Every year, more than 3,000 people are killed—and 100 times more than that are injured—in accidents caused by distracted drivers. Whether the distraction is due to a driver using a hand-held personal electronic device or engaging in a wide range of other activities that take a driver’s attention off the road, the number of crashes, injuries, and fatalities resulting from distraction is on the rise. It will take a concerted effort by lawmakers, law enforcers, and transportation safety advocates to end this deadly trend.
This year marks the ninth time that the NTSB has included “eliminate distractions while driving” on its Most Wanted List (MWL) of transportation safety improvements. Although it’s not a new issue, ending deadly distractions in all modes of transportation is again on our signature priority list because it is one of the most critical issues facing the traveling public today.
More must be done to raise awareness about this issue, which has appeared on the MWL for far too long. To that end, the NTSB, in partnership with StopDistractions.org, will host a roundtable, titled “Act to End Deadly Distractions”—its second such event in 25 months aimed at shedding light on the issue of distracted driving and focusing on practical and measurable solutions to this growing problem. This upcoming roundtable will build off the momentum from our first distraction roundtable in March 2015, and will examine existing public policy and laws in several states that have reduced the number of crashes attributed to distraction. Our panel of participants will highlight ways that advocates and community influencers can work with law enforcement to continue to ensure distracted driving laws are enforced consistently. And, perhaps most importantly, victims’ families will speak about how they’ve been affected by these preventable crashes.
I have the pleasure of hosting this year’s event, which will be held on Wednesday, April 26, 2017, from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. in the NTSB Conference Center in Washington, DC. More details can be found at the Act to End Deadly Distractions Roundtable webpage. The roundtable is open to the public and will be live streamed on the Web.
April is Distracted Driving Awareness Month and May is Global Youth Traffic Safety Month; this roundtable comes at the perfect time to raise awareness and spur action toward eliminating distraction.
One fatality due to a distracted driver is one too many. We know what it will take to eliminate these tragedies, and we are confident that the upcoming roundtable will be a step that direction.
Reporters always ask us about it during high-profile aviation and rail investigations. After the sinking of the El Faro cargo ship during Hurricane Joaquin, the news media closely followed the recovery of the voyage data recorder, which was located in about 15,000 feet of water.
The black box, which is usually orange with reflective tape to make it easier to locate in wreckage, can be critical to our investigations at the NTSB. These devices can withstand enormous impact forces, intense temperatures, and the extreme pressures of ocean depths. Recorders capture a range of useful data, from crewmembers’ actions and conversations to vehicle parameters. We use these data to help identify the cause of an accident and to make recommendations to prevent such accidents from happening in the future. Industry can also use this information to make transportation safer.
We analyze recorder information in all modes of transportation. We transcribe audio from cockpit voice recorders and extract information from flight data recorders on aircraft. We review voyage data recorders that provide ship data, bridge audio, and radar images on vessels. We assess information from event recorders and forward- and inward-facing video recorders on trains. We analyze a variety of recorders and cameras that provide performance information on highway vehicles. No matter what type of recorder we encounter, we are required by law to protect the information obtained for our investigations.
Although the NTSB uses recorders to learn from one tragedy to prevent future ones, industry and operators can install recorders and develop programs to learn lessons from normal operations.
The NTSB urges the transportation industry to install recorders in their vehicles, vessels, trains, and aircraft, and to assess the data collected from them to prevent accidents and assess operator performance. Industry can use information from data, audio, and video recorders to identify issues of operational weakness or noncompliance with procedures. Airlines use the data they gather in everyday line operations through flight operational quality assurance (FOQA) programs to prevent accidents from occurring in the first place. Although most large aircraft are already required to have flight data and cockpit voice recorders, we have also recommended that they have cockpit video recording systems, and we have recommended that certain small aircraft that are not required to have recorders be required to carry recording devices that capture data. For smaller aircraft, recorders can provide crucial accident data, and they can also be a vital part of flight data management programs.
