Category Archives: Uncategorized

Don’t Drop a Bomb: Secure Your Load

 

By Don Karol

My son and I knew the danger we faced when we headed off to war. Scud missiles . . . rooftop snipers . . . roadside bombs . . . an enemy that wanted to kill us. Making it home safely was not a sure thing.

But when 24-year-old Maria drove home from work one night, she had no idea that driving on an interstate highway could be just as perilous as being in a war zone.

You never forget the day you receive the “death knock” at your door. I had just returned to the U.S. from my tour of duty in Iraq, but was not prepared for the ominous words that would follow. It was October 6th, 2003. The US Army knocking on my door . . . regretting to inform me that my 20-year-old son was killed in action and would not be coming home.

Four months later, on February 22, 2004, Robin Abel received a similar notification. Robin was asleep at home when she got a call from Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. Her daughter Maria was critically injured in a highway crash and was not expected to survive.

Maria was not hit by a command-detonated bomb like my son Spencer, but was hit by something just as deadly. A poorly secured entertainment center fell from the back of a trailer in front of her. The driver of the car pulling the trailer had been moving all day and had failed to properly secure the items in the trailer. A 2-by-6-foot piece of particle board flew through her windshield, hitting her in the face. Miraculously, Maria survived. However, she permanently lost her eyesight and had to endure facial reconstruction, multiple surgeries, and trauma that will last her lifetime.

Our nation’s highways should not be like an active war zone, but they are. With over 35,000 people killed and 2.4 million injured in crashes each year, who can argue differently? Fortunately, there are warriors on the front lines—passionate safety advocates—fighting to make a difference.

About 6 years ago, I met one of the fiercest (and nicest) warriors for safety, Robin Abel. We spoke on the phone after I read her book “Out of Nowhere,” the story of Robin’s determination to rebuild her daughter’s life and change road safety laws to prevent future tragedies involving unsecured loads. As I spoke with Robin, I learned how a single voice can make a powerful difference. I saw the impact Robin made in the state of Washington and learned about how legislators adopted “Maria’s Law,” which criminalizes a person’s failure to properly secure a load that results in injury or death.

Since our initial contact, I have remained in frequent communication with Robin. As a safety leader at the NTSB, I know how important it is to have safety warriors by my side. I’ve guided Robin where I can, but most of the time I’ve stood back and marveled at her tireless efforts to educate lawmakers, businesses, and individuals about the dangers posed by unsecured loads and highway debris. Most recently, I’ve seen how she has fought to establish a dedicated day of awareness.

On Memorial Day, I took time to remember my son and all the others who paid the ultimate sacrifice in the service of our country.

Tomorrow, I will take time to remember Robin’s daughter and all those who have been killed and injured in crashes involving an unsecured load. June 6th is “Secure Your Load” day; a day dedicated to raising awareness of an often-overlooked safety problem.

As a crash investigator, I have seen the tragic results of a mattress, ladder, Christmas tree, or piece of furniture falling from a moving vehicle. According to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data, in 2010, there were about 51,000 crashes—including almost 10,000 injured persons and 440 known fatalities—involving a vehicle striking an object that came off another vehicle or an object lying in the roadway.

Recent research by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety estimated that road debris played a role in more than 50,000 crashes, which resulted in over 9,800 injuries and approximately 125 deaths each year from 2011 through 2014. These numbers are staggering, especially because these crashes were preventable.

So, tomorrow, share the “Secure Your Load” safety message with everyone you know. As my fellow safety warrior Robin Abel has said on many occasions: “Secure your load as if everyone you love is driving in the car behind you.”

For more information, check out the Secure Your Load PSA.

 

Donald F. Karol is a National Resource Specialist and Senior Accident Investigator in the NTSB Office of Highway Safety.

When Will it Finally Click?

