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The Road More or Less Traveled: Transportation Safety Defines the Journey

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Transportation safety plays a huge part in just about everyone’s lives. There are rules for highways, rules for drivers, rules for kids, rules for railroads, and of course, more safety rules for the sky. Each regulation and safety recommendation could mean the difference between life and death.

Buckle up The idea of “superhighways” came to light in 1938 when Franklin D. Roosevelt strongly backed the U.S. government’s first formal inquiry into the possibility of building an Interstate highway system spanning from New York to California, from Canada to Florida and from Mexico to Illinois. Virtually every state in the union would be traveled through by one of the new roadways commissioned under the Federal Highway Act of 1938. The beginnings of the nation’s interstate highways mapped out the course for increased trade and commerce, which led the United States–an impoverished nation struck by the Great Depression–into many years of prosperity.

But as the nation grew in population and the number of interstate highways continued to increase, society was faced with yet another dilemma–the loss of human life on the same highways that helped build the United States into the world’s leading economy.

Today, motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death among Americans ages one to 34 years old, according to the Itasca, Ill.-based National Safety Council. The U.S. Department of Transportation estimates that the total societal cost of vehicle accidents exceeds $200 billion a year. More than 42,000 people die each year in motor vehicle crashes often caused by alcohol, speed, lack of seat belt use, and other driver behaviors.

Despite the large number of motor vehicle deaths recorded annually, the rate of crash fatalities per 100,000 people has actually declined by 29 percent since 1975. Many agree transportation safety advances, whether technological or regulatory, have played a significant role in this decline.

“Seat belts are the single most effective safety device,” said Elaine Weinstein, director of safety recommendations at the National Transportation Safety Board in Washington, D.C. When used properly, seat belts reduce the risk of fatal injury by 45 percent, Weinstein said. “That’s teenagers or adults and that’s front seat or back seat passengers.” Best of all, Weinstein added, “it doesn’t cost anything.”

The NTSB is an independent federal agency charged by Congress to investigate all civil aviation accidents in the United States, as well as significant accidents in the other modes of transportation, including railroad, highway, marine and pipeline. The organization in turn issues safety recommendations aimed at preventing future accidents.

While seat belts are nothing new, enacting primary enforcement laws in each state remains on the NTSB’s “Most Wanted Transportation Safety Improvements” list. Only 21 states currently have primary enforcement laws for seat belt use, which allow police to stop a vehicle solely because a driver is not wearing a seat belt. In states where belt use law enforcement is secondary, police cannot stop vehicles for this infraction alone. New Hampshire remains the only state without a belt use law at all.

A new study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that when states strengthen their laws from secondary enforcement to primary, driver death rates decline by an estimated 7 percent.

“In states with primary laws, safety belt use rates are higher. The result is that crash deaths are reduced,” said Susan Ferguson, IIHS senior vice president. “Where primary laws are in effect, drivers are more likely to buckle up because the perception is that they’re going to be pulled over if they don’t.”

The most recent national observational survey conducted in 2004 by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration shows that belt use rates averaged 84 percent in primary states compared with 73 percent in secondary states.

“If the 28 states that still have secondary laws were to switch to primary enforcement, about 700 lives would be saved each year. And if legislators in these states had enacted primary laws to begin with, more than 5,000 lives could have been saved since 1996,” Ferguson said.

New safety devices save more lives Aside from transportation safety laws, new and improved vehicle technology also continues to save lives on the road every day.

The IIHS, a nonprofit organization funded solely by auto insurers to reduce death, injuries and property damage on highways, works with automobile manufacturers to discuss new technologies and improved designs that deliver safer results.

“Fortunately more and more vehicle manufacturers are recognizing that safety is an important selling point,” said Stephen Oesch, senior vice president at the IIHS. “We are certainly seeing manufacturers making the design changes in order to do better in our tests.”

Oesch said that when IIHS began its use of its now famous “crash dummy” testing in 1995 there were few vehicles that were rated as good and many vehicles rated as poor in its ongoing series of frontal offset crash tests. Frontal offset crash tests simulate the driver’s side of one vehicle striking the driver’s side of another vehicle.

“The existing federal standard for frontal collisions basically simulates a head-on impact between two vehicles … so the full front width of the vehicle striking the full front width of another vehicle,” Oesch said. The federal test measures how well the lap and shoulder belts work together to provide protection, while IIHS’s test measures how well the safety cage is maintained around the occupant.

“Over the years, as manufacturers introduce new designs in new models, they have designed them in such a way to improve their performance.”

No manufacturer wants to be named on national television as having a poor rating, Oesch added. “As a result, you do see gradual improvements over time,” he said.

The good news for consumers and insurers alike is that IIHS is beginning to see similar improvements in side impact testing.

According to Oesch, the majority of deaths and serious injuries were the result of frontal impact collisions. “Then you look at the stats and you see that side impacts are the second largest category of crashes involving fatalities,” he said.

“We just began side impact testing but already we know that there are a number of manufacturers that as they are introducing new models are making improvements not only to the side structure of the vehicle but also adding side impact airbags that provide head protection.”

