By Stephanie Shaw, Acting Chief, NTSB Safety Advocacy Division
This week, families and friends will gather to celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday. According to estimates from AAA, nearly 55 million people will travel away from home this year, with about 49 million of them taking to the roads.
As we mark the beginning of the holiday travel season, we want to ensure that everyone arrives safely at their destinations. Unfortunately, travel on our roads can be the riskiest mode of travel during the holiday season.
NTSB investigations continue to highlight actions needed by regulators, legislators, and industry to ensure the safest transportation system for the traveling public. Our Most Wanted List (MWL) identifies specific transportation safety improvements needed across all modes. It includes five road safety improvements that address pervasive problems like speeding, alcohol and other drug impairment, and distraction. The MWL also calls for collision-avoidance and connected vehicle technologies and implementation of a Safe System Approach to better protect all road users.
At the NTSB, we believe that safety is a shared responsibility, so for the traveling public, we’ve highlighted some ways you can keep yourself and others safe, regardless of the travel mode you choose.
Impairment by alcohol and other drugs, unsafe speeds, fatigue, and distraction continue to play major roles in crashes. Here’s what you can do:
Designate a sober driver, or call a taxi, or ridesharing service if your holiday celebrations involve alcohol or other impairing drugs.
Follow safe speeds. In bad weather, safe speeds are often below the designated speed limit. Speeding increases the chance of being involved in a crash and intensifies the severity of crash injuries.
Make sure you’re well rested! A fatigued driver is just as dangerous as one impaired by alcohol or other drugs.
Avoid distractions. Don’t take or make calls or text 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.
This annual observance provides a time to reflect on the real people behind the statistics: mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, colleagues, best friends, and neighbors.
It’s a time to support those who’ve lost a loved one to the public health crisis on our roads.
And it’s a time to act, starting with NTSB recommendations.
Lessons from Tragedy
Since last year’s World Day of Remembrance, the NTSB has made 26 new recommendations to improve road safety. All remain open.
Where did these recommendations come from? They are the result of rigorous NTSB investigations into devastating crashes, outlined below. Each one is a lesson from tragedy, which is why we don’t rest until a recommendation is implemented.
At the NTSB, we believe the most meaningful thing we can do for victims of traffic violence is to advocate for our safety recommendations.
In other words: we choose to honor the victims with action.
Here are just some of the victims we’re remembering today — along with the recommended safety improvements to best honor their memory.
Today we remember two people who were killed and seven who were injured in a Belton, SC, crash between an SUV and a bus carrying disabled passengers. The actions we demand on their behalf include the following:
Ban nonemergency use of portable electronic devices, like cellphones, for all drivers.
Recruit cellphone manufacturers in the fight against distracted driving; they should automatically disable distracting functions when a vehicle is in motion.
Provide annual safety training for people employed to transport wheelchair users.
Develop a side-impact protection standard for new, medium-size buses, regardless of weight — and require compliance.
We should honor the victims of the Pennsylvania Turnpike crash that injured 50 people and killed five others — including a nine-year-old child — by taking the following actions:
Develop performance standards for advanced speed-limiting technology, connected-vehicle technology, and collision-avoidance systems — and require their use on new vehicles, as appropriate.
Require newly manufactured heavy vehicles to have onboard video event recorders.
Deploy connected-vehicle technology nationwide.
Take a comprehensive approach to eliminate speeding. Among other measures, this means thinking long and hard about the 85th percentile approach and using speed safety cameras, which includes working to remove restrictions against them.
Here’s what we must do to honor the three people who were killed and the 18 who were injured when a bus overturned in Pala Mesa, California:
Require all new buses to meet a roof strength standard.
Sponsor research into safe tire tread depths for commercial vehicles.
Require seat belt use.
The best way to remember the victims of the Decatur, Tennessee, school bus crash that injured 14 people and killed two people, including a 7-year-old child, is to take the following steps:
Make lap-shoulder belts mandatory in new school buses.
Require lane-departure prevention systems on heavy vehicles.
And what about the nine people who died in a head-on crash in Avenal, California, on New Year’s Day — seven of whom were children? We must implement the following NTSB recommendations in their memory:
Encourage vehicle manufacturers to combat alcohol-impaired driving by accelerating progress on advanced impaired driving prevention technology and finding new ways to use existing technology, like driver monitoring systems.
Incentivize vehicle manufacturers and consumers to adopt intelligent speed adaptation (ISA) systems. One way to achieve this is to include ISA in the New Car Assessment Program. Notably, ISA became mandatory in July 2022 for all new models of vehicles introduced in the European Union.
Develop a common standard of practice for drug toxicology testing by state officials.
Remember. Support. Act.
Even as we advocate for our safety recommendations, more crashes are occurring daily — which means more investigations. The work continues.
And yet, we cannot let the magnitude of the road safety crisis deter us.
This week is Teen Driver Safety Week, a time dedicated to raising awareness and seeking solutions to prevent teen driving-related deaths and injuries on the road.
The NTSB has long advocated for preventive measures that would address the common factors—distractions, fatigue, impairment, speeding, and lack of seat belt use—contributing to teen driving-related crashes, deaths, and injuries. The NTSB has recommended that states enact robust graduated driver license (GDL) programs that include cell phone, passenger, and nighttime driving restrictions. We’ve also called for collision avoidance and other vehicle safety technologies to be standard on all vehicles. Finally, we encourage adoption of a Safe System Approach to protect all road users from death and serious injury.
On Wednesday, October 19, the NTSB will host a Teen Driver Safety Week webinar focused on effective safety advocacy strategies. The event will bring together youth leaders and traffic safety advocates to discuss four valuable strategies for teen driver safety advocacy, including:
Empowering Parents and Community Members
Connecting Through Digital Media and Technology
While we highlight Teen Driver Safety Week in October, we are committed to advocating all year long for needed safety improvements to keep young people safe on the roads.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.