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Roundtable: Disconnect from Deadly Distractions - Opening Statement
Robert L. Sumwalt
NTSB Conference Center

​Good Morning and welcome to this roundtable on distractions in transportation.

I’m Robert Sumwalt and I’m a Board Member of the National Transportation Safety Board.

It is my pleasure to serve as the moderator of this roundtable.

“Disconnect from Deadly Distractions” is on the NTSB’s Most Wanted List. It’s there for a good reason – we’ve seen crashes in all modes of transportation where distractions were present.

As a result of a highway crash investigation, in 2011 the NTSB issued safety recommendations to all 50 states and the District of Columbia to ban the non-emergency use of portable electronic devices – other than those designed to support the driving task – for all drivers. Our sole motivation for doing that was to improve transportation safety. 

I think this roundtable has the potential to be a seminal event. I know each of today’s participants have extensive background in dealing with distractions in transportation, but to my knowledge, this may be the first time that this distinguished group has gathered en masse to discuss the multimodal aspects of distraction.

I want to express my appreciation for your taking the time to be here. I assure you, your attendance, participation, and perspectives are valued.

There are 4 objectives of this roundtable. First, we want to increase awareness of the need to disconnect from deadly distractions, by having a conversation that focuses on the multi-modal aspects of distraction. Second, I’m hoping we can promote a needed cultural change regarding distractions. Next, I think we all realize that technology can help us, and I certainly don’t want that point to get lost, but the third objective is to discuss how technology can increase the potential for distractions. Finally, I want to engage in dialogue that will lead to solutions for the future.

Tomorrow begins Distracted Driving Awareness Month, and we all know that distracted driving is a big problem. There are two things to say about that. One, we realize that distractions come in all shapes and forms. It can involve rowdy kids in the backseat, and it can involve trying to eat a hamburger while driving down the road. It can involve trying to read a road sign to see which exit to take. But, for today’s discussions, I want to focus on distractions involving technology. I suspect some distractions may be unavoidable, but those involving technology are avoidable.

The second point is that, although we realize distracted driving is a problem, we want today’s conversation to cut across all modes of transportation. Why? Because the NTSB has seen the effects of deadly distractions in every mode of transportation.

Especially on our highways – where more than 9 out of 10 transportation deaths occur– the accidents that we see at the NTSB are just the tip of the iceberg. For example, we investigated a crash where a 19 year-old driver, going 55 miles per hour, ran into the back of a stopped truck. There were no skid marks. There was no evidence that he applied the brakes.

He was texting.

That led to a chain reaction of crashes which also claimed the life of a young girl.
As far as other modes, one of the most deadly rail accidents in recent history occurred when the engineer of a commuter train was texting and ran through a red signal. His train collided head-on with a freight train, claiming 25 lives.

I personally was standing on the banks of the Delaware River when the body of a young man surfaced, after the tour boat he was traveling in was struck by a barge being pushed by a distracted helmsman. I know others have stories, as well, and some are a lot more personal than this one, and a lot closer to home, but this is certainly one that I’ll always remember.

We investigated a case where a helicopter pilot ran out of fuel and crashed after sending text messages while flying, and we’ve seen airline pilots overfly their destination by 150 miles because they were distracted by laptop computers.

It is indeed a multi-modal problem and one that requires a cultural change.

I think that by and large, we have had a cultural change with respect to wearing seat belts, with now only a small percentage of people not wearing them.  Think how the culture has changed with respect to smoking in this country: Remember smoking sections on airplanes? In restaurants? Remember people smoking in their offices? It wasn’t that long ago.

Why did it change? People realized it was a health hazard, and behavior changed -- thankfully.

We need a cultural change in order to have people disconnect from deadly distractions.

As far as technology is concerned, we’ve seen in every transportation mode the ways that technology can advance safety – but we’ve also seen that technology can have a profound negative effect on safety through distraction. I’m afraid distractions will become even more problematic if we don’t effect a cultural change – and soon.

In order for this roundtable to be successful, we need for today to be a real conversation – a give and take – among the experts. Sitting here at this table, we have the leading experts in the area of distraction. We have diverse experiences, diverse sectors, and we have diverse points of view.
I’m not here to talk at you; I’m here to moderate a conversation. So after these introductory remarks, the less I say, and the more you say, the better.

Can we learn from each other and build on each other’s experiences? You bet we can. The success of this roundtable will depend on how willing we are to step outside of our stovepipes, to think in new ways, and to start a conversation that can lead to new solutions for the future.

We’ve divided the forum into 5 tracks:

  • The Science of Distraction
  • Technology and Engineering
  • Education, Legislation, and Enforcement
  • Corporate Policy and Regulation
  • Future Endeavors/Challenges

We’ve structured this as a “give-and-take” discussion. We’ll start each session with an informal conversation with a few of the guests who are deeply involved in each subject area. Then we’ll open up the floor to all of our participants. Once the floor is open, just raise your hand if you have a comment, and I’ll call you.

To keep the conversation flowing and get to as many people as possible, we all need to keep our comments to 2 ½ minutes or less. We have timers and lights to help with timekeeping.

Don’t be afraid to disagree; don’t be afraid to take someone else’s point one step further. Don’t be afraid to say there’s another approach in another mode, another company or another geographic area. That’s where the creativity and the collaboration will come in. Think of this as a conversation around your dining room table.

Before wrapping up my opening remarks, I want to thank NTSB’s Nicholas Worrell for organizing this event, along with: Bob Beaton, Carrie Bell, Larry Bowling, Evan Byrne, Dennis Collins, Dan Halberstein, Keith Holloway, and Stephanie Shaw.

Before beginning our first panel: Emergency exits are located on either side of the stage behind us, and an AED is located in the vestibule.

And, speaking of distractions, please silence your electronic devices.

While we’re on the topic of electronic devices, our staff will be live tweeting and you are welcome to do the same. Our hashtag is #deadlydistractions -- we encourage you to broaden the reach of the discussion through Twitter and other social media.

We are also webcasting this event, so even though you may be speaking to the person right next to you, please use the microphones. Also, I know we will have lively discussions, but to avoid “talking over” each other, please wait until I call on you.

So, are there any questions about the logistics?

Let’s begin by going around the room and having each participant introduce themselves. Please state your name and your organization.