By Deborah Hersman
A year ago today, a barge towed by the tugboat Caribbean Sea ran over an amphibious “duck” boat in the Delaware River, killing two Hungarian tourists. The accident was another tragic demonstration of the deadliness of distraction.
In a recent meeting, the National Transportation Safety Board determined that the collision was caused by the tugboat mate’s failure to maintain a proper lookout due to his repeated use of a cellphone and a laptop computer.
What’s scary is that no one on board the tugboat objected to the mate’s blatant violation of company policy in making 13 calls and receiving five during the 80 minutes preceding the accident. None of the crew members reported his repeated use of his personal cellphone.
The other crew members were likely used to this type of behavior. And the fact that the mate repeatedly made and received calls unrelated to vessel operations showed that he, too, was comfortable with it.
The NTSB has found such use of personal electronic devices to be widespread across all modes of transportation. Perhaps the best known example in aviation happened in October 2009, when two airline pilots were out of radio communication with air traffic control for more than an hour because they were distracted by their personal laptops. They overflew their destination by more than 100 miles, realizing their error only when a flight attendant inquired about preparing for arrival.
The NTSB identified distraction due to text messaging as the cause of a commuter train engineer’s running a red signal in suburban Los Angeles in September 2008. The result: a head-on collision with a freight train, killing 25 and injuring dozens. The engineer, who had a history of using his cellphone for personal communications while on duty, sent and received 250 text messages during the three days leading up to the accident.
Distractions, as we all know, are a growing concern on our roads, too, especially given the proliferation of entertainment and information available in vehicles and through personal devices. The consequences can be deadly. In one investigation, the NTSB found that the driver of a tractor-trailer made 97 calls and received 26 during the 24 hours preceding an accident. And in the half-hour prior to the crash, the driver spent 14 minutes — nearly half his time — on the phone. Ten people died that day after the truck crossed a median.
Despite company policies, public education campaigns, and, in some places, laws designed to minimize driver distraction, many people continue to engage in unsafe and unacceptable behavior, thinking, “I’ll just make this quick call” or “I’ll just send one brief text message.” We have to change public tolerance for such distractions and elevate society’s disapproval of the use of personal electronic devices while operating a vehicle.
But how can we convey to drivers and other operators that distractions at the wheel, helm, or controls are just as unacceptable as driving under the influence and other intolerable behaviors?
A long view of transportation safety may shed some light on the path to addressing distraction.
In 1967, the NTSB investigated the midair collision of a Piedmont Airlines Boeing 727 and a private twin-engine aircraft, which killed all 82 people aboard both planes. The original investigation showed that shortly after takeoff, crew members aboard the 727 discussed a fire in a cockpit ashtray and joked among themselves as they put it out. At the time, cigarette smoking and burning cockpit ashtrays were so common that the NTSB did not even mention the “detail” in the final report.
Today, of course, we can’t imagine smoking in an airplane, much less the cockpit, without anyone’s taking notice. So what has changed since 1967? Cultural and societal expectations. Smoking on airplanes is not only not allowed; it’s not even remotely considered.
Congress first banned smoking on planes in 1988. That law, which applied to flights of two hours or less, took two decades of pressure from health and consumer organizations, as well as repeated warnings about the dangers of secondhand smoke by the National Academy of Sciences and the surgeon general. Today, more than two decades after that initial legislation, society’s disapproval of smoking on airplanes — and in many other public places — is pervasive.
We have to reach the point where texting, phoning, and engaging in other distracting behaviors while operating a vessel, train, or motor vehicle are just as unacceptable as smoking on an airplane. How many more lives will we lose before we correct our tacit and deadly acceptance of distraction?
Deborah Hersman is chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board.