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Teens Doing Their Part in The Fight For Road Safety

By Nicholas Worrell

Every day teens get behind the wheel for the first time. And seemingly every day, new portable electronic devices come on the market, adding to the possibility of driver distraction.

Nicholas Worrell with attendees at the Dori Slosberg Foundation’s Teen Driving SummitThis was one of the messages I carried to young people from across Florida on March 11 at the Dori Slosberg Foundation’s Teen Driving Summit in Tallahassee.

I emphasized that motor vehicle accidents are the number-one killer of youth ages 15-19. In the last decade, nationwide, we have lost more than 50,000 teenagers in motor vehicle crashes. That’s the 15-19 year-old population of Tallahassee, Florida – plus three additional similar cities.

Substance-impaired, fatigued, and distracted driving all contribute to this state of affairs. In the past decade, portable electronic devices have proliferated, presenting new ways to take the driver’s attention off the road. I told these young drivers that one step toward safer roads must be to Disconnect from Deadly Distractions.

Not all distractions are new: Rambunctious passengers, eating fast food behind the wheel, and gawking at extraneous sights outside the vehicle can distract drivers as well. But new hand-held, hands-free, and in-vehicle electronics have exploded in popularity, posing new hazards for all drivers, particularly young drivers.

I told the audience that while they are connected to the world like no generation before, this ubiquitous connectivity – when it is not related to the driving task – can take lives. But I also stressed that outside of the vehicle, this same connectivity may give new safety advocates new ways to spread the word about safer driving. They can instantly share potentially life-saving knowledge with vast informal networks of like-minded teens.

One such piece of information I shared is that drivers can be cognitively distracted even when their eyes are on the road and their hands are on the wheel. Hands-free is not risk free; even hands-free cell phone calls introduce cognitive distraction. I shared some examples and some other information with the audience, and then encouraged them to share the information.

Today’s adults remember a time before smart-phones. It falls on us to model responsible behavior to our kids, by disconnecting from deadly distractions while driving. It is our job to teach the next generation of drivers that the only thing they should connect to while driving is the driving task.

By the same token, the next generation shares in the challenge of making alert driving a cultural norm. Every driver should be well-rested, unimpaired by drugs or alcohol, and focused on the driving task.

Such a cultural change will take a protracted, concerted effort. It will take our youth speaking up when they see a peer driving unsafely in any way, and it will take adults modeling safe driving behavior.

The road to zero highway deaths is a long one, perhaps generations-long. Education, laws, and high-visibility enforcement all have their place in “reaching zero.” But with teens like the ones I met in Florida on-board, I believe it can be done.

Whoever saves one life . . .

By Danielle Roeber

To-do list: improve transportation safetyThere’s a scene in the last season of the TV series, “The West Wing” when the outgoing President’s Chief of Staff is offered $10 billion to “attack” a single problem that would have a substantive impact. She names highways, explaining that 9 out of 10 African aid projects fail because the people and resources can’t get to the people in need. The philanthropist’s initial reaction – less than excited. Transportation, particularly transportation safety, simply isn’t a sexy issue; “no one will ever raise money for it.”

That’s unfortunate. Before there was an information super highway, there was the real highway. And planes, trains, ships – all of which we still use today to visit loved ones, connect with business partners, and get away from it all on vacations. When that transportation system breaks down in a plane accident, train collision, or highway crash, it can be disruptive to the economy and society. It can make people cautious. Anxiety about flying goes up immediately after a plane crash. Here in DC, people were a little more nervous getting on the Metro after the 2009 collision outside Fort Totten station. But it doesn’t take very long for most people to forget these events and return to their normal activities. Why? Because they accept that the U.S. transportation system is generally safe.

Victims and families don’t forget, though. And neither do transportation safety professionals. We understand that highway crashes are a leading cause of death, particularly for younger people. We know that many more people are killed or injured in private plane crashes than in the dramatic commercial airline crashes that catch the attention of the nightly news. We can tell you just how things can go horribly wrong in an instant, shattering lives and necessitating critical, sometimes costly, changes. And unlike most of the population, we know what it takes to make the transportation system safe:

  • Placing safety at the top of the transportation operations priority list;
  • Dedicating time, energy, and resources to education, regulation, and enforcement;
  • Investing in innovation and technology that can aid, and sometimes correct for, human behavior;
  • Giving transportation safety the public, political, and policy attention that it deserves.