By Leah Walton

The Crash Test Dummies, Vince and Larry, made their big debut in 1986, telling America, “You could learn a lot from a dummy . . . buckle your safety belt.” Based on the following increase in seat belt use, this public service announcement campaign became legendary and impacted many, and saving lives as a result. The amazing work that these dummies did earned Vince and Larry a retirement spot at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

And yet, even today, not everyone buckles their seat belt, even though it has been proven over and over that a seat belt is the best lifesaving measure in the event of a crash. People still get citations during the highly advertised “Click It or Ticket” National Seat Belt Enforcement Mobilization campaign, which takes place over the Memorial Day holiday weekend. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the seat belt usage rate in 2015 was 90.1%—which is great, except that the remaining 10% equals 27.5 million Americans who are not buckling up. That means 27.5 MILLION people are choosing to be unprotected in their vehicle. Buckling up is such a simple action, it only takes about 2 seconds. So, when will it finally click for everyone to buckle their seat belt?

The National Safety Council predicts that 409 people may be killed on America’s roadways over the upcoming 2017 Memorial Day holiday period. I can’t predict every crash, but I can imagine that many of these potential deaths will occur because people chose to not buckle up. For them, it hasn’t clicked that seat belts save lives.

Other safe behaviors still haven’t clicked with many drivers, either. Driving while impaired by alcohol or other drugs, driving distracted, and driving while drowsy also contribute to the loss of life on our roadways. Simple solutions like driving sober or designating a sober driver, putting the phone away, and getting a full night’s rest would make the roads safer for everyone. When will all of this click for drivers?

Memorial Day is a time to reflect and honor those who have fallen for our country. And, however you choose to observe the day—at the beach, at a bar-b-que, alone or with friends—I hope it finally clicks and you make safe choices to get safely to and from your destination.

 

Leah Walton is a Safety Advocate in the NTSB Office of Safety Recommendations and Communications.

ACT TO END DEADLY DISTRACTIONS

Distracted(NoCall).jpg

By Acting Chairman Robert Sumwalt

Distracted driving kills, on average, nine people every day on our highways and injures even more. Every day, families are left to grieve the loss of a loved one killed in a highway crash, their lives suddenly in disarray. These preventable tragedies must stop. We must all do our part and take action so that families no longer lose loved ones to a preventable death.

Often, the families and friends left behind after a fatal car crash become survivor advocates, turning their tragedy into action. This week, we will be hosting some of these survivor advocates at our second distraction roundtable, Act to End Deadly Distractions. We will be teaming with Stopdistractions.org, DRIVE SMART Virginia, and the National Safety Council to host this discussion.

I’m excited to facilitate this event, which is designed to focus on survivor advocates’ experiences of what has worked and what hasn’t in their fight against distracted driving. Above all, this roundtable is designed to facilitate effective action. The survivor advocate community will be exploring ways to act in their own towns and states to “move the needle” toward zero distracted driving deaths.

Our first distraction roundtable brought together experts to dive into what we know and don’t know about the science of distraction. At that event one fact became clear: distracted driving is taking lives. According to one market research company, since 2007, the percentage of Americans ages 13 and older with smartphones went from 6% to more than 80%. Although there have always been distractions competing with our focus on driving, these devices are especially addictive and, despite what we tell ourselves, we cannot safely or effectively multitask. To turn the tide will take a change in culture, especially in attitudes about portable electronic devices.

Experience with other causes of highway deaths shows that the science alone will not be enough to stop tragedy. Nor will awareness efforts. Heightened awareness, the right laws and policies, and tough enforcement all must play a role. The NTSB often makes recommendations aimed at changing safety culture within a company or even within a whole industry. We have recommended that states pass legislation to ban drivers from nonemergency use of portable electronic devices. We can’t “recommend” a way to change the minds and behavior of a whole nation of drivers, so we’re facilitating a conversation among survivor advocates and experts in awareness campaigns and in state houses.

We hope that you’ll join us. The roundtable begins at 9:00 am, April 26, in the NTSB Board Room and Conference Center, 429 L’Enfant Plaza, SW, Washington, DC. The event is convenient to the L’Enfant Plaza Metro station. You can also watch the event live at http://ntsb.capitolconnection.org/ and comment via Twitter @NTSB using #Act2EndDD.

 

The New Pipeline Rule I Waited Half a Career to See

By Charles Koval

One night, a couple feet underground outside an American home, the gas flowing in a service line began to escape through a puncture adjacent to a newly installed mailbox. A man and woman inside the home were watching the news. Their children were playing. Then, suddenly, without warning . . . nothing happened.

A simple and inexpensive device called an excess flow valve (EFV) kicked in, stopping the gas flow. There was no explosion, no fire, no injury or loss of life.

