NTSB keyed in on what it termed ldquothe expansive increase in portable electronic devices PEDs including cell phones messaging and navigation systems and entertainment devices as well as the growing development of integrated technologies in vehiclesquot as being very detrimental to highway safety

NTSB lights fire under distracted and impaired driving

Jan. 16, 2014
Report zeroes in on electronic distractions and “stubbornly stuck” level of alcohol-impaired driving

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has issued its annual “Most Wanted List,” which details the top-ten “advocacy and awareness priorities” for the agency in 2014. Not surprisingly, ranking high on the list are both the elimination of “distraction in transportation” and “substance-impaired driving.”

“The traveling public relies on a safe and efficient transportation system,” stated NTSB Chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman in a statement. “Yet, every year, we see over 35,000 fatalities "That's why we have the Most Wanted List: Steps we can take today, so that more people make it home tonight."

Distracted Driving

As for distractions while behind the wheel, NTSB keyed in on what it termed “the expansive increase in portable electronic devices (PEDs), including cell phones, messaging and navigation systems, and entertainment devices, as well as the growing development of integrated technologies in vehicles” and that the agency is “seeing a disturbing growth in the number of accidents due to distracted operators; often these accidents have deadly consequences.”

NTSB cited a 2013 survey by the American Automobile Association's (AAA) Foundation for Traffic Safety that “identified a number of disturbing trends”:

  • Nearly 70% of drivers reported talking on cell phones while driving in the past 30 days
  • About 25% admitted to typing text and electronic mail messages while driving
  • About 35% percent reported reading text or electronic mail messages while driving.

What’s more, NTSB said a 2013 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) report found that “drivers engaging in visual-manual tasks, such as dialing or texting, increases the risk of a crash by three times.”  In addition, the agency said that another AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety report from 2013 showed that a driver's “level of cognitive distraction” is about equal when using either hands-free or hand-held cell phones.

“In short, operator distraction due to PED usage is a cultural epidemic that too often has tragic consequences,” stated NTSB. “The United States needs a cultural shift that prioritizes PED-free transportation operations.

“To effect and sustain such a change,” the agency continued, “we need more than effective laws and regulations, strong and consistent enforcement, and pervasive education. We need to build a social infrastructure that dissuades distracted operations at all times, starting with new and existing drivers who are the agents of change, extending through their family and community support systems to reinforce appropriate behaviors, to the local and regional educational and enforcement to ensure proper guidance and corrections for behaviors.”

However, NTSB pointed out that its own investigations and other studies have shown that “banning PEDs alone does not ensure that every operator devotes the appropriate attention, vigilance, and discipline necessary for safe operations.

“Education and company policies reinforce laws and regulations by explaining the dangers of distraction and what companies expect from their employees,” the agency recommended. “For those individuals who choose not to change their behavior, enforcement is a critical component.”

NTSB noted that now-- in every new accident investigation it conducts—the agency “closely examines the operating environment to determine what role the use of a PED may have played.”

The National Safety Council (NSC) said it “applauded” the NTSB “for again including distraction in transportation – specifically the use of portable electronic devices – on its ‘Most Wanted List.’”

“Thousands die each year in car crashes involving distracted drivers,” said John Ulczycki, vice president of strategic initiatives at NSC. “The Council is dedicated to ending these crashes, and NTSB has been a great ally as we work toward that goal.”

Impaired Driving

NTSB reported that in the U.S. in 2012, over 10,000 deaths—31% of all motor vehicle fatalities-- involved an alcohol-impaired driver.

“Although substantial progress was made on this issue during the 1980s and 1990s, since 1995 the percentage of motor vehicle deaths that involve an alcohol-impaired driver has remained stubbornly stuck at about one-third,” the agency stated.

NTSB addressed alcohol impairment bluntly, stating that “Impairment does not start when a person's blood alcohol concentration (BAC) reaches 0.05 or 0.08 percent; it begins with the first drink. Yet according to the 2012 Traffic Safety Culture Index published by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, about 14% of drivers — one out of seven — admit to driving when they thought they were close to or over the legal BAC limit.”

NTSB was also quick to point out “the problem of impaired driving is not just about alcohol; drugs also affect driving ability. Illegal, prescription, and over-the-counter drugs can have impairing side effects, often affecting each person differently,” noting that per the Fatality Analysis Reporting System, 3,952 fatally-injured drivers tested positive for drugs in 2009.

To fight substance-impaired driving, NTSB urged that “stronger laws, swifter enforcement, and expanded use of technology” be implemented.  “This starts with securing good data about substance-impaired driving and about the effectiveness of various countermeasures,” the agency noted. “BAC data collection and reporting must be improved, and a common standard of practice for drug toxicology testing must be developed and used.”

As for changing the behavior around substance impairment, the agency recommended “countermeasures” that promote both "general deterrence" and "specific deterrence."

General deterrence encourages the public to refrain from driving impaired and includes such measures as a per se 0.05 BAC limit, high-visibility enforcement efforts and administrative license revocation.

“Specific deterrence is used after a person is caught driving impaired and focuses on preventing repeat behavior,” NTSB explained. “Examples include fines and jail terms. In cases where an impaired driver has a substance abuse problem, however, neither fines nor incarceration are likely to address the root cause of the problem. Driving While Intoxicated (DWI) courts, with their emphasis on changing offender behavior, may be a useful approach to rehabilitating impaired drivers for whom other, traditional measures do not work.”

NTSB also contended that “technology holds great promise in preventing and detecting substance-impaired driving. Passive alcohol sensors can help law enforcement officers identify dangerous drivers. Ignition interlocks can prevent an impaired person from driving a vehicle equipped with an interlock device. A promising in-vehicle technology for preventing alcohol-impaired driving completely, known as the Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety (DADSS), is currently being developed.”

Other Recommendations

Although not directly citing trucks, but rather buses, passenger railcars and aircraft, NTSB urged in general that more be done to improve the design of vehicles to improve their resistance to fire.

“Once a fire starts [on board a vehicle], materials and design can slow fire propagation, allowing the operator more time to respond,” stated NTSB. “For example, in motor coaches, the use of fire-resistant materials for sidewalls in fire-prone areas could prevent fires from entering passenger compartments.”

New to the Most Wanted List this year is increasing occupant protection, including crashworthiness.

The board noted that in those states having a “primary enforcement seat belt law” (which allows law enforcement to stop a vehicle solely for not wearing a seat belt) seat belt use was higher. 

However, NTSB also pointed out that “Occupant protection is not just about [seat belt] restraints; it also involves vehicle designs that maintain survivable space and minimize sharp interior surfaces that can lead to injury.”

“In these areas, we agree [with NTSB],” said Bill Graves, president & CEO of the American Trucking Assns. “ATA has long been a proponent of reducing the risks of distracted driving, eliminating drunk or drugged driving by all motorists, and improving the crashworthiness of vehicles. It makes good sense for NTSB to shine a light on these important issues.”

Graves also remarked that the trucking lobby “appreciates NTSB’s persistence in addressing critical safety issues, especially those that affect the trucking industry’s workplace, our highways. Chairman Deborah Hersman and the Board deserve credit for continuing the push to make our entire transportation system safer.”

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