The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recently released a new two-year “Most Wanted” wish list for 2017-18 that puts distractions and tired driving at the top of ten pressing safety issues to improve.
NTSB Chairman Christopher Hart said that the list's new two-year cycle will “help to focus our advocacy efforts on sustained progress. We will take stock at the one-year mark, note what progress has been made, and decide what additional improvements are needed.”
According to Hart, in areas in which progress is being made, NTSB is “pushing to continue the progress” and where the board has seen setbacks, it is “pushing for improvements that, if implemented, have the potential to move the needle once again in the correct direction.”
The “correct direction” means reducing on-the-road fatalities instead of the current trend. Hart pointed out that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has found that highway fatalities rose by over 7% from 2014-2015 and that “worse yet, early estimates show a 10.4% increase in motor vehicle deaths for the first half of 2016 versus the first half of 2015. Tragically, for the first time since 2008, more than 35,000 people died on our roads.”
The most pressing issue on the NTSB list—a previously lower-level carryover that now tops the list—is eliminating distractions while driving or operating a vehicle.
Most of us have practiced distracted driving at one time or another by connecting to a device that draws our attention away from the road or task at hand. The agency says it has found distracted driving to be a factor “in accidents across all modes of transportation" for years.
"A cultural change is needed for drivers and operators to disconnect from deadly distractions," said Hart—a sentiment echoed by law enforcement agencies across the country. NTSB calls for every driver to minimize distraction every time behind the wheel, an act it terms "the first step in safely operating any vehicle."
Reducing fatigue-related accidents, now second on the list, was at the top of the list last year. Tired driving is an area where NTSB focuses some attention directly at trucking, spurred in part by recent high-profile trailer crashes involving fatigue, like the one involving a Walmart truck and comedian Tracy Morgan's SUV.
In fact, of the agency's more than 180 major transportation incident investigations between 2001 and 2012, 20% involved fatigue.
"We see a lot of fatigue and it's a problem in many ways, starting with the fact that you can't really measure it," Hart said. "It's been a huge issue for us."
As a result of the Walmart truck crash investigation that ultimately involved 21 people and six vehicles due to the Walmart truck driver’s fatigue, NTSB has reiterated a 2010 recommendation to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to make fatigue management programs mandatory for all carriers.
"One tragic aspect of roadway deaths is that so often they could have been prevented," Hart said.
NTSB calls for "a comprehensive approach focused on research, education, training, technologies, treatment of sleep disorders, hours-of-service regulations, and on- and off-duty scheduling policies and practices” to mitigate fatigue-related incidents.
While the federal safety watchdog has no regulatory authority and can only make recommendations, the U.S. Senate included a provision in the year-end federal budget appropriation, which serves to strengthen driver hours regulations.
Next on the list are two issues that rounded out the recommendations last year but have risen in importance this cycle: preventing loss of control in flight and general aviation and improving rail transit safety oversight.
Another carryover issue for NTSB is ending alcohol and other drug impairment in transportation. This is a big one, and the agency notes that since the turn of the millennium, about a third of highway deaths still involve an alcohol-impaired driver.
But alcohol isn't the only impairment for drivers today. "Our new reality is this: impaired driving now involves drugs—including prescribed and over-the-counter medicines—that can affect your ability to drive or operate any vehicle," NTSB states, calling for better data on the issue.
Midway down the list is the recommendation encouraging fleets to increase implementation collision avoidance technologies on highway vehicles. The change from “promote” to “increase” is an update to the 2017-18 list. Under that new heading, the board states that “Technologies such as collision warning and autonomous emergency braking in highway vehicles and positive train control in trains will result in fewer accidents, fewer injuries, and fewer lives lost.”
With a new mandate taking effect in 2017 for electronic stability control systems on heavy trucks, NTSB hopes fleets will choose to outfit their trucks now instead of waiting till the law requires them to.
"Currently available collision avoidance technologies for passenger and commercial vehicles (such as trucks and buses) could prevent crashes or minimize their impact, and should be standard equipment on all new vehicles," NTSB states in a brochure for the wish list.
Hart reiterated, "If (collision avoidance technology) were in all cars, trucks and buses, it could save many lives on the highway."
This is the second year for the next issue on the list, expanding the use of recorders to enhance transportation safety. NTSB calls for including info/data recording devices on vehicles on the road. By and large, trucking companies and fleets have already made the decision to install devices like video recording systems in trucks and other on-highway vehicles, so the push now is on vehicles other than heavy trucks.
NTSB Vice Chairman Bella Dinh-Zarr mentioned video cameras on trucks and noted that transportation companies of all kinds are voluntarily opting to include recording device technology, but many don't if it isn't required. "We think the time is right to get this not-well-known issue some attention," she said.
Also returning to the list is requiring medical fitness for duty. Questions of operators' medical fitness to drive are nothing new in the world of trucking and fleet, and are somewhat related to the issue of fatigue.
Hart pointed out that “(fatigue-related sleep disorders) can go undiagnosed. We're seeing increased accidents in connection with obstructive sleep apnea.”
"When safety-critical personnel such as public vehicle operators have untreated or undiagnosed medical conditions preventing them from doing their job safely, people can be seriously injured or die," NTSB states.
The agency calls for more coherency in medical screening requirements across transportation modes.
Also on the list is strengthening occupant protection by requiring that drivers demand that their passengers buckle up. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration recently proposed a rule that would hold truck drivers and their companies responsible for commercial vehicle passengers buckling up.
"Strengthened occupant protection systems could have reduced injuries and saved lives" in a number of crashes NTSB has investigated, the agency says, adding that improving the situation will require "increased use of existing restraint systems and better design and implementation of occupant protection systems."
Rounding out this cycle’s list is a new improvement, ensuring the safe shipment of hazardous materials. NTSB notes that increased volumes of hazardous materials, especially flammable liquids, are moving by rail and that expanded lithium battery use "poses a threat" to airplanes.
Hart called the recent trend in motor vehicle deaths rising rather than falling “a reminder that safety is not a destination, but a continuing journey, and our efforts to improve safety must never stop.” It takes a concerted and continuing effort by industry, government, and private citizens to save lives.
While not mandates, the recommendations by NTSB signal more scrutiny of and public attention to the issues at hand and can help steer other government agency action.
"We can't require anyone to take action on our recommendations," Hart noted, "so for 25 years, we've issued our 'Most Wanted' list hoping to start the conversation and spur action."