NTSB Wants To End Distracted Driving, Mandate Safety Tech

November 15, 2012

The National Transportation Safety Board has released its 2013 "Most Wanted List". But unlike the FBI photocopies pinned up at post offices, the NTSB isn't looking for criminals: the agency wants improvements to make U.S. transportation safer.

In a press release, NTSB Chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman says that "Transportation is safer than ever, but with 35,000 annual fatalities and hundreds of thousands of injuries, we can, and must, do better.... The Most Wanted List is a roadmap to improving safety for all of our nation's travelers."

The Most Wanted List includes ten goals for planes, trains, automobiles, and pipelines. On the car front, the NTSB has four major objectives:

Preserving and protecting the transportation infrastructure: As Pew Research recently pointed out, one-third of U.S. roads are in substandard  condition, and about 25% of our bridges are crumbling. Repairing those isn't just about making them prettier, it's about making them safer. In fact, some suggest that the poor condition of our roadways is contributing to an uptick in traffic fatalities.

Eliminating impaired driving: This has been one of the NTSB's long-term goals, and so far, it seems to be working. In fact, education campaigns like those aimed at drunk driving have been credited for helping to reduce roadway fatalities to record lows.

Ending distracted driving: The NTSB has been aggressive in promoting ways to end distracted driving. Last year, the agency went so far as to suggest banning cell phone calls for drivers across the board -- even for those using earpieces, in-dash systems, or other hands-free devices. However, Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood -- who has also put distracted driving at the top of his "must fix" list -- refused to admit that hands-free systems are dangerous

Mandating collision-avoidance systems: Thanks to huge technological advances, tomorrow's cars will be much safer than those of yesteryear. The NTSB wants to see aggressive implementation of such technology, mandated by the government. Here are a few examples from the agency's press release: "Lane departure warning, forward collision warning, adaptive cruise control, automatic braking, and electronic stability control have all been proven to aid drivers when they are faced with unexpected conditions, particularly when traveling at highway speeds or when operating larger commercial vehicles that require greater stopping distances. Other systems, such as tire pressure monitoring, onboard monitoring (for commercial drivers), and speed-limiting technology, can warn drivers of imminent threats or diminish the possibility of encountering dangerous conditions."

Will anything happen?

The NTSB is an independent agency that focuses most of its resources on investigating and analyzing transportation accidents. That's great, because it gives the NTSB a huge volume of data to review and back up its recommendations.

Unfortunately, recommending is about as far as the NTSB can go. It is not a regulatory agency like the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which falls under Secretary LaHood's Department of Transportation. In fact, since the NTSB fully separated from the DOT in the early 1970s, the relationship between the two has been somewhat strained.

That said, it's encouraging to see that several of the NTSB's target issues are beginning to be addressed. For example, though LaHood once criticized the surface transportation bill as one of the worst pieces of legislation he'd ever seen, by the time it passed Congress last summer, it was in much better shape. It won't completely repair America's transportation infrastructure, but it'll help.

LaHood has also been very aggressive in combating distracted driving. Earlier this year, he began a long, details series of talks with automakers and aftermarket suppliers to address the problem. He's not likely to go as far as the NTSB would like, but he's still very engaged.

If you have time, check out the video overview of the NTSB's Most Wanted List embedded above. And as always, feel free to share your thoughts about the NTSB's list in the comments below.

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