NTSB: Culture of driving with phones must change

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — The nation risks a surge in deadly accidents unless it makes distracted driving — talking, texting and surfing the Internet while operating cars, boats and trains — as taboo as drunken driving, members of the National Transportation and Safety Board (NTSB) said Tuesday.

The NTSB met in Washington 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 Chairwoman Deborah Hersman said. “How do we change that mindset? Not just the NTSB, but all of us?”

The July 7 accident began with an engine problem on an amphibious duck boat, which takes tourists through Philadelphia’s historic district and then floats on the Delaware River. As the passengers waited for a help, a 250-foot barge being pushed by a tugboat struck the duck boat, spilling 37 people into the water.

In about 21⁄2 hours at the wheel of the tug, 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.

What’s more, Devlin moved from an upper to a lower wheelhouse on the tug to do so, obscuring his ability to see the stalled 33-foot duck boat. Investigators believe the lower wheelhouse offered him more privacy and less noise as he talked on the phone and did research on a company laptop — both violations of company policy.

The deckhand on the stalled 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 into the crash is also under way. Devlin, who could face involuntary manslaughter or other charges, has not cooperated with NTSB investigators on the advice of his lawyer.

He did not return a message left Tuesday by The Associated Press on what appeared to be his home number, and his lawyer did not return calls.

On the day of the accident, Devlin, 35, had learned that his young son had suffered a life-threatening reaction to anesthesia during routine eye surgery. The son has since recovered.

He was on his cellphone for 10 of the 12 minutes before the crash, and could not see the stalled duck boat for the final nine minutes because it was in his blind spot.

Over on the duck boat, Capt. Gary Fox, 59, of Turnersville, N.J., turned off the engine after noticing smoke and fearing the engine was on fire. Investigators found there was no fire, but that mechanics who inspected the vessel before the tour failed to see that a pressure cap was not sealed properly, causing coolant to leak and the engine to overheat.

The NTSB faulted Fox for failing to have passengers don life jackets after he dropped anchor, failing to teach them earlier how they should be worn, and failing to call the Coast Guard directly.

Fox’s distress calls to Devlin, meanwhile, went unanswered.

Agency investigators found that both companies — K-Sea of East Brunswick, N.J., and Ride the Ducks of Norcross, Ga. — had strong safety cultures, but that their training was not always followed.

But NTSB board members debated that finding, noting the difference between creating safety policies and enforcing them. Hersman asked why Devlin felt comfortable taking so many calls as his deckhand and engineer moved about the boat. Neither reported seeing him on the phone.

“This is a culture where he was comfortable with it ... because he’d done it before,” she said.

She noted the days when boat skippers routinely drank alcohol and pilots smoked in the cockpit. Distracted driving is no less dangerous, she said.

In recent years, the NTSB has investigated accidents in which a tug pilot, while texting, ground his vessel in the Baltic Sea, and another in which Northwest Airline pilots used laptops in the cockpit to discuss scheduling woes, ignoring communication with the tower for more than an hour as they zoomed 150 miles past their destination.

“At what point do we say it’s too much ... it has to stop, we can’t do this anymore as a society?” Hersman asked.

Drug and alcohol tests on both crews in the duck boat crash were negative.

The families of the Hungarians who drowned, 16-year-old Dora Schwendtner and 20-year-old Szabolcs Prem, have filed wrongful-death lawsuits against the city, the operators of both vessels and others.

“They’re in shock, as to how so many colossal mistakes were made by two very large corporations and their employees,” said Peter Ronai, a lawyer for the families.

K-Sea, in its statement, said it supports the agency’s goal of boosting maritime safety. The company said it may submit a formal response but otherwise declined to comment.

Ride the Ducks resumed its operations on the Delaware River this spring.

“This tragedy could have been avoided if the Caribbean Sea mate had been doing his job,” the company said Tuesday.

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