Tag Archives: Distraction



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.


What’s Changed About Distracted Driving? We Hope, At Least, You

By Robert L. Sumwalt

We’ve all seen it happen. . . We’re driving toward our destination, eyes on the road, when we notice a car in the lane next to ours start to drift slowly toward us. We adjust our own vehicle, then gradually slow down to allow for the erratic driver’s apparent need for access to both lanes. Then, through the other car’s rear window, we find out why it was unable to maintain its own lane: its driver was chatting away or attempting to text, rather than focusing on the task of driving.

But how many of us have used such a close call to adjust our own behavior toward distractions in the car? Are we doing enough to spread the word about the danger distractions pose? And how can we do it more effectively?

To kick off Distracted Driving Awareness Month last year, I had the privilege of hosting a roundtable discussion of national leaders in distraction research, transportation industry executives, and safety advocates. It was an unprecedented exchange of diverse viewpoints, but a few key takeaways emerged:

  • Eyes, hands, and mind on the road! Despite different methodologies, there is basic scientific agreement that cognitive distraction can degrade driving performance. Everybody understands that looking away or fiddling with gadgets increases risk – the problem is getting people to understand that even hands-free devices add driving risk too.
  • It’s worse than we thought – about four times worse. When we look at studies of distraction among teen drivers, we’re finding out that the national statistics attempting to show the prevalence of distraction is actually underreporting it by a factor of four.
  • (Temporarily) exiling digital natives. We need to train our children to make safe decisions, and to learn self-control so that the underlying behavior itself is changed. Technology can solve many problems with distraction, but consistently safe behavior remains critical.
  • Can safety sell in the state house? Many state legislators admit that voting to ban the use of personal electronic devices in private vehicles is such a political hot potato that they won’t do it, even when they recognize the associated safety risk.

As National Distracted Driving Awareness Month comes to an end this week, we have to ask ourselves – has anything changed?

Incredibly, four states still permit texting and driving. Only 14 states and DC have laws prohibiting handheld cell phones while driving. The political will to pass effective laws banning distracting technologies from our vehicles is still lacking, evidenced by the fact that no state has yet taken the step to prohibit all PED use while driving.

And, remember that car with the distracted driver creeping into your lane? Because they know the law does not punish their distracted driving with a penalty, they might continue their dangerous behavior until they – or you – pay a much higher price.

Legislators may not have the resolve to end distracted driving, but you can chose to end distracted driving.  Make the personal choice: don’t be a distracted driver, and don’t tolerate distracted driving by your children or friends.

This blog also appears on the National Safety Council (NSC) website.  NSC has received permission from the NTSB to reproduce it on the website.

Helping Build a Nation of Safe, Healthy Communities

By Dr. Mary Pat McKay

National Public health Week posterAs an Emergency Physician, it’s been my duty to break bad news to friends and family members who have raced to the emergency department after hearing that their loved one was in a motor vehicle crash. When I start speaking, their faces reflect a mix of hope and fear, but then grim, irrevocable grief dawns with the realization that their loved one died in the crash.

Although it was always there in the back of my mind, I left out the part where their loved one’s death was entirely preventable.

Today marks the start of Public Health Week, when the American Public Health Association brings together communities across the nation to recognize past public health contributions and to highlight present public health challenges.

There is no public health challenge more pressing than our nation’s epidemic of motor vehicle crash deaths. Public health is not only about disease outbreaks, contaminated drinking water, diet, exercise, or smoking cessation. It is also about preventing injuries and deaths in motor vehicle crashes, a leading cause of death for all Americans – and the leading cause of death for Americans from ages 5 to 24.

More than 30,000 of us die every year because of a motor vehicle crash.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 2.5 million Americans went to the emergency department —and nearly 200,000 were then hospitalized—for crash injuries in 2012.

In addition to the human suffering associated with hospitalization, disability, and lost productivity, there is a significant economic impact. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the economic cost of crash deaths and injuries in 2010 was more than $240 billion.