Side airbags are quickly becoming the new “seat belt” in terms of proven effectiveness on safety. Each year more than 9,000 passenger vehicle occupants die in side impact collisions and head injuries are the leading cause of death. Side airbags that include head protection are reducing deaths by about 45 percent among drivers struck on the driver’s side of the vehicle. Side airbags that protect just the chest and abdomen but not the head reduce deaths by only 10 percent.

In addition, the need for head protection in side impact collisions has increased as the number of high-riding vehicles on the road has increased.

“There are more and more sport utility vehicles and trucks in the vehicle fleet,” Oesch said. “The ride height of an SUV or pickup is much higher so that in a side impact there is a much greater possibility that the driver of the struck vehicle is going to hit their head on the intruding hood of the SUV or truck.”

Since the mid-1990s when Volvo introduced side airbags and BMW and others added head protection, more auto makers have followed suit. By the 2003 model year, 40 percent of all passenger vehicles models offered head-protecting side airbags (24 percent standard equipment, 16 percent optional equipment).

Minor injuries hurt the bottom line Reducing fatalities on the road is a critical concern to drivers, insurers and transportation safety advocates, but frequent, less serious injuries are also of great interest to insurers. Not only are neck injuries, or whiplash injuries, painful, but they also are frequent and expensive, costing the insurance industry at least $7 billion in claims annually.

“Neck injuries make up about 25 percent of total dollars paid for all crash injuries,” Oesch added. “The fatal and severe injuries are occurring in the frontal and side impact tests, but there are a substantial number of injuries that are a result of rear impact as well.”

So it’s not surprising that the IIHS takes a keen interest in testing seat and head restraint systems. To date, the insurance industry funded organization has tested 73 seat/head restraint combinations available in 63 models sold in the U.S. market. However, only eight of the 73 tested earned overall good ratings. Sixteen were acceptable and 19 are rated marginal. The remaining 30 were rated poor.

Nevertheless, Oesch said auto manufacturers are installing many new active head restraint designs that provide better protection against whiplash injuries. The key to reducing whiplash injury risk is to keep the head and torso moving synchronously. To ensure they move together, a seat and head restraint have to work together to support an occupant’s neck and head, accelerating them with the torso as the vehicle is driven forward following a rear impact. An active head restraint design does just this.

“Our analysis of the insurance industry claims shows that the active head restraint is working to reduce injury claims resulting from rear impact,” Oesch said.

Keep on truckin’ Large trucks account for more than their share of deaths on U.S. highways. In 2003, 4,855 people died in large truck crashes. Fourteen percent of those deaths were truck occupants, 73 percent were people in cars and other passenger vehicles, and 10 percent were pedestrians, bicyclists, or motorcyclists.

Even though large truck crash deaths have declined 26 percent overall since the all time high in 1979, they record higher fatal crash rates per mile traveled on interstate highways–considered the safest roads–than passenger vehicles.

The braking capability of large trucks is obviously a factor in crashes. Loaded tractor-trailers require 20 percent to 40 percent farther than cars to stop, and the discrepancy is greater when trailers are empty, on wet and slippery roads, or being driven with poorly maintained brakes, reports the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Truck driver fatigue also is a well-known crash risk. Drivers of large trucks currently are allowed by federal hours-of-service regulations to drive up to 11 hours at a stretch and up to 77 hours over a 7-day period, although some experts maintain that drivers often violate the regulations and work longer than permitted.

“Drivers are always going to be the number one concern (when insuring a truck line),” said Joe Hutelmyer, president of Seaboard Underwriters Inc. in Burlington, N.C. “Because you have somebody that is on the road, independent, away from the truck line and not under direct supervision.” Seaboard, founded in 1957, operates as an underwriting manager, managing general agency, and wholesale broker and specializes in insurance for the commercial transportation industry.

According to Hutelmyer, technology has helped to tighten the reins on truck drivers in recent years. “There is more supervision now than there has been as long as I’ve been in the business,” he said. “Now with satellite tracking, with cell phone communication equipment in the vehicle, we can pretty much stay on top of drivers … where they are and what they are doing. In the past, they had a lot more freedom.”

To address the issue of driver fatigue, the federal government recently amended the hours of service regulations to allow drivers to drive 11 hours after 10 consecutive hours off-duty, which provides drivers with an opportunity to obtain 8 hours of sleep. Previously, the regulations only gave drivers 8 consecutive hours of off-duty time, which didn’t allow for a full 8 hours of sleep.

There are also other checks and balances to ensure that drivers follow safety regulations on the road. Drivers must maintain paperwork or log books to account for their time on the road, although they can easily cheat on recording their time, said Joe Osterman of NTSB.

“There are a number of oversight checks in place by the state and federal government to review driver’s logs. On the road inspections, compliance reviews of motor carriers to look at driver’s records, etc.,” Osterman said. Nevertheless, there is still room for inaccurate recording.

In 1990, the NTSB recommended that large trucks be required to have on-board recorders that would account for a driver’s hours.

“At that time there were arguments that the technology was not sophisticated enough and too expensive,” Osterman said. “That argument has now gone away.”

