“When you decide not to wear your seat belt, you are pretty much endangering only your own life. But when you elect to talk on the cell phone or text, you are not only endangering your own life, you’re endangering the lives of pedestrians and others.” These words were said to National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Member Robert Sumwalt at an NTSB Distracted Driving Summit by family members of a loved one killed by a distracted driver.
April is Distracted Driving Awareness Month
April is Distracted Driving Awareness Month and the Traffic Safety Guy is hosting a four-part series on Distracted Driving: what it is and what we can do about it. The series kicks off with a discussion with NTSB Board Member Robert Sumwalt.
In 2012 distracted driving in the United States alone resulted in at least:
- 3,328 fatalities
- 410,000 injuries
The research reveals that someone who texts and drives is 23 times more likely to be in a crash and that 40% of American teens say that they have been in a car when the driver used a cell phone in a way that put people in danger. Expert after expert now declares distracted driving an epidemic.
Distraction a Top Priority at NTSB
The NTSB has taken a strong stand on distraction in general, and cell phones and other “portable electronic devices” (PEDs) specifically, recognizing that distraction in all modes of transportation is dangerous. In January 2014, the NTSB announced its “Most Wanted List” for the 2014 year. “Eliminating Distraction in Transportation” is on that list of 10 priorities.
In this episode Member Sumwalt candidly discusses what needs to be done about distracted driving, noting that cell phone use is one of the most pressing concerns. Almost all states have some form of a ban on texting, whether it is focused on teens or all drivers, because texting is recognized as a major contributor to distracted driving. However, only a handful of states have a ban on hand held cell phones and no state or locality has a complete ban on the use of drivers using a cell phone, hands free or not.
Time for a Complete Ban
Late in 2011, NTSB called for a nationwide ban on the use of portable electronic devices while driving. Hands free cell phone use is no safer than holding the phone in your hand; it is the mind that is distracted from the task for driving. Member Sumwalt continues this call for action, noting that to have an impact on distracted driving there must be good education, good laws, and strong enforcement of those laws.
It is time to have a social stigma attached to driving while using a cell phone, just as it now is socially unacceptable to drink too much and drive. Member Sumwalt pointed out that it took time for the attitude change in drinking and driving and it will probably take time to change the mindset regarding cell phones. One way to start that change is for parents to model for their children what it is to be a safe driver, which includes not using a cell phone while driving.
Businesses Are Taking Action
In 2009, NTSB instituted an agency policy that no employee of NTSB shall use a cell phone while driving. Member Sumwalt indicated that the policy worked to change behavior at the agency, and to lead by example.
But it is not only NTSB that has instituted this policy. A few years back, the National Safety Council did a survey of Fortune 500 companies about their cell phone policies. Looking at potential liability and employee safety, 18% of the companies that responded indicated they had instituted a complete ban on the use of cell phones while driving, including Shell Oil, DuPont, BP, Abbott, Cargill, and Time Warner Cable.
Notably, the vast majority of businesses indicated that there was no reduction in work production, and one-in-five indicated that they had seen a reduction in crashes and property damage.
Why Risk It?
Ultimately, as pointed out by Member Sumwalt, the NTSB recommendations are based on solid research into the underlying cause of crashes. As he asked during the discussion, the real question is: “What makes this phone call so important that I am going to risk my life and the lives of others?”
- Distracted Driving Research
- NSC: Cognitive Distraction
- NSC: Employer Cell Phone Kit
- NSC: Fortune 500 Survey
- NTSB: Missouri Crash Investigation
- NTSB Most Wanted List: Distractions
“Anyone who is human and gets behind the wheel [of a car] should worry about it.” NTSB Board Member Mark Rosekind speaking on drowsy driving.
“There will be sleep enough in the grave.” How many times have we heard someone say something similar, implying that he or she doesn’t need or have time for sleep? Ben Franklin made that statement over 200 years ago and it is still used today, sometimes as a badge of honor. In today’s culture, with many of us traveling in large and potentially deadly weapons on a road or highway, mixing the lack of sleep with driving is a deadly combination. However, there are practical steps each of us can take to avoid these dangers, with acknowledgement of the existence of drowsy driving being the first.