As a petroleum engineer and pipeline specialist for the NTSB, I know that the most important pipeline safety advance in recent decades has been the establishment of the national one-call 811 number. But EFVs may be the next most important life-saver, especially for homeowners.

Diagram of how an excess flow valve functionsGas companies install an EFV in a service pipeline where it meets the main line. The EFV shuts off the gas flow in the service line when it exceeds the normal flow rate; excess flow often indicates that gas is escaping the service line through a puncture or sever, potentially leading to an explosion or fire.

I’ve been working a long time to encourage the progress that came to fruition late last year regarding EFVs. The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) quietly completed an important achievement and, in the process, closed an NTSB recommendation. PHMSA issued a rule expanding the use of EFVs to new or renewed service lines leading to almost all small commercial businesses and multi-residence buildings.

It’s taken decades to achieve this result. In all, the NTSB has made 24 safety recommendations related to EFVs.

When I came to the NTSB in 1990, the agency had already been endorsing EFVs for 20 years, beginning with recommending a shutoff valve after research that came out of a 1970 safety study.

I worked on accident after accident that may have been prevented by EFVs. Most of my work between 1990 and 1994 involved single-family residences, but many multi-residence accidents were just as horrible, if not worse. The incidents occurred in large cities like Tulsa, Oklahoma, and St. Paul, Minnesota, and in smaller towns like St. Cloud, Minnesota; Montezuma, Indiana; and Cliffwood Beach, New Jersey. I can still remember my first NTSB supervisor expressing exasperation that this simple and elegant solution was not in wider use.

Then came June 9, 1994. At about 6:45 that evening, a 2-inch-diameter steel gas service line that had been exposed during excavation separated at a compression coupling about 5 feet from the north wall of John T. Gross Towers, an 8-story retirement home. The escaping gas flowed underground toward Gross Towers, passed through openings in the building foundation, entered the mechanical room through the floor vents, and migrated to other floors.

A resident smelled the gas, as did a workman onsite, who told his foreman. The foreman called the gas company and the housing authority, then had other employees locate and shut off the gas line valve inside the towers. But at 6:58 p.m., the built-up natural gas in the building ignited and exploded; a second explosion followed 5 minutes later. The accident killed one person and injured 66—and it could have been much worse. Many residents were not in the building on the early summer evening of the disaster.

A humble EFV could have shut off the gas flow into Gross Towers. After the explosion, the NTSB recommended that PHMSA’s predecessor agency require that all gas distribution operators inform all customers of the availability of EFVs. After many years, the agency did so. Meanwhile, fatal accidents continued—all potentially preventable with EFVs.

Then, in 1998, the NTSB was called to the site of an explosion and fire at a single-family home in South Riding, Virginia.

A man, woman, and their two children were spending their first night together in their new home. The family retired at about 10:30—the children to the upper level of the house, and, because not all of their furniture had arrived, the parents to the first-floor study. Shortly after midnight, the house exploded and was engulfed in flames. The children were thrown out of the house and onto the lawn, suffering minor injuries. The parents fell into the basement as the first floor collapsed. The father was able to crawl to safety, badly burned; the mother did not escape and died as a result of her injuries.

Again, an EFV could have prevented the tragedy.

Following this accident, the NTSB recommended that PHMSA require EFVs in all new and renewed gas service lines, regardless of customer classification, when operating conditions were compatible with readily available valves. PHMSA first required only that single-family homeowners be notified of the availability of the valve and be allowed to pay for it themselves. Then, in 2009, PHMSA changed the rule, requiring EFVs to be installed on almost all new and renewed service pipelines to single family homes.[1] Finally, on October 14, 2016, PHMSA expanded the safety requirement to include most new and renewed service pipelines for multi-residential and commercial applications, closing one chapter in EFV history—and with it, an outstanding NTSB recommendation.

My first NTSB supervisor is no longer with us, but even years ago, he could imagine the broad use of EFVs that he did not live to see. Sometimes it takes a long time to normalize safety. Too often, it takes a highly visible accident—or several of them—to draw attention to a problem. Solutions often come a little bit at a time, or a long time afterward, without any fanfare.

But for now, and well into the future, for many businesses and homes nationwide, if a service line fails, nothing will happen. These homes and businesses are a little safer today because PHMSA and the gas industry acted on NTSB’s EFV recommendations.