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has issued a notice of proposed rule making to investigate the possibility of allowing electronic log books to record driver hours in place of the paper log.

“The challenge is that unless you have a standard for the electronic log books those log books can be very difficult for law enforcement to read them,” Osterman said. “But I do think electronic log books are on the way.” Osterman said there are a few motor carriers that are using them now effectively.

The use of anti-lock braking systems are another factor that has led to safer trucks on the road today.

“Five years ago trucks did not have anti-lock braking systems,” Hutelmyer said. “So you had private passenger vehicles with ABS systems being able to stop and the trucks could not because they didn’t have ABS.”

Hutelmyer added that a number of motor carrier fleets also use outside companies such as Safety First to ensure their drivers are driving safely. Safety First uses decals posted on the back of trucks that ask, “How’s my driving?” Also listed is an 800-number to report a complaint on a particular truck driver. Seaboard Underwriters provides this program to all its motor carrier clients.

“Anytime there is a driver that there has been a complaint about, we get a copy of it as well as the insured,” he said. “We make that a part of our underwriting.

“We do a lot of work with respect to helping the truck line improve their safety record because if they’re a better truck line, their frequency is going to improve and if their frequency improves, they are going to get a better rate,” Hutelmyer added.

Riding the rail On the heels on the deadliest railroad accident since 1999, the concerns over railroad safety in the United States hit the mainstream media like a speeding bullet. Perhaps nothing could have prevented the chain reaction collision in Glendale, Calif., on Jan. 26 which involved three trains, killed at least 11 people and injured nearly 200 others.

Reports indicate that a suicidal man drove his truck onto the tracks of an oncoming Los Angeles County Metrolink commuter train before botching his plans for self-inflicted death, leaving his pickup in the path of an oncoming train.

According to reports in the Los Angeles Times, the lead passenger car of a three-car southbound train, hit the truck, dragged it down the tracks, and then derailed. Just as the Metrolink train derailed, it crashed into a stopped Union Pacific freight train that was on an adjacent side track. The impact caused the passenger train to jackknife, causing its tail-end car to smash into another three-car northbound Metrolink train.

The crash has brought to light the issue of rail safety in Southern California, and elsewhere, where commuter lines share tracks with busy freight systems and intersect frequently with the nation’s most extensive urban road networks.

But while sharing tracks is the hot topic today, the NTSB says human error poses a greater cause for concern when discussing railroad safety.

According to studies by the Federal Railroad Administration of 145 head-on, rear end and side collisions on U.S. railroads, there were 132 collisions, or 91 percent, that were attributed to human factor causes.

Over the past three decades the NTSB has investigated a number of accidents in which crewmembers failed to operate their trains appropriately due to fatigue, sleeping disorders, use of medications, or distractions within the operating cab. Human performance deficiencies are the primary reason the NTSB has advocated that positive train control (PTC) systems should be required where passenger and freight trains operate, particularly in high-risk areas where commuter and intercity passenger railroads operate.

PTC provides an automatic way of stopping two trains from colliding into each other, Weinstein said. In 2003 and 2004, the NTSB investigated four collisions where PTC systems might have made a difference.

The current pace of implementation of collision avoidance technologies, or PTC systems, on U.S. railroads has been slow. The NTSB reports that progress has been particularly slow along rail lines that primarily serve freight carriers and most lines with significant passenger traffic remain largely unprotected, 12 years after the issue was placed on NTSB’s “Most Wanted” list.

Flying the skies No other mode of public transportation holds the kind of positive safety record that the aviation industry does, although in today’s terrorism age that record is often overshadowed. Only 34 people have died in U.S. commercial airline crashes in the past three years, making it one of the safest periods in aviation history, reported the Associated Press.

“I hope all modes of transportation could replicate aviation’s safety record,” said Ellen Engleman Conners, NTSB chairman, in a statement.

“We have the safest aviation system in the world,” NTSB’s Wienstein told Insurance Journal. “We have learned from every single accident that the board has investigated and made improvements so that the aviation system gets safer every year.”

Marion Blakey, who heads the Federal Aviation Administration, told the Associated Press that new technology has also improved safety. For example, many planes now have systems that warn pilots if they’re about to fly too close to the ground.

Jets and turboprops manufactured after March 29, 2003, are required by federal regulations to have a so-called Terrain Awareness and Warning System. All other planes with more than six seats must be retrofitted with the devices by March 29, 2005.

On the ground, 34 major airports have been equipped with systems that warn air traffic controllers of a potential collision on runways.

Weather radar and wind shear alert systems also have helped eliminate accidents caused when planes encounter concentrated downward bursts of wind on approach to the airport.

Safety experts agree that better training and awareness of safety issues have played a big part in making U.S. skies safer. Nevertheless, the NTSB continues to seek improved safety regulations and standards for the aviation industry. Listed on their most wanted list are: reducing dangers to aircraft flying in icy conditions; eliminating flammable fuel/air vapors in fuel tanks on transport category aircraft; improving audio and data recorders and requiring video recorders; and requiring restraint systems for children under age two.


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