We appreciate the special value of data from video recorders, and that’s why many of our recent recommendations to regulators and operators propose that video recorders be installed to capture operator and crew behavior. Currently, investigators have no access to the visual information from an accident sequence. Although we can piece together key events in an airplane accident from cockpit audio and flight data, with video we have access to nonverbal communications and cockpit instrument manipulation. In fact, our NTSB scientists have even written software that reads needle positions and creates valuable data tables based on cockpit images! Reconstructing the accident sequence without video evidence requires additional time and effort—possibly delaying critical safety improvements.
What can be learned when inward-facing video is available? The answer is apparent from our 2014 investigation of the mid-air breakup of SpaceShipTwo during a test flight. SpaceShipTwo was equipped with data recorders, including video recorders to document the flight test. Because of those video images, the NTSB was able to identify quickly (by the second day of the on-scene investigation) that the co-pilot moved a lever at an inappropriate time, which ultimately resulted in the crash.
It is indisputable that we can make transportation safer by using information obtained from recorders. That’s why “Expand Recorder Use to Enhance Safety” is on the NTSB’s Most Wanted List of transportation safety improvements. And that’s why we urge transportation operators to install this important safety technology as soon as possible.
As a public health professional, I have spent my career working in the United States and internationally to prevent injuries and deaths. At the NTSB, one of my primary roles is to advocate for the changes needed to prevent transportation accidents.
Significant advancements have been made to improve the safety of occupants in the front seats of passenger vehicles, including the development of advanced restraint and airbag systems, safer seat designs, and structural improvements to minimize injury due to intrusion. Today, 32 states have adopted legislation that requires front-seat passengers to use a seat belt, and we can celebrate that we have achieved a national daytime average seat-belt-use rate of 90 percent for front-seat passengers.
But what about rear seats? We have not seen similar technology advances in rear seats, and research shows that rear seat belt use is considerably lower, at 83 percent. How can research, engineering, and advocacy make an impact in increasing rear seat belt use?
In 2015, after decades of decline, the United States experienced the largest increase in motor vehicle crashes and resulting deaths. Another historic increase is expected for 2016. In examining such a complex issue, we at the NTSB found ourselves asking the following: why aren’t people buckling up when they sit in the rear seat, and how can research, engineering, and advocacy increase rear seat belt use?
To answer these questions, we reached out to occupant protection experts drawn from the auto industry, the research community, safety advocates, and the government to participate in a workshop to help us find ways to strengthen occupant protection in the rear seat of passenger vehicles.
During the workshop, we discussed the current knowledge about rear seat occupants in motor vehicle crashes, and how these occupants utilize existing vehicle safety systems, such as seat belts. We examined how the rear seat environment is different from the front, both in design and user demographics. The workshop also addressed advanced vehicle and emerging seat belt technologies, innovative seat designs, as well as areas of needed research and education.
Our workshop was designed to allow the sharing of experience and knowledge, as well as to encourage participants to collaborate on inventive strategies. As a result, in the detailed summary we are publishing today, participants identified short- and long-term goals that will require a greater amount of collaboration, engineering, design, and advocacy to achieve.
Together with researchers, automobile manufacturers, legislators, regulators, and safety advocates, we are identifying practical, real-world applications and opportunities to make rear seats safer for everyone.
There is no place for a fire on an airplane. And if there is a fire, it should not overwhelm fire-suppression equipment.
Here is another no-brainer: lightweight, portable energy is necessary for our modern way of life. Smartphones, laptops, power tools, and even some vehicles depend on lithium batteries. The ubiquitous nature of these modern electronic devices has, in turn, increased the need to ship the batteries that power them.
The same high-energy density that makes lithium batteries such a great way to store electricity can also introduce a fire hazard. A fault in the battery, such as a flaw in the manufacturing process, can cause a fire. Even if a fire starts elsewhere, a lithium battery makes for formidable fuel. When a fire spreads from cell to cell within a lithium-ion battery, it can burn at 1,100 degrees Fahrenheit.
