9 months of 2021, a further 12% increase. At that rate of increase, fatalities will be well over 40,000 for the full year.

Our roads have become more dangerous, and Americans know it. A new study from Nationwide finds that, compared with 2020, more than three quarters of respondents think drivers are more aggressive, drive faster, and are more reckless. “Even more frightening,” says Nationwide, “more than a third of drivers (34%) believe it is safe to hold your phone while driving—whether that is to make a call, send a text, or use navigation.”

Additionally, the Travelers Companies recently announced the results of the 2022 Travelers Risk Index on distracted driving. The results “suggest that work-related pressure might lead to distracted driving. Most business managers (86%) expect employees to respond to work-related communications at least sometimes while outside the office during work hours. One-third expect employees to answer or participate in work calls while driving.”

Since the pandemic began, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has been reporting upticks in risky driving such as speeding, impairment by alcohol and other drugs, and driving without a seatbelt—a driver’s best protection in a crash. But what about distracted driving?

Late last year, citing studies by Cambridge Mobile Telematics and Zendrive, NHTSA stated that risks associated with distracted driving rose during the pandemic too. One study suggested that, in 16% of crashes detected, a cell phone was manipulated within 5 seconds of the crash.

What is distracted driving?

Distraction occurs when drivers divert their attention away from the driving task. Personal electronic devices, such as cell phones and tablets, are among the culprits, though activities such as grooming and eating contribute as well.

Visual distraction is taking your eyes off the road—for example, to glance down at a twitter feed. Manual distraction is taking your hands away from the vehicle controls, such as when you text or search for a phone contact. Cognitive distraction degrades driving when your mind is not on the road. Even if you use your phone hands-free, you are subject to cognitive distraction—mentally focusing on something other than the driving task.

NHTSA says that 3,142 people lost their lives to distracted driving in 2019, and that is likely an undercount. Often those who have lost a loved one to such senseless road violence are driven to action, like these participants in our 2017 roundtable, “Act to End Deadly Distractions.”

What you can do

Last year, NTSB Vice Chairman Bruce Landsberg announced the launch of the National Distracted Driving Coalition to unite the many individuals and organizations that are working for change, so that member organizations can focus on their own strengths, while developing common resources to avoid duplication of efforts.

Passionate individuals and organizations, responsible companies and legislatures, the academic community, and government agencies have begun to make an impact on distracted driving behaviors and strengthening distracted driving laws across the nation.

But anybody who drives can do their part just by disconnecting for the drive. 

Be the boss of your devices, not the other way around. And be a boss in general. Plan for how and when you will take calls—not while driving—and let people know your plan. Let people know that you’ll be on the road, or you’ll be on your phone, but not both. Because no call, no text, no update is worth a human life.

Connect with us

Follow us on the Web and Twitter to learn more about this month’s advocacy engagement to eliminate distracted driving.

Upcoming Event:

Additional Resources

NTSB Most Wanted List

NTSB Distracted Driving Roundtables and Forum

NTSB Blogs

40 Years Later: The Safety Impact of the 21 Minimum Legal Drinking Age Law

By Leah Walton, NTSB Safety Advocate

I was 21 years old in the year 2000 when I started working in the field of impaired driving prevention, specifically underage drinking prevention. I remember some of my colleagues recalling, “Back in my day, the legal drinking age was 18 years old.” I don’t have that recollection – as long as I can remember, I have known the legal drinking age to be 21.

It is incredible that many folks still remember a time when turning 18 meant a celebration of adulthood marked by legal consumption of alcohol. It is a similar feeling for me to consider that at one point seat belts weren’t standard safety equipment in vehicles.

Between 1970 and 1982, in many American states, the legal drinking age was reduced from 21 to 18 or 19. But on our roads, lowering the legal drinking age showed an immediate increase in deaths, as impaired teen drivers died, and killed others, behind the wheel.

Then on March 14, 1982, forty years ago, the NTSB investigated a collision where a train collided with a van at a railroad grade crossing in Mineola, NY, in what I might describe as a parent’s worst nightmare. Nine of the 10 occupants of the van, all teenagers, died. The tenth survived with serious injuries. The 19-year-old owner and presumed driver of the van, who died in the crash, was impaired at the time of the crash.

The crash was a turning point. By that July, NTSB called for states with drinking ages below age 21 to raise them to age 21.