When I finished school more than 16 years ago, I sought a Federal government position. I wanted to serve my country, make a difference. For the last 13 years, I’ve done that by working at the National Transportation Safety Board. No, I didn’t seek a transportation safety career when I graduated; as The West Wing points out, transportation didn’t sound like an exciting career. I guess transportation safety chose me. It’s been a quiet, behind-the-scenes kind of service. And neither I nor my colleagues and other transportation safety professionals will ever know who didn’t crash, get injured, or die because of the work we’ve done. In some ways, this is one of the noblest professions. We work hard to “attack” the single problem of transportation safety, where we’re needed, whether or not anyone knows about it. We do so because we know that each life saved is worth it.

Today is my last day with the NTSB but transportation safety remains a part of me, and I will continue to work in this field. My vantage point may change, but not my admiration for the NTSB nor my commitment to transportation safety.

Danielle Roeber served as the Chief of NTSB’s Safety Advocacy Division.

Cultivating Safe Ag Operations

By Earl F. Weener, PhD

ag operationsWe’re about a month away from summer, and the local farmers’ markets are springing up with all that fresh produce. Nothing like eating fresh strawberries delivered straight from the farm. Soon, I’ll be able to add local cucumbers, peppers, and onions to my salad. In order to bring produce to market, farms often rely on agricultural aviation (ag operations), the use of airplanes and helicopters for dispensing materials such as fertilizers, seeds, and crop protection products that directly affect agriculture and horticulture.

The dangers inherent in agricultural aviation are real. In recent years, ag operations have ranked sixth or seventh among general aviation (GA) sectors in terms of hours flown. However, in terms of total number of annual accidents, the ag operations sector has ranked third, and its 10-year average total accident rate is above the 10-year average total GA accident rate. So when ag operations is your job, you can use all the safety information you can get.

Yesterday, the NTSB released its Special Investigation Report on the Safety of Agricultural Aircraft Operations. For this report, we reviewed 78 accidents in agricultural aviation that happened in 2013, and identified a number of critical safety issues, including fatigue, risk management, inadequate aircraft maintenance, and pilot knowledge and skills tests.

During our investigation of this unique and challenging GA sector, we interviewed ag pilots who were in accidents, providing eye-opening insights in how accidents can occur. For example, one said that his accident could have been prevented “by not attempting to finish a small area to meet perceived customer demand.” Ag pilots and operators also acknowledged that during the peak ag operations season, they often work from sun up to sun down and that the length of their work days and work weeks can be weather-dependent. Factors such as fog, low clouds, wind, and rain can limit flying on one day, increasing the amount of work still left to complete when the weather is favorable. And when conducting those long operations, ag pilots may have to deal with dehydration, hunger, and other factors that can affect concentration, decision-making, and performance.

Meanwhile, ag pilots have to be mindful of the requirements specific to the product that they are applying, considering the height appropriate for the application, restrictions due to nearby sensitive areas, and requirements for buffer zones. When those operations occur at night, it can be particularly problematic. One accident we investigated involved a pilot who was flying at night in a rural area with few ground lights when he focused his attention on a map in an effort to locate the correct field to spray. While focusing on directions, the airplane descended unnoticed and crashed. The pilot stated that the map was of poor quality and he was having difficulty interpreting it.

Yesterday, the NTSB held a meeting with agricultural industry leaders to discuss our report findings. We want to engage all constituencies in spreading the word about our findings and our recommendations to make ag operations safer. In conjunction with this report, we have also issued a safety alert, Preventing Obstacle Collision Accidents in Agricultural Aviation, to address one of the most common types of agricultural aircraft accidents.

