On February 1, 2002, a three-car collision on Interstate 95 in Largo, Maryland, the Capital Beltway, took the lives of five persons - the driver of an SUV, whose vehicle crossed the median strip; and four occupants of a minivan, who were traveling in the opposite direction. The National Transportation Safety Board began an investigation of this crash the next day. On February 4, NTSB Chairman Marion C. Blakey briefly addressed the news media on the Board's investigation. The following is a summary of the Chairman's remarks.
The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating this weekend's tragic accident on the Washington Beltway in which the driver of an SUV crossed the median and crashed head-on into an on-coming minivan. As you may know, the driver of the SUV and four occupants of the minivan were killed.
While the NTSB is well known for its investigations of aviation crashes, the Safety Board routinely investigates highway accidents that involve emerging safety issues. Given the fact that 90 percent of transportation fatalities occur on our highways, resulting in about 40,000 deaths a year, highway safety always will be a critical part of the NTSB's mission. The Washington Beltway accident - - in particular - - poses several significant emerging trends in the area of highway safety, which the Board intends to focus on in the upcoming year.
First, the driver of the SUV was using a cell-phone at the time of the accident. The NTSB intends to focus on the issue of whether cell phone usage while driving significantly jeopardizes safety by distracting drivers. In fact, in response to a prior accident in Illinois, the Board recently developed an investigative protocol to address the role of cell phone usage in accidents. Friday's accident presents an opportunity for the Board to use this protocol and analyze this issue further.
This accident also raises the issue of whether many median barriers effectively prevent high-speed crossovers - - especially as traffic volume and speed increase on highways where original design volume is exceeded. The Safety Board intends to study this emerging trend.
Finally, the NTSB plans to examine in its highway crash investigations the crash dynamics, vehicle compatibility and handling characteristics of light trucks, which include SUVs, pick-ups and minivans. This is particularly important considering the immense popularity of these vehicles among consumers and their growing volume among the US vehicle fleet.
Although it is early in our investigation, we at the Safety Board believe that it is important to mention these emerging trends that pose significant safety issues for the Board as well as for all Americans.