Why was the drinking age lowered in the first place? In 1971, the 26th Amendment extended the right to vote in Federal elections to citizens as young as 18. Many states had already adopted age-18 voting. Taking the trend into the realm of alcohol consumption, between 1970 and 1973, 35 states lowered their drinking age to 18 or 19, either for beer and wine only, or for all alcoholic beverages.

This in turn sparked a deadly trend in alcohol-impaired driving crashes involving teen drivers, with some states changing their drinking ages back to 21. Studies of states that reverted from age 18 or 19 drinking back to age 21 showed impressive results.

For example, Michigan lowered its drinking age to 18 in January 1972 and raised it back to 21 in December 1978. A study of the change found “crash involvement among 18–20-year-old drivers, showed a reduction of 31 percent in the first 12 months after the drinking age was raised from 18 to 21 in December of 1978.”[1]

There were precautions in place to prevent the Mineola crash – regardless of age, it was still illegal to drive impaired, and the owner and presumed driver of the van in the Mineola crash was impaired. Additionally, the grade crossing was protected by an automatic gate. The gate was lowered, and its lights were flashing, at the time of the crash.  But the van was driven around the gate, onto the main line tracks of the Long Island Rail Road and into the path of an oncoming train.

Would it have mattered if the legal drinking age were 21? Perhaps, difficulty in obtaining alcohol would have broken the chain of events, perhaps not.

But we know that the fatality numbers change when the minimum drinking age changes. In statistical terms, it is clear, a drinking age of 21 saves lives. And, when combined with other changes, the culture around youth drinking and driving can change.

That is why, in 1984, the National Minimum Drinking Age Act was signed, effective September 30, 1985. With that law, also championed by Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) and other advocacy organizations, the state-by-state recommendations made by NTSB in the wake of the Mineola crash became national policy.

Since that time, even more research has come out about the age of full brain development (mid-20’s) and how alcohol affects the brain which reiterates the gravity of this law.

Devastating experiences, the newer science of brain development, the impact on alcohol and the developing brain, and historical data of lower drinking ages have shaped legal drinking age policy. However, while changing the legal drinking age has saved lives, over 10,000 die on the nation’s roads every year because of alcohol-impaired driving. The bottom line remains – impaired driving is 100% preventable – whether the driver is 18, 21, or 51 years old.  


[1] Wagenaar, Alexander Clarence, The Minimum Legal Drinking Age: A Times-Series Impact Evaluation, Dissertation, University of Michigan, 1980, p. 148.

The Super Bowl—By the Numbers

By Member Tom Chapman

This year, the Super Bowl will be played on Sunday, February 13th. Like many Americans, I circled the date on my calendar months ago. It’s a special day to enjoy with family and friends.  It’s a day to watch the biggest game of the year while indulging in favorite football fare— buffalo wings, salsa and chips, and a cold beer or two.

Fifty-six years of Super Bowls have generated lots of impressive numbers. In 1995, the San Francisco 49ers beat the San Diego Chargers by a score of 49 to 26. That’s a combined score of 75 points, making it the highest-scoring Super Bowl in history. Carolina Panthers Muhsin Muhammad’s 85-yard touchdown reception in Super Bowl XXXVIII (2004) still stands as the longest passing play. The Pittsburg Steelers and New England Patriots are tied as the winningest teams, at six Super Bowl wins each. Every team strives for higher scores, longer plays, and more Super Bowl wins.

At the NTSB, like everyone who works in traffic safety, we strive to reach the number ZERO. That’s the number that matters the most—zero traffic deaths.

This year, the Super Bowl will take place at SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles, only five miles from the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum where the very first Super Bowl was played in 1967. That year, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), a staggering 50,724 road users died on our roadways. Since then, some progress has been made toward reducing traffic deaths. But we are nowhere near our vision of zero. And the trend is alarmingly up in the last few years. According to NHTSA’s latest estimate, 38,680 people died in traffic crashes in 2020. That was the highest number of traffic fatalities since 2007. To put this in perspective, SoFi Stadium has a capacity of 70,240. The 38,680 preventable traffic deaths in 2020 would have filled 55% of the seats.

Super Bowl Sundays have regularly seen higher traffic fatalities over the years. A disturbing trend was revealed by a look at the 12-hour period (Sunday 6 pm to Monday 6 am) of five previous Super Bowl Sundays (2015–2019). A total of 244 traffic deaths occurred in those five 12-hour periods (a total of 60 hours) on Super Bowl Sundays. For comparison, the traffic deaths were 202 and 187 for the same 12-hour period one week before and one week after a Super Bowl Sunday, respectively.