According to the National Agricultural Aviation Association, the agricultural aviation industry is made up of small businesses that use aircraft to aid farmers in producing safe, affordable and abundant supply of food, fiber and bio-fuel, in addition to protecting forestry and controlling health-threatening pests. That’s a good mission, one from which we all benefit. The NTSB wants to make sure that those pilots and operators carrying out that mission return safely to their families and friends when their day ends.

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

Positive Train Control Saves Lives

By Robert Sumwalt

NTSB Most Wanted List 2014 - Implement Positive Train Control
NTSB Most Wanted List 2014 – Implement Positive Train Control

Today I had the honor of representing the NTSB at a hearing before the Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials in the U.S. House of Representatives.  The topic of the hearing was passenger and freight rail safety, an issue of the utmost importance to the NTSB.  My testimony emphasized that any comprehensive approach to improving rail safety must include Positive Train Control, also called PTC.

PTC is designed to protect trains from human error. If an engineer attempts to operate past a red signal or operate too fast, a PTC system intervenes by stopping the train before a crash or derailment occurs. Simply put, widely-implemented PTC has the potential to prevent crashes and save lives.

Sadly, there are many real-world examples that demonstrate the need for PTC.  For example, in September 2008, a Metrolink commuter train collided head-on with a Union Pacific freight train in Chatsworth, California. Twenty-five people were killed in that crash, and more than 100 more were injured. The NTSB’s investigation revealed that the engineer was texting while operating the train. He ran past a red stop signal and crashed into an oncoming train. The NTSB determined that PTC would have prevented this deadly crash.

In the aftermath of that tragedy, Congress enacted the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008. The Act requires each Class 1 rail carrier and each provider of regularly-scheduled intercity or commuter rail passenger service to implement a PTC system by December 31, 2015.  I’m pleased to report that progress is being made toward this lifesaving goal.  Just last week, Metrolink became the first commuter rail system to implement PTC, when it began a revenue service demonstration under the authority of BNSF Railroad. While this is just a demonstration project, it certainly is a start in the right direction. Metrolink reports it will be implementing PTC fully throughout its entire system before the Congressionally-mandated deadline.  

Earlier this month, I visited a large Class 1 freight railroad to get an update on their progress toward implementing PTC. I walked away from that meeting believing this railroad is firmly committed to the project. That one company alone has invested more than $1 billion in PTC, adding over 1000 workers to devote to the project, beginning the enormous effort of retrofitting locomotives, training train and track maintenance crews, installing trackside equipment, and developing elaborate computer networks to allow PTC to work. In spite of the commitment by this railroad and others, however, an August 2013 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report to the U.S. Senate indicated that the majority of railroads will not complete PTC implementation by the 2015 deadline.  There has even been talk of extending the deadline, despite the seven year timeline provided by the original law.

As I noted in my testimony today, while NTSB commends the enormous and costly implementation efforts being made by many, we realize that for each day that goes by without PTC, the risk of more PTC-preventable accidents remains. That point was driven home again on December 1, 2013, when a Metro-North commuter train derailed in the Bronx, killing four people and injured dozens of others. While the exact cause of the accident is still under investigation, we do know the train entered a curve at approximately 82 mph, where the maximum authorized speed was 30 mph — in other words, something that PTC would prevent.

It is because of our investigations of accidents like this – and 24 others in the past decade that could have been prevented by PTC – that the NTSB would be disappointed by any delay in PTC implementation.  Implementation of PTC is needed now, not later.  Lives depend on it.

Buckle Up!

By Debbie Hersman

clickitlogo.jpgDespite all of the modern safety technology in automobiles today, the single greatest defense against injury and death in the event of a crash still remains the humble seat belt.

In 1993, then North Carolina Governor Jim Hunt launched the Click it or Ticket campaign. It was the first statewide occupant protection campaign in the U.S. The program combined 3,000 enforcement checkpoints, paid advertising and media awareness. During the enforcement crackdown, more than 58,000 citations were issued for seat belt violations and by 1994 North Carolina’s seat belt use for drivers rose from 65 percent to 81 percent.

