NTSB: Cut Impaired, Distracted, Fatigued Driving
January 14, 2016
While most of the 10 items on the National Transportation Safety Board’s new “Most Wanted List” of safety improvements pertain to trucking to one degree or another, one item that very specifically called out trucking in last year’s edition—“ Strengthen Commercial Trucking Safety”—was not carried over to the 2016 list.
As for the 2016 list, released on Jan, 13, NTSB stressed the continuing need to reduce accidents caused by drivers who are impaired by alcohol and/or drugs as well as those who are distracted or fatigued.
According to NTSB Chairman Christopher Hart, several items on this year’s list demonstrate the importance of technology in saving lives, preventing accidents and lessening the number and severity of injuries from accidents. For example, the list calls for promoting both the availability of collision avoidance technology in highway vehicles and the completion of rail safety initiatives to prevent accidents.
This year, the board called impairment “an issue in all modes of transportation.” NTSB noted it has recommended lowering the legal limit on blood alcohol content to .05 to reduce deaths and injuries on highways. However, NTSB added that drugs other than alcohol can also impair drivers, including those falling into the recreational, over-the-counter and prescription categories.”
“Impairment is a multi-faceted problem,” noted Hart. “It will take stricter laws, better enforcement of those laws, and improved education, to get impaired drivers off our roads. And it will take all of these measures, in addition to technological solutions, to prevent people from driving impaired.”
NTSB said that distraction, especially due to the use of portable electronic devices, along with fatigue “continue to be serious safety issues in all modes of transportation. The list also points to how the undiagnosed and untreated medical conditions of safety-critical personnel have caused or contributed to accidents.
Regarding distracted driving, Hart pointed out that “all but a few states prohibit texting while driving, and many states prohibit hand-held cellphone use while driving. No state, however, prohibits hands-free cellphone use while driving. But hands-free calls cause cognitive distraction. We have recommended prohibiting all cellphone use, including hands-free, because a driver’s mind must be on driving, just as their hands must be on the wheel.”
Hart also drew a connection between driving while fatigued and medical fitness for duty. “Medical fitness for duty often interacts with fatigue,” he explained.
“As Americans gain weight,” he continued, “we’re seeing an increase in obstructive sleep apnea, which is strongly associated with Body Mass Index. Sleep apnea often goes undiagnosed, and even if it is diagnosed, it often goes unreported for fear of adverse consequences, such as job loss. But sleep apnea is treatable. Employers with sleep apnea programs find that when people seek treatment, they become safer drivers, their morale improves, the cost of training new drivers decreases, and productivity increases.”
Hart pointed out that NTSB’s Most Wanted List is the result of the many accident investigations the board conducts. And because its “most powerful tool to learn safety lessons from accidents is data recorders,” NTSB is “looking for their increased use in all modes of transportation. Not only can they help us learn what causes accidents, but they can also be a valuable tool for identifying and fixing operational safety issues to prevent future accidents.”
Here are the seven top safety issues NTSB cited for 2016 (the first three also made the 2015 list) that apply in some way to trucking:
END SUBSTANCE IMPAIRMENT IN TRANSPORTATION
“In the last 15 years, data show that one-third of highway deaths involved an alcohol-impaired driver. 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. More and better data will help us understand the scope of the problem and the effectiveness of countermeasures.”
DISCONNECT FROM DEADLY DISTRACTIONS
“A cultural change is needed for drivers and operators to disconnect from deadly distractions. In regulated transportation, the strict rules minimizing the threat of distraction must be embraced by every operator on every trip. Removing unnecessary distractions is the first step in safely operating any vehicle.”
REQUIRE MEDICAL FITNESS FOR DUTY
“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. However, medical certification for safety-critical personnel varies across the modes of transportation. The NTSB has recommended comprehensive medical certification systems for safety-critical transportation personnel to ensure that these professionals are medically fit for duty before operating a vehicle.”
REDUCE FATIGUE-RELATED ACCIDENTS
“Human fatigue affects the safety of the traveling public in all modes of transportation. Twenty percent of the 182 major NTSB investigations completed between 2001 and 2012 identified fatigue as a probable cause, contributing factor, or a finding. Combating fatigue requires a comprehensive approach focused on research, education and training, technologies, treatment of sleep disorders, hours-of-service regulations, and on- and off-duty scheduling policies and practices.”
EXPAND USE OF RECORDERS TO ENHANCE TRANSPORTATION SAFETY
“Transportation operators and investigators must have an accurate picture of an accident to prevent future accidents. No single tool has helped determine what went wrong more than recorders. Yet, certain categories of aircraft, trains, ferries, and buses are still not equipped with these critical technologies.”
STRENGTHEN OCCUPANT PROTECTION
“NTSB has investigated many accidents where strengthened occupant protection systems could have reduced injuries and saved lives. Needed improvements include increased use of existing restraint systems, and better design and implementation of occupant protection systems that preserves survivable space and ensures ease of evacuation,”
PROMOTE AVAILABILITY OF COLLISION AVOIDANCE TECHNOLOGIES IN HIGHWAY VEHICLES
“Highway vehicle crashes kill and injure thousands of people each year. But these crashes are largely preventable. 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.
Hart remarked that while NTSB investigates transportation accidents, determines their causes, and issues safety recommendations to prevent recurrences, it has no power to require that its recommendations be implemented.
“So,” he said, “it is a testament to the thoroughness of our amazing staff of accident investigators and analysts that recipients of our recommendations act favorably on them more than 80 percent of the time, even though they do not have to.”