While international air regulations prohibit bulk shipment of lithium batteries on passenger airplanes, the NTSB investigated one cargo aircraft fire in the U.S., and we participated in two foreign-led accident investigations of cargo aircraft where lithium battery fires were suspected.
In late 2010, UPS flight 006 crashed minutes after takeoff from Dubai, UAE. The crew reported an onboard fire but was unable to land their 747 before fire consumed the aircraft. Both crewmembers lost their lives, and the aircraft and cargo was destroyed. The investigation found that a large fire that developed in palletized cargo on the main deck caused the crash. This cargo consisted of consignments of mixed cargo that included a significant number of lithium-type batteries and other combustible materials. The fire escalated rapidly into a catastrophic uncontained fire. The hazardous smoke and fumes entered the cockpit and upper deck simultaneously, obscuring the crew’s view and creating a toxic environment.
Ten months later, Asiana Airlines flight 991, a 747 cargo flight, crashed on its way from Incheon, South Korea, to Shanghai, China. The two pilots on board the aircraft died. The NTSB assisted Korea’s Aviation and Railway Accident Investigation Board (ARAIB) in investigating the crash. The ARAIB determined that a cargo fire that developed on or near two pallets containing dangerous goods (hazardous materials), including hybrid-electric vehicle lithium-ion batteries and flammable liquids, caused the crash. The ARAIB could not pinpoint the cause of the fire, but it determined that the flammable materials and lithium-ion batteries that were loaded together were a contributing factor.
This year, we recommended that the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) take action in response to the 2011 crash. We asked PHMSA to take the following steps:
PHMSA has suggested other actions that could also meet our intent. Whatever solution
PHMSA develops, U.S. aviation cannot ignore this potential hazard.
Thankfully, lithium battery failures are rare, and new research and meaningful efforts are underway to make them rarer still. On April 11 and 12, 2013, we conducted a public forum on lithium battery safety. Since then, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), in conjunction with the Commercial Aviation Safety Team, has established a joint government–industry working group. The group is developing ways to make lithium battery fires less likely in aviation and to reduce the consequences in case they do occur.
We have issued several other lithium battery-related safety recommendations to the FAA and PHMSA encouraging them to share critical safety lessons learned, implement mitigations, and conduct research into safety improvements. Other NTSB recommendations about the certification and testing of lithium batteries aim to make such fires less likely.
We continue to share our lithium battery investigation findings and advocate safety recommendations. We participate in the UL-initiated Battery Safety Council and attend industry outreach events and seminars, such as the NASA battery forum and seminars from the Knowledge Foundation.
Lithium batteries are not going away; they are far too useful. But we must ensure that each and every shipment of lithium batteries poses minimal safety risk. That is why our Most Wanted List calls on regulators and others to Ensure the Safe Shipment of Hazardous Materials, including lithium batteries in aviation.
By now, you likely have your New Year’s Eve plans in place. Maybe you’ll go to a big party. Perhaps you’ll meet friends at a local bar or host a small gathering at your house. Maybe you’ll just spend a quiet night in. But whatever your plan may be, if it involves alcohol or other drugs, it should also involve a sober ridehome.
Most of us know someone whose life has been impacted by an impaired-driving crash. These accidents occur at an alarmingly high frequency and yet, they’re totally preventable.
Data show that impaired-driving crashes occur more frequently over weekends, on holidays, and at night. This New Year’s holiday falls on a weekend, making it likely that we’ll see a higher-than-usual number of impaired-driving crashes—a very tragic start to 2017.
According to a recent report by the National Safety Council, we can expect to see more than 360 crash fatalities over this 3-day New Year’s holiday period. According to a report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, about 40 percent of all fatalities during the Christmas and New Year holiday periods have occurred in crashes in which at least one of the drivers was alcohol impaired. That means that approximately 145 people could be killed from drunk driving over this New Year’s weekend.
Let’s not accept this gloomy statistic.