The numbers are still being counted, but motor vehicle crashes – and the deaths and injuries resulting from them – are increasing, with an increase of more than 10 percent expected for 2015. That’s potentially 3,000 more unnecessary deaths. I think that’s unacceptable and it makes it even more critical to focus on using proven interventions.

The same public health perspective that can eliminate a disease can one day eliminate our epidemic of crash deaths. Just as the solution to preventing many communicable diseases is washing your hands, there are equally simple and easy ways that you can personally prevent the epidemic of motor vehicle crash deaths and injuries.

First, wear your seat belt. On every ride, in every vehicle, no matter where you are sitting.

Using a seat belt is the easiest and simplest way to help prevent deaths and injuries when crashes happen.

The next way you can personally prevent motor vehicle crash deaths and injuries is by preventing the accident itself. Every year, the NTSB issues its Most Wanted List of transportation safety improvements. This year’s list features many of the behaviors that cause motor vehicle crashes—distraction, impairment, and fatigue – three behaviors you control.

Let me ask you a few questions. It’s all right, remember, I’m a doctor.

Have you ever fought sleep while behind the wheel of an automobile? How often have you gotten behind the wheel when you’ve been drinking? Do you take cell phone calls while driving? Do you know texting while driving is dangerous but do it anyway “because you’re so good at it”?

The fact is when you’re behind the wheel you need to be alert, awake, and attentive. Looking away for as little as two seconds puts you – and those around you – at risk of becoming a statistic.

Let me write you a few free prescriptions that just might save your life, or somebody else’s:

  • Don’t get behind the wheel if you’ve been drinking, no matter how much or how little.
  • When you’re driving, leave the phone alone, hands free calls included, and
  • No texting and driving. Ever. If you need to take or place a call, send a Tweet, reply to a text or check an email, pull over to a safe location, stop and park your vehicle, and then hammer out those 140 characters.

Advances in medicine have made diseases that killed millions a distant memory instead of a continuing reality. Treating the epidemic of crash related injuries and fatalities as the public health emergency that it is can help build a nation of safe, healthy communities. Take this doctor’s advice, and follow this prescription – the life you save may be your own.

Dr.Mary Pat McKay is the NTSB Chief Medical Officer.

Addressing Dangers on the Roads: This Is No April Fools!

By Robert L. Sumwalt

April is an important month for highway safety advocacy outreach. It’s a month where we—and many other government and safety advocacy groups—dramatically increase efforts to reduce crashes, injuries and fatalities by raising awareness about several issues: distracted driving, alcohol-impaired driving, teen driving safety, and public health issues as they relate to transportation. If the unfortunate increase in roadway deaths in the first nine months of 2015 is any indication of what’s to come, we must take decisive action now to improve road safety.

NTSB 2016 Most Wanted List image for issue: Disconnect from Deadly Distractions, photo collage of cell phone use, vehicle dashboard, airplane cockpit, ship bridge, train control

Today, April 1, marks the kickoff of National Distracted Driving Awareness Month and Alcohol Awareness Month. This month also features a National Public Health Awareness Week (April 4-10). Many states, such as California with its Teen Driver Safety Week, have also selected April to address the dangers associated with teen driving. The NTSB will be fully engaged in social media campaigns and other efforts to address the driving dangers highlighted by these awareness initiatives.

This time last year, I had the unique opportunity to lead a distraction roundtable with 40 of the leading transportation safety experts from around this nation. We all agreed that distraction is a growing and life-threatening problem in all modes of transportation; one year later, unfortunately, the threat from distraction continues to grow. To reduce crashes, injuries, and deaths, drivers and other operators must completely disconnect from an increasing variety of deadly distractions. To stop the epidemic on the roads, we all agreed that we need strong laws, good education, and visible enforcement.