20 years later, Click It or Ticket has become a national enforcement effort designed to crack down on the non-use of seat belt and to reduce highway deaths and injuries. Today, Click It or Ticket mobilizations are conducted annually by law enforcement agencies, state highway safety offices and traffic safety advocates around the nation, with National Highway Traffic Safety Administration support and $8 million in funding from Congress.

Since the launch of this innovative program, the national seat belt use rate has risen from 58 percent to 86 percent, and hundreds of thousands of lives have been saved and injuries prevented. But, there is still work to be done. In 2011, 52 percent of the more than 21,000 people killed in motor vehicle crashes were not wearing a seat belt.

So remember, day or night, buckle yourself and your passengers up every time you go out.

Distraction is in the Head, Not the Hands

MunfordvilleBy Debbie Hersman

In the early morning hours of March 26, 2010, a van carrying 12 people bound for a wedding in Iowa was traveling northbound on I-65 when a tractor-trailer crossed the highway median and collided with it nearly head-on. Ten people in the van and the truck driver were killed, making it the worst crash in Kentucky in more than two decades.

The NTSB found that the truck driver lost control of his vehicle after becoming distracted by the use of his cell phone. While it could not be determined whether the driver was holding his phone or using it in a hands-free mode, numerous studies have shown that the crash risk between hand-held and hands-free conversations is almost identical.

That’s why in 2011, the NTSB recommended that the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration prohibit commercial drivers from using a cell phone while operating a commercial vehicle. The FMCSA did take steps to ban texting and the use of handheld devices when driving. However, the same restrictions are not applied to hands-free devices, based on FMCSA’s determination that hands-free operations are not a safety risk.

Studies and accident investigations tell a very different story. Just yesterday, another study on cognitive distraction was released, which found “significant impairments to driving from the diversion of attention.” That research, conducted by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, rated the use of hands-free and hand-held cell phones as almost equal sources of cognitive distraction.

The NTSB saw just that in its investigation of a motorcoach accident when a cognitively distracted driver using a hands-free cell phone collided with the underside of a bridge overpass in Virginia after failing to notice clearly visible low-clearance signs. Not only did he miss the signs, he said he didn’t even see the bridge.

The evidence is clear: Distraction is in the head, not the hands.

Distracted Driving: Awareness and Prevention


By Debbie Hersman

Erica Forney, from Fort Collins, Colo., should be 13-years-old now. She might be wearing braces, playing sports, gossiping with girlfriends and looking forward to and maybe also worrying about going to high school next year.

None of that will happen for Erica. She was killed in November 2008. She was 9 and riding her bike home from school. A driver, looking down at her cell-phone, never saw the child in her path.

Today, Erica is remembered by her family and friends, and also by the month of April, which is National Distracted Driving Awareness Month. Former Rep. Betsy Markey (D-CO) introduced a resolution designating the month and dedicated it to Erica Forney. The House of Representatives passed the resolution 410-2 on March 23, 2010.

This April marks the third year for National Distracted Driving Awareness Month, which is growing in importance. A recent report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that nearly 70 percent of Americans ages 18 – 64 report talking on their phones while driving in the past 30 days. About 30 percent say they texted while driving.

For years, the NTSB has seen how deadly distraction can be across all modes of transportation, but it’s on our highways where distraction claims the greatest number of lives. After investigating a crash where a pickup driver sent and received 11 texts in the 11 minutes before he ran into a truck triggering collisions that killed two and injured 38, the NTSB called for a nationwide ban on the use of personal electronic devices. This year, we put Eliminate Distraction in Transportation on our Most Wanted List.

Putting attention back in the driver’s seat requires information and outreach, like Distracted Driver Awareness Month. It also requires good laws and strong enforcement. It’s at the state level where crucial traffic safety legislation is enacted, such as the seat-belt laws that have helped save hundreds of thousands of lives. As for distraction laws, ten states and the District of Columbia ban all drivers from using handheld cell phones while driving; 39 states and the District of Columbia ban text messaging for all drivers.

Here are two web sites where you check out where your state stands on distraction and safety:

Governors Highway Safety Association

National Safety Council

And, here are two ways to make our roads safer and save lives: Drive safely every trip by putting away your portable electronic devices and get involved.