On the eve of 2017, there really are no excuses to operate a vehicle while impaired, or to travel in a vehicle operated by an impaired person. The truth is, impairment starts with the first drink. With the ability to easily find a ride with a few swipes of our phones, and the wide availability of public transportation and sober ride programs on nights when drunk driving crashes are at their highest, there’s no reason for anyone to drive impaired.
Since the 1980s, transportation safety advocates have been working tirelessly through education programs, increased enforcement, strengthened legislation, and emerging technology, such as breathalyzers, to stop impaired driving. And, without a doubt, improvements have been made. In the early ‘80s, more than 21,000 people were killed each year as a result of alcohol-impaired driving. In 2015, that number was down to about 10,265. Lives have been saved because of improvements in safety culture and safety technology.
However, even with that improvement, every impaired driving death is still unacceptable, because, in the end, it’s a decision, not an accident.
No one goes out on New Year’s Eve expecting to die or be injured in an impaired-driving crash. New Year’s Eve is about celebrating the close of one year and welcoming the hopes of a new year ahead. Everyone has the ability to experience the new year when they make plans to get home safely, whether that means driving sober or designating a sober driver.
It is our hope at NTSB that everyone will make it home safely and that no one will have to start the new year off with a phone call that a loved one was killed in an impaired-driving crash. Let’s prove the statistics wrong, because, nowadays, there really are #NoExcuses for driving impaired.
Leah Walton is a safety advocate in NTSB’s Safety Advocacy Division.
When I asked the audience at the Catawba County Branch of the North Carolina NAACP in Maiden if they could identify the leading cause of death in teens, they replied with silence.
After waiting in vain for an answer, I told them. “Motor vehicle crashes,” I said, and explained that teens are 1.6 times more likely to die in motor vehicle crashes than adults.
NTSB Safety Advocate Stephanie Shaw and I were invited to this November 13 meeting by the chapter’s youth director, Lacolia Mungro, whose experiences driving an 18wheeler have encouraged her to spread the message about the risks of distracted driving.
I told the audience that 35,092 people died on US roadways in 2015, which is more than 10 times the population of Maiden. That number is on track to be even higher this year, which has prompted the NTSB to include issues like distracted driving, impaired driving, and fatigue on our 2017–2018 Most Wanted List of transportation safety improvements. We emphasize outreach to teens because that demographic, overrepresented in highway crashes, has more to lose than older drivers, considering the years of life ahead of them and the milestones they have yet to experience, like graduation, job success, marriage, and raising children. Missing out on those life experiences is a stiff price to pay because of one bad choice made early in life.
We also seek out opportunities to speak to teens because they represent tomorrow’s road safety culture. It’s essential to instill safe driving practices in teens who have not yet accumulated a lifetime of unsafe driving habits.
In 2014, 40,650 crashes in North Carolina involved teenagers; 95 were killed and 10,491 were injured. As I told the group in Maiden, a properly worn seat belt is the greatest protection against injury and death in a vehicle accident. Of those 95 teens killed in 2014, 33 were not wearing seat belts.
“No call, no text, no update is worth a human life,” I told the audience. Then I encouraged them to join our advocacy efforts by buckling up and turning off their phones or putting them out of reach, because no one should have to miss out on life because of one bad decision made in youth.
Nicholas Worrell is the Chief of NTSB’s Safety Advocacy division
I had the privilege of moderating a day-long NTSB roundtable pertaining torail tank car safety on July 13, 2016, in which more than two dozen rail-car manufacturers and owners, union representatives, and transportation safety associations discussed the rail industry’s progress and challenges on implementing new federal safety standards for tank cars that carry flammable liquids. The event provided rail industry leaders an open forum to discuss the logistics of replacing the existing tank car fleet in flammable liquid service to meet new federally imposed deadlines, and to identify ways in which government and industry can overcome roadblocks they face to meeting those mandates.