 

Charles Koval is a Petroleum Engineer and Pipeline Specialist in the NTSB Office of Railroad, Pipeline and Hazardous Materials.

 

[1] The service line does not need an EFV if it: 1. does not operate at or above 10 psig all year, 2. has previously had contaminates, 3. could interfere with necessary operation or maintenance activities, or 4. is not commercially available to the operator.

Don’t Press the Envelope

By Mike Folkerts

Loss of control in flight—when a pilot fails to maintain or regain control of an aircraft—is the leading cause of general aviation fatalities. From 2011 to 2015, nearly half of all fatal fixed-wing accidents in the United States involved pilots losing control of their aircraft, resulting in 819 fatalities. Far too many NTSB investigations have shown how a loss of aircraft attitude control is often preceded by the loss of a pilot’s mental attitude control.

April 27, 2013, Piper PA-28R-180 airplane crash near Norfolk, Nebraska.
April 27, 2013, Piper PA-28R-180 airplane crash near Norfolk, Nebraska.

In the fatal accidents that I have investigated, this loss of mental control seems to be a conscious decision by the pilot to “press the envelope”—a term made famous in the 1983 film The Right Stuff, an adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s best‑selling book about the military test pilots who became Project Mercury astronauts. As the United States sought to achieve supersonic flight and put a human on the moon, these test pilots pressed the envelope, pushing the boundaries of both aircraft and human performance. Their efforts were based on national objectives and security, and many of these aviators paid the ultimate price in that pursuit.

Unfortunately, in far too many general aviation accidents, pilots choose to press the envelope for relatively minor (and often selfish) reasons, like “pressing the weather” to get home for dinner, flying at low altitude or maneuvering aggressively for an extra boost of adrenaline, or “pressing a known aircraft issue” to get a job done. Although a “git-r-done” attitude is certainly commendable, pilots too often forget to trust the little voice inside that warns them to steer clear of unwarranted risks, or they fail to guard against the temptation to make extreme efforts to please or impress others. General aviation flying very rarely requires the need to press the envelope, and pressing far too often ends in a tragic loss of control.

The NTSB is so concerned with this phenomenon that, for the last 3 years, we have placed “Prevent Loss of Control in Flight in General Aviation” on our Most Wanted List of transportation safety improvements to help bring attention to the issue. Last week, NTSB Board Member Earl Weener even attended the Sun ‘n Fun International Fly-In—one of the world’s largest general aviation enthusiasts’ training events—to talk to pilots about the dangers of losing control.

Whatever a pilot’s motivation may be for wanting to press the envelope, in general aviation, it’s not worth risking loss of control. Never underestimate the connection between mental attitude and aircraft attitude.

Mike Folkerts is an aviation safety investigator in the NTSB Office of Aviation Safety.

 

NTSB: 50 Years of Asking “Why?”

By Acting Chairman Robert L. Sumwalt

NTSB 50th Anniversary commemerative emblemFifty years ago, on April 1, 1967, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) came into existence, helping to fulfill President Lyndon B. Johnson’s pledge to ensure the safety of Americans on land, sea, and air.

In 1966, Johnson recommended the creation of a single Department of Transportation (DOT), bringing together the functions of many far-flung agencies. He also urged

…that there be created under the Secretary of Transportation a National Transportation Safety Board independent of the operating units of the Department. The sole function of this Board will be the safety of our travelers. It will review investigations of accidents to seek their causes. It will determine compliance with safety standards. It will examine the adequacy of the safety standards themselves… I consider the functions of this Board so important that I am requesting authority from Congress to name five Presidential appointees as its members.

. . .

No function of the new agency—no responsibility of its Secretary—will be more important than safety.

Indeed, between March 2, 1966, and the NTSB’s birth the following year, there was a spate of disastrous commercial aviation crashes, either on US soil or involving US-built aircraft, together taking the lives of hundreds of passengers. This was not extremely unusual for this era; sometimes multiple fatal aviation accidents happened during the same month.

At the same time, the roads were full of automobiles that could never be sold under today’s safety standards. Most cars had no seat belts, and those that did generally had them in the front seat only. Air bags and child safety seats had not made their way into production. Drunk driving laws and enforcement were permissive, and even with far fewer cars on the roads, there were far more crash deaths.

