The nation risks a surge in deadly accidents unless it makes distracted driving — talking, texting and browsing the Internet while operating cars, boats and trains — as taboo as drinking and driving, members of the National Transportation and Safety Board said Tuesday.
The NTSB is meeting at its headquarters at L’Enfant Plaza Tuesday to discuss last year’s fatal crash between a tour boat and a barge that killed two Hungarian students and tossed 35 other people into a busy shipping channel in Philadelphia. The mate piloting the tug pushing the barge was on his cellphone dealing with a family emergency, the agency found.
“Many people continue to think it’s just going to take a moment” to call or text,” NTSB Chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman said. “How do we change that mindset? Not just the NTSB, but all of us.”
In about 2 1/2 hours at the wheel of the tug pushing the 250-foot city barge, K-Sea Transportation Partners tug pilot Matt Devlin made and received 21 cellphone calls and also surfed the Internet on a company laptop, investigators said.
The NTSB also concluded that Devlin was in the tug’s lower wheelhouse, not the upper wheelhouse, putting the stalled, 33-foot duck boat in his blind spot.
The deckhand on the disabled duck boat was texting as well. He sent several messages after dropping anchor, including one a minute before the barge hit.
“Distraction is becoming the new DUI,” NTSB member Robert Sumwalt said. “This is going to reach epidemic proportions.”
Society will have to elevate such distractions to a taboo, akin to drinking and driving or not wearing seatbelts, he said.
“It takes a generation or two to change it, but change is needed,” Sumwalt said.
A federal criminal investigation is also under way into the crash. Devlin — who could face involuntary manslaughter or other charges — has not cooperated with NTSB investigators on the advice of his lawyer.
The families of the Hungarian students killed in the crash have filed wrongful-death lawsuits.