The U.S Department of Transportation (DOT) is requiring shippers to address the oldest, higher risk tank cars first: DOT-111 tank cars – which historically have been the most common type of cars to carry crude oil and ethanol. Shippers using legacy DOT-111 tank cars to haul crude oil must decide to either retire or retrofit them to new standards by March 2018, at the latest. For the DOT-111 tank cars that haul ethanol, shippers have until May 2023.
The deadlines set by federal officials for compliance are more relaxed for newer, modified version of these tank cars, called CPC-1232s. Deadlines to get CPC-1232s out of service for shipping crude oil and ethanol (or retrofitted to meet DOT-117 standards) extend as far into the future as May 2025. For shipping other Class 3 flammable liquids, shippers have until May 2029.
DOT-117 tank cars are a safer means of transporting flammable liquids because these tank cars are less likely experience a puncture (and therefore, a product release) because of several safety specifications that DOT-111 and CPC-1232 tank cars do not have.
Newly manufactured DOT-117 tank cars are built with a thicker shell that is nine-sixteenths of an inch thick, which is 28 percent thicker than legacy DOT-111 tank cars and most CPS-1232 cars. DOT-117 cars also have thermal and top fittings protection; an extra layer of 11 gauge (approximately 3 mm) steel surrounding the shell, known as a tank jacket; and full-height head shields, which add an extra one-half inch of protective steel on each end of the tank cars. Also, there is improved protection to the bottom outlet valve handle to guard against inadvertent opening during a derailment.
Two main points are relevant when considering whether shippers can meet these new deadlines. First, can tank car manufacturers supply enough cars to meet demand? We were encouraged to hear that manufacturers felt they could.
There are, however, more complex considerations on the demand side. With the recent decrease in domestic oil production, some in the industry see steep price tags for new and retrofitted cars as being prohibitive. “This is a game changer for shippers,” said Gabe Claypool, with Dakota Plains Holdings, Inc., during the roundtable.
John Bryne, of the Railway Supply Institute, agreed. He said economic factors heavily influence the decision making process when it comes to the timing of the legacy tank car phase out. “Industry has done a good job at meeting voluntary improvements for better packaging, but more needs to be done. Also, there needs to be some sort of incentive for the shippers to act more quickly.”
Without those incentives, Bryne warned that progress toward swifter compliance with federal deadlines could be stifled, although the deadlines themselves can be met. This leads to the next point: one hurdle toward quick implementation of these needed changes are, in a sense, the deadlines themselves. With some of the due dates extending nine years or more, shippers and those who currently lease tank cars can wait several more years before the recommendations to phase out older tank cars become absolute law.
While these considerations may make sense from a business perspective, from the NTSB’s perspective, the sooner these changes are made, the better – a belief that is fueled by numerous accidents we have seen involving breached tank cars. In the past decade, there have been 28 significant accidents in the U.S. and Canada involving flammable liquids transported by rail, in which nearly 5 million gallons of crude oil and ethanol have spilled. In each of these accidents, legacy DOT-111 or CPC-1232 tank cars were used to transport flammable liquids. If past performance is a predictor of future performance, continuing to transport crude oil and ethanol in DOT-111 or CPC 1232 tank cars poses an unacceptable public risk.
Several roundtable participants expressed optimism that the deadlines could be met.
Robert Fronczak, assistant vice president of the American Association of Railroads, provided statistics showing the number of legacy DOT-111 tank cars in crude oil transportation has steadily decreased since 2013 – from a peak of more than 21,600 three years ago, to just 708 through the first quarter of this year.
Kevin Neels, Ph.D., a transportation and research consultant with The Brattle Group, stated those numbers are a sign industry is headed in the right direction. “A lot of the riskiest cars are going out of service. And that’s good. We need to continue to monitor this to ensure that risk-prone tank cars stay out of service. In due course, we’ll see a much safer fleet hauling these materials.”
In next week’s blog, we will discuss how the industry is monitoring its progress and the available options for meeting the earliest federal deadlines.