Before the NTSB, major accidents in aviation were investigated by a section of the Civil Aeronautics Board, or CAB. Accidents in other modes of transportation might be investigated by a special subcommittee or jury, but there was no agency to coordinate these efforts or to collect the various findings and analyze them.

The written testimony of government officials in favor of creating the NTSB put it this way: “There is no single official in the entire Government who is in a position to identify, study, and propose solutions to transportation problems.”

The NTSB was established to ask “why?” when an accident happened, and to ask “why not?” Why not improve regulations, training, or a certain aspect of the vehicle or the environment? Even in its infancy, NTSB reports included, as they do today, recommendations to prevent future accidents, often pointing industry and regulators toward a safer future. Although action on NTSB recommendations is purely voluntary, more than 80% of our recommendations are acted upon favorably.

However, like the CAB investigators of its immediate predecessor in aviation, the NTSB initially was part of a larger agency that also concerned itself with operations and regulations. Although NTSB independence has been spelled out since its inception, the Board still came under the purview of the Secretary of Transportation. This arrangement put the NTSB in the position of investigating actions of its own parent agency and its constituent modal administrations. In 1974, Congress passed the Independent Safety Board Act of 1974, which, effective April 1, 1975, made the NTSB independent of the DOT, removing any concern that the regulator was, effectively, investigating itself.

Since our inception, we can point to numerous improvements that the NTSB has recommended as the result of accident and crash investigations in aviation, marine, highway, railroad, and pipeline transportation. The NTSB’s work throughout our 50-year history is responsible for the transformational improvements that make transportation safer for all of us today. But, by design, we can only take partial credit for any such improvement. We have no authority to regulate: only to recommend.

So, in celebrating our 50th anniversary, we also celebrate those who read our investigations and recommendations, agreed with us, and made the improvements happen, as well as those who made things not happen. Together, we avoided preventable accidents. We saved lives that didn’t have to be lost in the first place. We kept property intact that did not have to be damaged, and prevented injuries that didn’t need to be sustained (and the medical costs and loss of productivity that go with them).

The transportation industry is focused on a future with zero accidents. The men and women of the NTSB are committed to this vision and will continue to investigate accidents and to make recommendations that will help future generations enjoy an era free from transportation accidents.

As new technologies and transportation fields come into existence—from autonomous vehicles to commercial space launches, and beyond—we look forward to the next 50 years of transportation safety improvements.

Women of the NTSB

By Robert L. Sumwalt

As Women’s History Month draws to a close, we at the NTSB reflect on the thousands of women who have made a profound impact on transportation—at the NTSB and in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors. The contributions women have made to advance transportation safety, currently and throughout America’s history, are immeasurable and indispensable.

This weekend will mark the 50th anniversary of the NTSB opening its doors, and women have played key roles in the agency since its inception. In 1969, Isabel Burgess was nominated to be the first female Board member. In 1974, Mary Wallace (“Wally”) Funk became the first woman given the official title of Air Safety Investigator at the Board. Throughout the NTSB’s history, there have been seven female Board Members and three female Chairmen of the Board. Kay Bailey (later Kay Bailey Hutchison), once Vice Chairman of the Board, went on to become a US senator from Texas, where she served as the ranking member on the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee. On a personal note, I had the pleasure of serving with our former Chairman, Debbie Hersman, who is now president and CEO of the National Safety Council.

Today, women make up 40% of the staff at the NTSB. There are 22 women working specifically on aviation safety issues. Nineteen women are in leadership roles as Member, directors, deputy directors, and supervisors.

The number of great accomplishments achieved by women at the NTSB and in the transportation industry is too great to attempt to tally. Women have been essential fibers in the fabric of the NTSB since day one, and they continue to make essential contributions. In addition to the women included in our administrative, human resources, and other support teams, the women who serve the NTSB as accident investigators, technical writers and editors, recommendation specialists, safety advocates, transportation disaster assistance specialists, recorder specialists, chemists, attorneys, and engineers ensure that the mission of this agency is fulfilled, day in and day out.

This month, and every month, the NTSB honors women in transportation and all the contributions they have made—and will continue to make—both within and outside the agency.