Category Archives: Uncategorized

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.

Technology Creates 3-D Record of Accident Scene

Laser ScanBy Joseph Kolly

A laser scene scanner is only the latest example of a technology being used by NTSB accident investigators. Laser scanning brings virtual reality into our investigations. Whereas “old-fashioned” photography can accurately depict an accident scene or vehicle in two dimensions, laser scanning can accurately depict that same scene in three dimensions.

NTSB investigators within the office of Research and Engineering record three-dimensional data of accident objects by placing the laser scene scanner on a tripod, where the scanner will rotate 360 degrees. While automatically rotating to investigate its entire surrounding environment, the scanner emits a laser beam out to a range of about 300 feet. By keeping track of its position and orientation and measuring the time it takes for the laser beam to reflect off objects, the scanner can create a three-dimensional view of its surroundings.

The scanner cannot capture an image of the backside of any object. To completely capture scenes, NTSB engineers use special targets and place the scanner in various positions of a scene to capture multiple scans. NTSB engineers then stitch together the multiple scans to create a complete three-dimensional representation of a vehicle or accident scene, such as long sections of highway or railway. NTSB engineers can precisely measure tire skid marks, deformations in damaged vehicles, and other important features from accidents.

Three-dimensional data obtained from a laser scene scanner also can be used to create full-color still images and computer simulations. Computer simulations created from data recorded by laser scene scanners are particularly helpful to replicate the accident environment back to the NTSB’s state-of-the-art laboratories in Washington. Imagine yourself within a movie set and placing a camera anywhere in the scene to view objects. With a computer simulation, you can observe an accident scene from any available vantage point and “walk” through an accident scene by moving the camera through the environment. These simulations can be used to study the accident environment as seen by an operator of a vehicle before or during an accident.

The laser scanner is just one piece of technology necessary to fully support accident investigations that lead to improvements in transportation safety for the public.

Joseph Kolly is Director of the Office of Research and Engineering

The Importance of Transportation Infrastructure

By Debbie Hersman

Today, I was scheduled to speak at a rail conference in New York City. However, like so many other travelers, my plans changed in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, with rampant power failures, flooded subway tunnels and cancelled flights at the region’s airports. For many people in the northeast hardest hit by the powerful storm, homes were damaged, belongings were destroyed and most tragic of all, lives have been lost. For millions of others, this has been a week of remembering the basic services and infrastructure that all too often, are taken for granted. Watching the news reports of New Yorkers coping without so much of their transportation infrastructure has been a powerful reminder of its importance.

Transportation does more than get us to and from work. It is the backbone of our economy. Transportation gets goods to market and gets us to markets to get the goods. It keeps us connected with friends and family. It makes us mobile, which adds to our quality of life. At the NTSB, we are very familiar with examining low-probability, high-consequence events that affect the travelling public. Events such as this, like our accident investigations, provide opportunities to evaluate, assess and identify improvements to prevent or minimize damage in future catastrophes.

Looking beyond the super storm and New York City, our nation relies on transportation infrastructure that includes some 600,000 bridges, nearly 4 million miles of public roads, 2.6 million miles of oil and gas pipelines, 120,000 miles of major railroads, and more than 25,000 miles of commercially navigable waterways. All of it is important and all of it needs to be maintained to ensure safety.

My hat is off to all the local, regional and national transportation leaders who do such much to build, maintain and, as we’re seeing after the super storm, to rebuild transportation infrastructure.

Seamanship: More than the Job Description

By Captain James Scheffer

When you were first learning to drive a car, chances are that someone told you about the merits of defensive driving. Know where another car is, be prepared to react to anything, always be wary: these helpful tips have been passed down from generation to generation. These principles are also extremely pertinent on our nation’s waterways. Nothing highlights this better than the recent collision between the Elka Apollon and the MSC Nederland.

This collision occurred in one of the busiest waterways in the country: the Houston Ship Channel in Texas. The tank ship Elka Apollon collided with the containership MSC Nederland. Thankfully, there were no injuries but the collision caused $2.8 million in damages.

Our investigation into the collision determined that it was entirely preventable. The collision was caused by the failure of the pilot of the Elka Apollon to respond to changes in bank effect forces, which directed the vessel across the channel and into the MSC Nederland. The pilot was not “driving defensively.” He misjudged the situation, and paid for it.

This defensive driving on the waterways has a name: seamanship. While the dictionary definition is “knowledge and skill pertaining to the operation, navigation, management, safety, and maintenance of a ship,” seamanship is so much more than this. If a pilot isn’t constantly vigilant about his or her surroundings, then millions in damage is probably the best that pilot could hope for; the worst could be the loss of human life.

Here are some tips and techniques that every mariner should use when at the helm:

• Keep a sharp ‘seaman’s eye’ by taking advantage of all navigational equipment and avoid distractions;

• Always anticipate future actions – course and speed changes, rudder commands, and using clear ship to ship communications when meeting and overtaking marine traffic;

• Know your position and anticipate future track in all situations; always have an alternate plan including emergency shiphandling skills to avoid a casualty; and

• Take actions needed to reduce risks such as confirming all equipment and machinery is in operational order, ensuring that all watch standers are well rested, and when possible, avoiding piloting in reduced visibility.

To sum it up, marine pilots, just like every day motor vehicle drivers, need to be prepared for anything.

Captain Scheffer is a Chief in the NTSB’s Office of Marine Safety. He spent 25 years in the merchant marines, 16 years as a master and is an expert accident investigator.