Following last year’s roundtable, I posted several blogs highlighting the actions needed. For instance, in a blog about cognitive distraction and the hands-free myth, I talk about how many of us believe we can talk on a hands-free phone and remain engaged in the driving task. The science proves, however, that we can’t “multitask” and drive safely. (To view the transcript of the roundtable, visit http://www.ntsb.gov/news/events.)

To end the problem of distraction, we must collaborate. But, more importantly, we must take action. The National Safety Council recently, for example, announced an initiative for National Distracted Driving Awareness Month, called “Take Back Our Drive.” Their website highlights just why distracted driving and cell phone use is so dangerous, and offers resources for both employers and communities to help develop strategies and policies for combating distraction. In the end, we all have a responsibility to “Take Back Our Drive.”

I want to see my daughter and teens across the world live to see a year without a fatal motor vehicle crash. An increasing number of technological advances will help teens mitigate crashes, but today’s teens have to survive today’s driving environment by making smart choices and being informed about the dangers of driving. That’s why this month is so important for all of us to take a moment to spread the message and talk to our teens, with the following tips:

  • Do not drive distracted. Completely disconnect from an increasing variety of deadly distractions, such as Smartphones, tablets, hands-free devices and any other technology that doesn’t support the driving task.
  • Wear your seatbelt and require passengers to do the same. It is a fact that occupant restraints and protection systems save lives and reduce the number and severity injuries.
  • Don’t drink and drive – and don’t use any other impairing drugs and drive. Using alcohol or drugs while operating in transportation can be deadly – and drugs include not only recreational drugs, but also many over-the-counter and prescription medicines.

Many of us advocating for improvements in transportation safety know all too well that most requested improvements have been inspired by a life, a family, a community forever altered by a tragedy. To combat the epidemic of road fatalities will require more than just a speech, activity or event — it will require united actions from within the research/advocacy community, the law enforcement community and the legislative community. That’s why many transportation safety professionals will gather at the annual Lifesavers Conference in California next week. The goal is to learn the next steps to reducing roadway fatalities and how better to partner and share the important highway safety messages.

Impact Teen Drivers and California Highway Patrol will also kick off the month with a press conference at a high school in Inglewood, CA. Theirs are just a few of the many safety outreach events going on this month.

Improving highway safety cannot wait another day; it starts and ends with all of us. Let April be that month to fully engage. We are still seeing too many tragedies on the roadways … and that’s no April fools!

For more information on NTSB safety outreach efforts or to join our efforts, contact the Safety Advocacy Division: safetyadvocacy@ntsb.gov.

Emerging from Tragedy to Inspire Others to Disconnect

By Nicholas Worrell

Fletcher speaking to youth advocatesAs we go into Valentine’s weekend, where we give our love and commitment to our significant others, I wanted to share a story of a young man who has shown extraordinary love and commitment to his community and to young people across the United States. His gift is not roses or chocolates, but the gift of his story and the lessons he imparts.

Fletcher was a high-school athlete on the verge of entering college. He was fast, but not the fastest – so he developed moves that other guys didn’t have. He was strong but not the strongest – so he spent hour after hour in the gym developing his body. Time after time, Fletcher overcame obstacles and excelled, despite the odds, through sheer commitment.

Fletcher didn’t get the attention of the big colleges, but his combination of intensity, work ethic, and on-the-field flash landed him a football scholarship to attend Lambuth University in Jackson, Tennessee.

But all that hard work to play at the collegiate level was nothing compared to the challenges he would face next.

On September 10, 2009, as Fletcher was driving with a friend near his home, he was struck by an oncoming car driven by a distracted driver. Fletcher vaguely recalls the lights of the driver’s phone in her face before the horrific crash, which paralyzed him.