It’s hard to say exactly why we often see higher traffic deaths on Super Bowl Sundays. However, alcohol consumption is certainly one factor. According to an analysis of NHTSA data, 46% of the 244 traffic deaths during the 12-hour period on the five Super Bowl Sundays were alcohol-related (that is, the police considered at least one driver involved in the crash to be impaired by alcohol, or the driver tested positive for alcohol in their system). What about the Sundays one week before and one week after the five targeted Super Bowl Sundays? Alcohol-related traffic fatalities were 74% higher on Super Bowl Sunday compared to the week before, and 82% higher than the following week.

Analysis of NHTSA fatality data

There are actions everyone can take to prevent these crashes without dampening the enjoyment of the Super Bowl Sunday experience. Impairment starts with the first drink. The smartest action you can take is to separate drinking from driving. Make a plan before you head to a Super Bowl party, so you have a safe way to get home. If you’re hosting a party, check in with your guests to verify they have a sober ride home before they start drinking. Have the contact for a taxi or rideshare service on hand. Be prepared to offer your guests a place to stay overnight if no sober ride is available.

At the NTSB, we’re doing our part. Our 2021­–2022 Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements includes the safety item, “Prevent Alcohol- and Other Drug-Impaired Driving.” NTSB has issued specific recommendations that, if implemented, would help prevent deaths and injuries that are attributed to alcohol impairment. They include requiring all-offender ignition interlocks and .05 percent or lower blood alcohol content limits (or .05 BAC).

The recently enacted Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act advances some of the NTSB’s most important safety recommendations to prevent impaired driving. For example, the new law requires the Secretary of Transportation to issue a final rule within three years requiring all new passenger motor vehicles to be equipped with advanced drunk-driving prevention technology. This is a safety recommendation we made in 2012, and we’re eager to see it move toward acceptable closure .

I look forward to this year’s Super Bowl Sunday, spending time with my family, taking in all the excitement and fun the game (and sometimes the commercials) can offer, and enjoying our favorite game-day food and drinks. My family and friends will do our part to achieve the goal of zero traffic deaths. We will separate drinking from driving. I call on you to do the same.

A New Year’s Resolution We All Can Make: Prioritize Safety

By Nicholas Worrell, Chief, NTSB Safety Advocacy Division

As 2021 ends, it’s time to reflect on the past 12 months and begin to set goals for the year ahead. After all, as Zig Ziglar once said, “if you aim at nothing, you will hit it every time.” So, let us all aim to improve the safety of our transportation system in 2022.

The NTSB recognizes the need for improvements in all modes of transportation–on the roads, rails, waterways, pipelines, and in the sky. Our 2021–2022 NTSB Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements (MWL), released in April this year, highlights the transportation safety improvements we believe are needed now to prevent accidents and crashes, reduce injuries, and save lives. We use the list to focus our advocacy efforts and to serve as an important call to action. We ask lawmakers, industry, advocacy, community organizations, and the traveling public to act and champion safety.

As a fellow safety advocate, I ask you to join me in a New Year’s resolution: I pledge to do my part to make transportation safer for all.

To help you take steps to accomplish this resolution, our MWL outlines actions you can take to make transportation safer:

  1. Require and Verify the Effectiveness of Safety Management Systems in all Revenue Passenger-Carrying Aviation Operations
  1. Install Crash-Resistant Recorders and Establish Flight Data Monitoring Programs
  1. Implement a Comprehensive Strategy to Eliminate Speeding-Related Crashes
  1. Protect Vulnerable Road Users through a Safe System Approach 
  1. Prevent Alcohol- and Other Drug-Impaired Driving
  1. Require Collision-Avoidance and Connected-Vehicle Technologies on all Vehicles
  1. Eliminate Distracted Driving
  1. Improve Passenger and Fishing Vessel Safety
  1. Improve Pipeline Leak Detection and Mitigation
  1. Improve Rail Worker Safety

Achieving these improvements is possible; otherwise, they wouldn’t be on our list. The NTSB MWL includes tangible changes and solutions that will, undoubtedly, save lives. But it’s only words on a list if no action is taken. Unlike Times Square on New Year’s Eve, we cannot drop the ball on improvements to transportation safety. The clock is ticking, and the countdown has begun—we can’t afford to waste any more time. Make the resolution to do your part to make transportation safer for all!

In closing, I’d like to thank the transportation safety stakeholders, industry, lawmakers, and advocates we have worked with in 2021 and we look forward to working together in 2022 and beyond.