Dr. Mark Rosekind, Board Member of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and one of the world’s foremost human fatigue experts, examines the fallacy that we can put sleep off to a later time. As human beings, we are hardwired for sleep. We have to breath, we have to eat, we have to drink, and we have to sleep. It is a biological requirement for our survival. Starting with that premise, Dr. Rosekind discusses:
- How much sleep we need
- What happens when we don’t get a sufficient amount of sleep
- How fatigue plays a role in drowsy driving, and
- What we can do about driving and fatigue
Having a “Sleep Debt”
As we age the amount of sleep needed each night changes. What many people do not understand is that teens actually need 9¼ hours of sleep, not the typical 8 hours mentioned. What is especially concerning is that in high school teenagers get on average 6½ hours of sleep. They may think that they are 90 minutes short on sleep, but they are actually more than two hours below what is needed. Adults need 7-9 hours or an average of 8 hours. This is true as we age and become senior citizens, although in our later years our sleep patterns are broken up. We still need the 8 hour average, however, it is not as refreshing thus it is often harder to get a good night’s sleep. Many retirees enjoy a mid-day nap to help make up for the lost overnight sleep. This is why teens and senior citizens are considered higher risks for drowsy driving.
When we don’t get sufficient sleep, we start to build up a “sleep debt.” One night of poor sleep, and our abilities are affected. If we don’t get sufficient sleep a second night, the sleep debt increases. Go a third night, and it continues to accumulate. Go three nights with 2 hours lack of sleep each night, and the sleep debt is up to 6 hours. In a single night, losing 2 hours of sleep can result in a person acting as if they were at a .05 BrAC (Breath Alcohol Content). With a sleep debt, our attention, reaction time and decision making are all significantly effected by as much as 20-50%. A slower reaction time or making a poor decision means not reacting to the brake lights in front of us or seeing the traffic light turning red. Falling asleep while driving can have devastating consequences.
Drowsy Driving’s Impact is Underestimated
How dangerous is drowsy driving? There are estimates in the U.S. that annually we could be looking at a million or more crashes or near crashes – 20% of all crashes could be due to fatigue. All the experts agree that the number of crashes and fatalities due to fatigue is underestimated.
According to the Automobile Association of America (AAA) two out of every five drivers (41.0%) reported having fallen asleep or nodding off while driving, and that one in four reported that they had fallen asleep between the hours of noon and 5 p.m. Drowsy driving happens during the night and during the day.
Drowsy driving is a problem no matter where we live or travel. Last year in India, a bus crashed, killing 45 people. One media outlet reported that the driver admitting he dozed off while driving. Pick any country, and you can find reports of drowsy driving.
Possible Solutions to Drowsy Driving?
Many of us, when we notice we are sleepy while driving, try to “fix” it by turning up the radio or opening the window, or biting a lip. These “remedies” work for only about 10 minutes. Caffeine can provide a short-term jolt, but even that is limited in time and needs to be taken before feeling tired since it requires time for us to feel the effects. Bottom line: We are still sleep deprived and we are still dangerous as we drive down the road.
The only real solution to drowsy driving is sleep, whether it is finding a safe place to stop and get a short nap, such as at a Rest Area or a good night’s sleep before leaving.
3-Step Checklist Before Traveling
To be prepared for any drive, Dr. Rosekind provides a three-step checklist:
- Recognize that fatigue is a risk and ask:
- Do you have a sleep debt from the last night or a combination of nights?
- How long have you been awake at this point?
- What is the time of day when the driving is occurring?
- Do you have a sleep disorder?
- If fatigue is an issue, take a nap or get some caffeine.
- Be sensitive to the environment. Are you driving at night or on a monotonous road? Driving in these conditions can reveal your fatigue.
Individually, each of these steps can raise a red flag. Combined, they ensure we consider what condition we are in, and whether we are safe to travel. Reviewing this checklist can save lives. In the meantime, get a good night’s sleep.
- Automobile Association of America (AAA) – Drowsy Driving
- Drowsy Driving.org
- National Sleep Foundation (NSF) – Drowsy Driving
- AAA Report on Drowsy Driving
- National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) Research on Drowsy Driving
- NSF White Paper on Drowsy Driving
- Bus Crashes in India Result of Drowsy Driving
- Highway to Safety Podcast Episode #1 – Impaired Driving
 .08 BrAC is the level when a person is presumed to be under the influence of alcohol in the United States and some countries. A majority of countries have .05 BrAC or lower as the illegal limit.
For years individuals and organizations everywhere have talked about, and continue to work on combating, the dangers of alcohol-impaired driving. As a result, there has been a significant reduction in alcohol-impaired fatalities. However, impaired driving due to drugs other than alcohol, sometimes called “Drugged Driving,” is a growing concern across the United States and beyond. One of the most common drugs found in substance-impaired driving fatalities is marijuana.
Mr. Chris Halsor is the Traffic Safety Resource Prosecutor (TSRP)  in Colorado, where marijuana was first approved by state residents for medicinal use, and more recently for legal recreational use.  With the changes in the law,  Mr. Halsor has seen a troubling increase in drugged driving cases involving marijuana.
