Honorable Deborah Hersman, NTSB Board Member

Chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman
Opening Statement
December 13, 2011
Highway Accident Report: Multi-Vehicle Collision
Gray Summit, Missouri, August 5, 2010


Good morning. Welcome to the Boardroom of the National Transportation Safety Board. I am Debbie Hersman, and it is my privilege to serve as Chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. Joining me are my fellow Board members: Vice Chairman Chris Hart, Member Robert Sumwalt, Member Mark Rosekind, and Member Earl Weener. I'd like to recognize Vice Chairman Hart for his excellent service as the spokesperson for the NTSB's on-scene activities in Missouri and also thank Member Rosekind and the team that was in Nevada last week on the air tour helicopter crash.

Today, we meet in open session, as required by the Government in the Sunshine Act, to consider the August 5, 2010, accident in which a pickup truck collided into the back of a truck-tractor that had slowed due to traffic in a work zone. The pickup truck, in turn, was struck from behind by a school bus. That school bus was then hit from behind by another school bus that had been following it.

Four vehicles. Two lives lost - the driver of the pickup truck and a passenger in the first school bus. Thirty-eight more people were injured.

On behalf of my fellow Board members and the entire NTSB staff, I offer our condolences to the families and friends of the two young people whose lives were taken in this accident. There are no words to ease your pain or that can change what happened, but the goal of our investigations - and of the NTSB's work - is to do everything we can to prevent similar tragic losses in the future.

This accident in Gray Summit was comprised of a series of events that culminated in a multi-car crash.

Today, you will hear more about this accident, and its complicated aspects, from an active work zone, to lane closure and merging traffic, to commercial driver health and training, to school bus maintenance, and more.

But there is one major finding from this investigation - and it's a BIG red flag ... for all drivers ... for each of us.

The driver of the pickup truck, the vehicle that set this pileup in motion, was using a handheld wireless electronic device - a cell-phone. The driver sent and received 11 text messages in the 11 minutes prior to the accident. The last text was right before impact.

We will never know whether the driver was typing, reaching for the phone, or reading a text when his pickup ran into the truck in front of him without warning. The specific actions of the pickup driver are not revealed by his cell-phone records.

But, we do know he had been distracted - cognitively, manually, and visually - while driving.

Driving was not his only priority.

But, you know what? That pickup driver was behaving just like many of his peers. So many Americans have become dependent on our cell-phones. On being connected at all times even when we're behind the wheel.

Here's the one-two punch when it comes to distraction and transportation.

One, portable electronic devices are ubiquitous.

Twenty years ago, point-two-five (.25) percent of the world population had cell-phone service. Today, there are five-point-three (5.3) billion mobile phone subscribers worldwide - 77 percent of the world population. In the United States, the percentage is higher - it exceeds 100 percent - meaning that a number of us have and use more than one cell phone.

Two, portable electronic devices are omnipresent in our automobiles. Worse, they are in the driver's seat. The only thing that should be behind the steering wheel is an attentive driver.

A recent AAA Mid-Atlantic survey found that here in our region, more than two-hundred-thousand people drive on the Capital Beltway every day - and 56 percent do so while distracted by cell-phones, and 21% admitted to recently texting behind the wheel.

Yes, too many people are talking, texting, and driving.

Here at the NTSB we investigate accidents in all modes of transportation. We're seeing distracted operations ... in the cockpit, on the tracks, on the waterways, and in every type of vehicle on our roadways - in large trucks, in motorcoaches, and, yes, in every type of private vehicle.

It used to be that we didn't start an investigation looking for distraction. But because it is now standard practice for our investigators to seek an evidence preservation order to gain access to all wireless records and obtain any electronic devices in their operating possession. All are becoming increasingly important in our investigations.

Here at the Safety Board, we investigate, and we recommend, in order to prevent.

Last week, I was at Transport Canada and had an opportunity to see a vehicle crash demonstration firsthand. It took hours to set up the demonstration ... to get the two vehicles lined up for the test and the instrumented crash dummies positioned. Then, right before the demonstration I was told to pay close attention because "If you blinked, you'd miss it."

And it was over just like that. It happened so quickly. And, that's what happened at Gray Summit. Two lives lost in the blink of an eye. And, it's what happened to more than 3,000 people last year. Lives lost. In the blink of an eye. In the typing of a text. In the push of a send button.

Yes, we have portable electronic devices so we can stay connected.

But, a crash breaks the connection. Permanently.

It's time to put a stop to distraction.

No call. No text. No update. Is worth a human life.