Fletcher speaking with teensLast year, I had the privilege of meeting Fletcher during the NTSB’s Youth Open House and Transportation Education Day, an event aimed at teaching teens about safer driving practices and empowering them to become advocates for safe driving. Motor vehicle crashes remain the number one killer of teens – even more than the toll of cancer, drugs, and violence. In the last decade, more than 2,000 teens have died every year in such crashes.

Fletcher eagerly accepted our invitation to tell his story about the impact of distracted driving. As he told his story to the rapt teens in the audience, I couldn’t help but be impressed by how that same commitment to become a great athlete – no matter his size and other obstacles – quickly reemerged again after his tragic accident and found a focus on teen education. Fletcher had doubled down, pouring all that same intensity and commitment into youth education – and being in a wheelchair didn’t hinder him in the least.

Through his story, he reminded the audience that driving safely prevents needless tragedies. Although technology and teens go hand in hand these days, he urged teens to put down the phones and avoid distractions while driving. While his plans for athletic glory had been tragically cut short, he told teens that they can pursue their dreams – and not to take risks that might remove that option from their future. His powerful story is told in a video from AT&T’s It Can Wait campaign, which was produced with an ESPN team.

Fletcher lost the use of his lower body because another driver was not disciplined enough to put down a portable electronic device while driving. That driver, sadly, was never caught and convicted. Yet, as he talked to teens at our open house about the dangers of distracted driving, Fletcher smiled.

He smiled because he has a new purpose. He smiled because, although he lost the use of his lower body, his mental toughness has increased two-fold. He has a new goal in life that saves lives. He’s still in the game and he knows it.

So this Valentine’s day, I encourage you to think of Fletcher and give a gift to your fellow mankind: when you’re behind the wheel, focus only on the task of driving. 

Nicholas Worrell is the Chief of the Safety Advocacy division

Chin Up…and Avoid Distraction!

By Vice Chairman T. Bella Dinh-Zarr, PhD, MPH

Vice Chairman Dinh-Zarr at the 3rd Annual Virginia Distracted Driving SummitLast week, I attended the 3rd Annual Virginia Distracted Driving Summit to share ideas, gather information, and learn about best practices related to the issue of distraction. It was an honor to be among these advocates and researchers, who are continually working on efforts to reduce the dangerous – and unhealthy – practice of distracted driving.

NTSB has been battling distraction for several years; it has been a contributing cause of accidents in all modes of transportation. The issue is on our Most Wanted List of transportation safety improvements and has been for the past few years. This issue is important to me, the NTSB, and the millions of people who share our roads.

My training is in public health and prevention is the cornerstone of this field. Public health professionals believe almost everything – from diseases to distraction – can be prevented if we can just figure out the cause and disseminate the treatment, whether that treatment is a vaccine or a behavior modification.

To prevent distraction, the culture of safety in the United States and across the world must be changed. Most people don’t think of being distracted as unhealthy. They think of it as simply a part of life. But it is unhealthy.

It is becoming harder and harder to disconnect from technology, because we have the means to stay connected with what’s going on each and every second of the day. Since the advent of the automobile, we have had to deal with the issue of distraction. Drivers felt distracted by windshield wipers, by the radio, by their passengers, and by many other things. Distraction is a complex issue and a difficult topic to tackle because its study (and its prevention) encompasses many factors – the road, the vehicle, and the person. There are so many ways we can tackle this problem – work environment, laws and enforcement, behavior change, technology, safety culture, to name a few. It is also an issue that has affected many people, including myself.

In late 1996, in Houston, I was involved in a crash caused by a distracted driver. It was a morning I’ll never forget.

I was driving down Almeda Road in Houston, Texas, on my way to the Texas Medical Center to turn in my thesis for my Master’s degree in public health, when a distracted driver coming out of the dry cleaners attempted to cross the road and crashed into my vehicle and another vehicle, sending me and another woman to the emergency room.

Because of that crash, I had six months of physical therapy due to injuries to my neck, shoulder, and back. These areas still flare up today.