Impairment from Marijuana
Based on the science and the research, there is no question that marijuana impairs a person’s mental and physical? abilities. It is wrong to believe that marijuana use does not result in impaired driving. It is a scientific fact: Marijuana use increases the risk of being in a fatal crash.
Of significant concern is the public’s misunderstanding of the signs of marijuana impairment. Message after message has shown alcohol-impaired individuals with slurred speech, poor balance, and problems walking. Mental impairment is actually a greater issue because 1) driving is a complicated task requiring a person to focus on a number of critical factors simultaneously, and 2) alcohol affects a person’s mind and judgment before the physical signs are visible—meaning a person is already mentally impaired by the time the physical signs are observed. Mr. Halsor noted that the predominant marijuana-induced impairment affects a person’s judgment. The impairment is less about the physical response, but that does not make it any less dangerous than alcohol.
The increasing potency of Delta 9 THC is another concern when considering a person’s impairment. Delta 9 THC is the active impairing ingredient in marijuana. Several years ago the THC concentration was typically under 10%, even as low as 2-6% in a “joint.” Now, the potency is significantly higher and marijuana stores in Colorado advertise this increased potency. It is not uncommon to see ads for 20% potency or greater. It has become a race to the top, resulting in greater impairment.
Putting the THC concentrate into a variety of foods also creates problems. Adding the concentrate to food products results in delayed impairment. People consume these products, do not initially feel any effects and then drive, with the effects impacting them while driving.
Drugged Driving and Per Se Drug Laws
Many states have passed a ‘per se’ law, similar to the .08 breath alcohol concentration (BrAC) per se law for alcohol. Colorado passed a modified per se law that allows jurors to infer impairment if a person has 5 nanograms or greater of THC in their blood.
One argument against a per se law is that marijuana stays in the body for up to 30 days. However, Delta 9 THC is generally in the blood only 1 to 3 hours. The THC that is found in the body days later is THC-COOH, an inactive non-impairing metabolite.
Shortly after NTSB’s announcement of the NTSB Most Wanted List in January 2014, the Traffic Safety Guy was able to briefly speak with NTSB Board Member Dr. Mark Rosekind. I asked him about substance impaired driving and the issues marijuana is causing for safe driving. His response is part of this episode.
- NIDA – Marijuana Abuse
- NTSB – Most Wanted List
- ONDCP – Drugged Driving
- The Pew Charitable Trusts – How High is Too High to Drive?
- Fatal Car Crashes Involving Pot Use Have Tripled in U.S.
- Trends in Alcohol and Other Drugs Detected in Fatally Injured Drivers
- NHTSA – 2007 National Roadside Survey of Alcohol and Drug Use by Drivers
- NDAA – Between the Lines – A New High in Colorado
- Traffic Safety Guy Video – NTSB – Most Wanted List
- Highway to Safety Podcast Episode – Drugged Driving
 A TSRP provides traffic-related education, research and technical assistance to prosecutors and law enforcement, with an emphasis on impaired driving.
 Marijuana is still considered an illegal drug by the U.S. Federal Government; thus, there is a dispute on whether or not the drug is legal.
 This episode is not a discussion on the pros and cons of legalizing marijuana. The focus is marijuana’s impact on traffic safety.
Impaired driving has been a part of our culture for over a century, with nearly 10,000 people now killed annually. Can we stop it, once and for all, so that no one else is killed by an impaired driver?
Dr. Mark Rosekind, NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) Board Member, is a leading expert on the steps to take to end impaired driving. In this episode, Dr. Rosekind provides an overview of NTSB’s 19 research-based recommendations to achieve that goal. These recommendations cover a wide variety of perspectives—everything from stopping the social drinker from taking the risk of driving after drinking, to getting the repeat DWI (Driving While Impaired) offender to change his or her behavior. The recommendations also look at a number of actions and tools that can be used in this critical effort, such as ignition interlocks, DWI courts, and sobriety checkpoints. This conversation with Dr. Rosekind examines some of these topics in detail, including:
- What ignition interlocks are and the critical role they play
- The DADSS program (The car of the future?)
- Reducing the BAC (Blood Alcohol Concentration) from .08% to .05%, and
- DWI Courts for the repeat DWI offender
Laying out the steps NTSB took to develop these recommendations, and detailing what several of them mean, Dr. Rosekind provides a comprehensive discussion on how we can end impaired driving. At the end of our conversation, Dr. Rosekind provides his suggestions on what we as individuals can do to make a difference and save lives.
Also during this episode, I talk about why we need a recommitment to stopping impaired driving, and an understanding what a .08% BAC means, referencing the B4U Drink Educator.
This podcast was also video-recorded. You can watch some of the clips from this conversation by going to the Videos page on this website.