© Flynt | Dreamstime
Distracted Driving

Driver Behavior Tops NTSB List of Concerns

April 19, 2021
Board’s annual Most Wanted List targets impaired and distracted driving.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) issued its annual Most Wanted List (MWL) list of safety improvements it wants to see policymakers, fleet operators and employers embrace to diminish a rising tide of injuries and deaths in all modes.

“Board members of the NTSB and our advocacy team continuously seek opportunities to communicate about items on our MWL,” said chairman Robert Sumwalt. “As we begin advocacy efforts for the 2021-22 MWL, we call upon our advocacy partners to amplify our safety messages and help us bring about the safety improvements that will make transportation safer for us all.”

The new MWL draws attention to more than 100 safety recommendations associated with the 10 items on the list. “These recommendations, if implemented, can save lives, reduce the number and severity of injuries, and prevent transportation accidents and crashes,” the board said.

The NTSB is an independent federal agency perhaps best known to the public for its investigations of major airline crashes and rail accidents, but it also conducts safety research and makes policy recommendations to federal and state officials. Since 1990, it has used its MWL as an advocacy tool to build support for NTSB safety recommendations.

Among them this year is verifying the effectiveness of safety management systems in all passenger airline operations. It also wants airlines to install crash-resistant recorders and establish flight data monitoring programs. The board also seeks improvements in passenger and fishing vessel safety, and pipeline leak detection and mitigation. It also is pursuing research on improvements in rail worker safety, but the biggest items on the MWL concern highway safety.

Tackling Speeding

A top priority is implementing a comprehensive strategy to eliminate speeding-related crashes.

Between 2009 and 2018, speeding-related crashes resulted in nearly 100,000 fatalities, which is close to one-third of all traffic fatalities. In 2018 alone, 9,378 fatalities stemmed from speeding-related crashes.

“The true extent of the problem is likely underestimated because the reporting of speeding-related crashes is inconsistent,” the NTSB notes. “Speeding can result in loss of vehicle control, which increases both the likelihood of a crash and the severity of injuries sustained. Higher vehicle speeds lead to larger changes in velocity, which, in turn, lead to higher injury severity—that’s just basic science.”

What the NTSB wants: Speed-limiters on large trucks, automated enforcement, expert speed analysis tools, and stepped up public education efforts. To promote the last item, it wants to see the government collaborate with traffic safety stakeholders to implement a program to focus public awareness on speeding as a national issue.

The board also wants current laws changed to remove operational and location restrictions on the use of automated speed enforcement, state and federal regulations changed to strengthen requirements for all speed engineering studies, and removal of the guidance for speed limits in speed zones to be within 5 mph of the 85th percentile speed.

Impaired Driving

In 2019, 10,142 deaths in motor vehicle crashes involved drivers with blood alcohol content of .08% or higher, representing 28% of all traffic fatalities for that year. Many of these crashes also involved drivers under the influence of both alcohol and other drugs (legal, illicit and over the counter).

Complicating matters are the many laws states have passed allowing the use of marijuana, which creates the need for public education and new methods for measuring impairment, NTSB believes.

“Impaired driving is 100% preventable,” the board says. “We know a per se blood alcohol content (BAC) of .08 g/dl is too high. States need to lower per se BACs to .05%, an action only Utah has taken.”

It also argues that too many alcohol-impaired crashes involve drivers who were previously convicted of drunk driving. The board urges all states to adopt laws requiring drivers convicted of alcohol-impaired driving to use an interlock ignition device to prevent future impaired driving.

We don’t know how extensive drug-impaired driving is because, unlike with alcohol, no standardized drug-testing protocols exist. There is no established limit or threshold to determine other drug impairment. Also, evaluating the impact of other drugs on drivers is challenging because many drugs impair individuals differently than alcohol, the board admits.

“Bottom line: we need to develop better drug-testing procedures and tests,” it says. These are said to include identifying best practices and science-based countermeasures to prevent drug-impaired driving; developing a standard of practice for drug toxicology testing and improving roadside oral-fluid screening devices for better detection of drug-impaired drivers; and finalizing development of in-vehicle alcohol detection technology.

Distracted Driving

It’s not surprising that eliminating distracted driving is a major item on the MWL. It is known that 400,000 people were injured in crashes involving distracted drivers in 2018 and 3,142 were killed in crashes involving distracted drivers in 2019.

While most people know that personal electronic devices, such as cell phones and tablets, are one of the greatest distractions, too many mistakenly believe that hands-free is risk-free. In fact, drivers are still distracted by the conversation taking place.

“Many drivers believe they can multitask and still operate a vehicle safely,” the NTSB points out. “But multitasking is a myth. Humans can only focus cognitive attention on one task at a time. That’s why the driving task should be a driver’s sole focus.”

States are making some progress addressing this, but no state has implemented the NTSB’s recommendation calling for a complete ban on the use of all personal electronic devices while driving except in case of emergency.

Today, 24 states and the District of Columbia prohibit drivers from using handheld cell phones while driving, and 48 states and DC have an all-driver text messaging restriction. However, Missouri and Montana have yet to adopt an all-driver text messaging ban, and drivers in Nebraska and Ohio are only subject to secondary enforcement.

The board wants states to ban all-driver use of personal electronic devices and strengthen roadside monitoring and enforcement programs. Educating the public is another priority, it says. “Teach drivers, operators and safety-critical personnel about the dangers of distractions.”

NTSB also urges employers and fleet owners to adopt policies prohibiting cell phone use while driving or require use of lockout features on company vehicles.

“Recognize that safe driving requires 100% of a driver’s attention 100% of the time,” the board stresses. “Distraction is not only about holding a device in your hand or glancing away from the road; it also involves mentally straying from the driving task. Remember, you can’t multitask!”

Crash Avoidance Tech

Another top 10 item is requiring collision-avoidance and connected-vehicle technologies on all vehicles, which the board says can reduce a large percentage of highway crashes caused by distracted or inattentive drivers.

These technologies include forward-collision warning and automatic emergency braking, which can warn the driver of an upcoming hazard and act if the driver doesn’t respond. “Connected-vehicle technologies allow vehicles to relay important safety information to each other to avoid crashes,” the NTSB adds.

It criticizes the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) for not having developed comprehensive performance standards for these technologies, nor effectively evaluating them and incorporating the information in its vehicle safety ratings.

“Additionally, we were alarmed by the recent regulatory decision by the Federal Communications Commission to substantially shrink the communication spectrum dedicated to connected-vehicle technology,” the board declared. “If this decision is not reversed, safety progress could be hindered.”

Protecting Non-Drivers

Another MWL goal is protecting vulnerable road users by developing a Safe System approach because road systems designed for motor vehicles often don’t fully meet the needs of pedestrians, bicyclists and motorcyclists, who are designated vulnerable road users (VRUs) by NTSB.

“As a result, we are seeing increasing dangers to this population and too many accidents involving vehicles and VRUs,” the board observes. A Safe System addresses all aspects of traffic safety, it explains. “We must make better safety investments, from road treatments, vehicle design and collision-avoidance systems to strong traffic safety laws and robust education efforts to mitigate injury risks for all road users.”

Proven, effective countermeasures are being underused at the federal, state and local levels to protect pedestrians, bicyclists and motorcyclists, the board says, noting that it has long been concerned with the threat to VRUs. In 2018 and 2019, the board published three reports on these risks and issued more than 30 new recommendations focused on reducing VRU traffic deaths.

Latest from Transportation & Distribution

176927300 © Welcomia | Dreamstime.com
96378710 © Nattapong Boonchuenchom | Dreamstime.com