Why was the gentleman distracted that day? Because he was trying to adjust the radio. When I later learned that I was enduring hours of painful physical therapy every week because someone was adjusting his radio, I was mad. And there are many families today who are mad, but they have found a way to channel those emotions towards efforts to reduce distractions in transportation. At the Summit, I had the honor of meeting some of these families who have become strong advocates against distracted driving.

Looking back, I realize just how lucky I was that day in Houston – lucky because the crash was not as severe as it could have been and lucky because the first responders were there quickly.

I walk or ride my bicycle almost every day – taking turns with my husband to take our son to school or pick him up. Lately, I’ve been hearing the young people in my neighborhood say “chin up” to people who are walking on the sidewalk with their heads down absorbed in their electronic devices. My 7-year-old son loves that saying, and, when we are on our bikes waiting to cross a street, he has even tried to say it to people in their car at a stop who have their heads down.

Chin up – it is a reminder to people to lift their heads, disconnect from whatever the distraction might be, and pay attention to the world around them when sharing a sidewalk or the roads. Chin up – it is also a reminder to traffic safety researchers and advocates to keep up the important work of finding the best, evidence-based interventions and then implementing them widely to keep our communities safe.

Chin up and disconnect from those deadly distractions. Chin up to save lives and prevent injuries.

Protect Your Business, By Protecting Your Employees

By Robert L. Sumwalt

MWL 2015 - Disconnect from Deadly DistractionsAs we approach the end of Distracted Driving Awareness Month, we recognize that today, April 28th, is World Day for Safety and Health at Work. This date provides us an opportunity to focus on the unique challenges of the phenomenon of distracted driving in the workplace. As we heard at last month’s NTSB Disconnect from Deadly Distractions Roundtable, the growing threat of on-the-job distracted driving has created a legal minefield for unsuspecting, and unprepared, employers.

Sound far-fetched? Think again. Back in 2002, a major investment banking firm was sued by the estate of a motorcyclist who was struck and killed by a firm employee using his cell phone behind the wheel. Although the accident occurred on a Saturday night – not during work hours – and the employee was using his own cell phone in his own car, he had been cold-calling clients of the firm when he struck the motorcyclist. In another case, a driver was seriously injured when a Georgia construction company worker tried to check voicemail on a hands-free, dash-mounted cell phone and caused an accident. The construction company settled the case for $4.75 million. Even more recently, in 2012, a Texas jury awarded $24 million to a woman whose car was struck by a soft drink delivery driver using her cell phone at time of the accident.

Employers – especially small business owners – can be one distracted accident away from potential financial ruin. How can employers protect themselves, and their employees? They can protect both by implementing and reinforcing policies that ban personal electronic device (PED) usage behind the wheel while on company business.

PED_Policy_posterAt the NTSB, we’re walking that particular walk. Since 2009, we have had an agency-wide policy to prohibit employee use of PEDs while on NTSB business. Even when driving in our own vehicles, on our own time, we cannot use agency-issued PEDs behind the wheel. It was a difficult transition for many, but the result has been to set an example for safety we hope employers across the nation will emulate.

Organizations like the National Safety Council (NSC) have already made it easier for companies to follow our example. In addition to its white paper examining potential employer liability for distracted driving by employees, the NSC has developed a cell phone policy kit ready-made to empower businesses to implement safer PED use policies.

At its core, the movement behind Distracted Driving Awareness Month is intended not only to raise awareness about the dangers posed by divided attention behind the wheel, but also to prompt action to stop it. Through the creation of sound cell phone use policies, employers are uniquely situated to effect this kind of real and immediate change in employee behavior – change that can carry over into employees’ personal lives, as well. Once employees are freed from the nagging demands on their attention by cell phones in their company cars, they may very well choose to put down their PEDs in their own vehicles.

Working to end distracted driving on behalf of your employees protects your workforce, protects the traveling public, and protects your bottom line. It just makes sense. Disconnect from deadly distractions.