NTSB: “Multi-Tasking is a Myth”

Published Feb 4, 2019 6:31 PM by The Maritime Executive

The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board announced its 2019 - 2020 Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements, during an event held at the National Press Club on Monday. One of the top 10 items on the List was “Eliminate Distractions” with the NTSB stating: “Contributing to the distraction problem is the widespread belief by many that they can multi-task and still safely operate a vessel. But multi-tasking is a myth; humans can only focus cognitive attention on one task at a time.”

The NTSB says vessel operators don’t always have their eyes or minds on the waterway. Increased use of portable electronic devices (PEDs) among commercial transportation employees has made distractions more prevalent and is an increasing risk in vessel operations.

In heavily regulated transportation industries like marine, communicating with crew and dispatchers, checking instruments and equipment and completing scheduled tasks may be part of normal work duties, but engaging in tasks other than vessel operation impairs performance. Federal regulations should prohibit the non-operational use of cell phones and other wireless electronic devices by on-duty crewmembers in safety-critical positions, but no such regulation exists.

In the last decade, the NTSB has investigated several marine accidents in which distraction was a cause or contributing factor. One of the most prominent accidents occurred in July 2010, when the 250 foot sludge barge The Resource, which was being towed alongside the 78.9-foot tugboat Caribbean Sea, collided with the anchored 33-foot amphibious passenger vehicle DUKW 34 in the Delaware River in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. As a result of the collision, DUKW 34 sank in about 55 feet of water. Two passengers were fatally injured, and 26 passengers suffered minor injuries.

What can be done?

In commercial operations, all safety-critical personnel must commit to minimizing distractions, and vessel operators should develop policies to reduce distraction. Distraction must be managed, even engineered out, to ensure safe operations. A cultural change is needed for all marine personnel to understand that their safety and the safety of others depends on disconnecting from deadly distractions.

To address the problem of distraction, the NTSB says the following actions should be taken:

Vessel operators should keep their eyes and mind on vessel operation, says the NTSB, and not use PEDs inappropriately. They should also minimize other distractions, such as nonessential conversations. Vessel control and safe handling must be maintained at all times until the ship is safely anchored or moored. Cell phone use while underway is a violation of the U.S. Coast Guard Navigation Rules, which require mariners to maintain a proper “lookout” by sight and sound.

Owners and safety managers should establish policies and practices to combat distractions in commercial operations. For decades, the aviation mode has recognized the need for “sterile cockpit” procedures that restrict activities and conversations within the cockpit to the task at hand. The marine industry should recognize the benefits of this procedure and limit extraneous activities and conversation on deck by vessel operators, says the NTSB, and prohibit the use of phones for nonoperational purposes. Crews should be educated about the degraded performance that comes with multi-tasking and cognitive distractions.

Regulators are called on to prohibit the nonoperational use of cell phones and other wireless electronic devices by on-duty crewmembers in safety-critical positions. The NTSB says they should continue to build technical understanding of auxiliary task distraction in regulated transportation, especially with regard to new vessel technologies that require real-time operator attention. They should use the advances in these areas to support regulatory efforts that lead operators toward a cultural norm that encourages and supports a complete disconnect from distractions.

Top 10

The top 10 items on the 2019 - 2020 Most Wanted List of Transport Safety Improvements:
Eliminate Distractions
End Alcohol and Other Drug Impairment
Ensure the Safe Shipment of Hazardous Materials
Fully Implement Positive Train Control
Implement a Comprehensive Strategy to Reduce Speeding-Related Crashes
Improve the Safety of Part 135 Aircraft Flight Operations
Increase Implementation of Collision Avoidance Systems in All New Highway Vehicles
Reduce Fatigue-Related Accidents
Require Medical Fitness – Screen for and Treat Obstructive Sleep Apnea
Strengthen Occupant Protection

Call to Action
The 2019 – 2020 Most Wanted List advocates for 46 specific safety recommendations that the NTSB says can and should be implemented during these next two years. NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt said: “We at the NTSB can speak on these issues. We board members can testify by invitation to legislatures and to Congress, but we have no power of our own to act. We are counting on industry, advocates and government to act on our recommendations. We are counting on the help of the broader safety community to implement these recommendations.”
There are 267 open NTSB safety recommendations associated with the 10 Most Wanted List items, and the NTSB is focused on seeing 46 of those implemented within the next two years. The majority of these recommendations, roughly two-thirds of the 267, seek critical safety improvements by means other than regulation. Of the 46 safety recommendations the NTSB wants implemented in the next two years, 20 seek regulatory action to improve transportation safety.

At any given time, the NTSB is managing around 1,200 open safety recommendations.