Q&A: Kristin Poland, PhD – Deputy Director, Office of Highway Safety, NTSB

Kristin Poland, PhD, is deputy director of the Office of Highway Safety at the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). We spoke with her about her role in the NTSB, the organization’s key contributions to school bus safety, and how the NAPT can help support the NTSB’s mission.

Please share with us a little bit about why you chose to be a part of the NTSB.

I joined the NTSB about 25 years ago in 1998. I have a PhD in biomechanical engineering. The NTSB was looking for someone to do biomechanics on crashes, and I was fortunate enough to see that opportunity and join at a time when we began placing a significant emphasis on school bus safety.

At that time, NTSB was investigating a number of crashes both in school buses and in motor coaches. We saw that there were injuries and fatalities in areas that we did not necessarily think there should be. We continued to investigate a number of crashes and in 1999 we released a bus crash worthiness report. My responsibility was to investigate both school bus crashes and motor coach crashes. At that time, I worked in our Office of Research and Engineering, and I also did all of the simulation work analyzing happened to our simulated occupants as a baseline in an unbelted condition with compartmentalization alone, in addition to what may have happened if we had a lap belt or lap shoulder belts.

We then realized that if we were going to put seat belts on school buses to improve their occupant safety for crashes, we needed to make sure that those belts were properly fitted and well-designed. That was a critical component that we needed to have an occupant protection system on school buses that accounted for crashes in all modes. 

My background in biomechanical engineering lent well to understanding the types of injuries that were happening on buses and in some cases where those injuries led to fatalities. Also looking at the dynamics of the vehicles to better understand what our options were and where potential improvements could be made in school bus safety.

What do you see as the key contributions of the NTSB to school bus safety in particular?  What would you point to that stands out as game-changing?

The way that we look at school bus safety is that it is an area where we can get to zero. There are a lot of people talking about the road to zero and how we can get to zero fatalities in all transportation, specifically highway transportation. School transportation safety is already a pretty safe system and there are certain things that can be added to it to make it even safer. That is where NTSB has really focused our attention.

There are a number of aspects that we have looked at to try and avoid crashes altogether. We do not want the crash to ever occur in the first place. That includes the electronic stability control system so that you do not have oversteering situations that can lead to a loss of control or a high-speed rollover. Automatic emergency braking systems, those collision avoidance systems that can help the driver in certain circumstances.

It also means safe route planning. Can we make sure that our students are loading and unloading the bus in the safest possible manner, recognizing that the other road users may not be at 100 percent? We have also advocated for a lot of those other road users to include school bus safety in their protocols. They need to be able to see and recognize school buses and recognize the operation of school buses. Pedestrian automatic emergency braking systems need to be functional at higher speeds for those types of systems.

NTSB has also recognized the benefits of the onboard video recording system. A lot of school buses have them for other reasons, but there are a lot of benefits to them from determining when the school children are not seated properly or are not wearing the lap shoulder belts properly, to understanding when you may have some opportunities to look at driver training.

Of course, well designed and properly worn lap shoulder belts. If we are unable to avoid the crash, we need to have systems that protect the occupants in all seat positions from crashes of all types. Compartmentalization, closely spaced energy absorbing seats are designed to protect the occupants in frontal crashes. NTSB has shown that often there is maneuvering that happens in crashes before a frontal crash that will throw children out of a seating compartment, so they do not get the benefit of that protection. Obviously, inside impacts or high-speed rollover crashes, especially with crashes involving other large vehicles, the occupants are at risk. Those lap shoulder belts can keep the occupant within their seating compartment and give them that maximum benefit.

What do you see on the horizon that school bus safety professionals should be alert to?

There are a number of emerging technologies that we are looking at in the highway mode, and I think the school bus industry has the opportunity to leverage some of those. Obviously there has been a significant push towards vehicle-to-vehicle communications. There are opportunities to leverage that technology where those types of systems could incorporate school buses. We have also talked about other emergency vehicles and the opportunity there.

NTSB has also been looking at a lot of the intelligence systems, such as automatic emergency braking, and similar collision avoidance type systems. We have also looked at intelligence speed assist systems, systems that are on the vehicle. Europe just required these systems to be on passenger car fleets and some larger vehicles. These are systems that can determine the speed limit in a region, either based on GPS or reading the speed limit signs, and then can provide a warning to the driver when they go above that speed limit, or in some cases can actually prevent the vehicle from continuing to speed. New York City is currently pilot testing the software on one of their fleet vehicles.

In terms of the school bus professionals, there tends to be better opportunities and more tolerance when introducing these types of systems in and around the school zone and that can be leveraged to show that these safety technologies can be beneficial everywhere.

How can NAPT as an organization, and our members as professionals, be cognizant of and supportive of the work of the NTSB? 

Inside the NTSB, we always talk about how wonderful it is to work with the school bus community and the School Bus Association because we feel like you are always leveraging to have the safest transportation for school children, and for the drivers and for their environment. We are already very appreciative of all the work that you do and your efforts to share what the NTSB does, inviting us to conferences so that we can share our safety message. Tying back into my previous answer, I do think there is an opportunity where you can leverage the school transportation safety and the intolerance for any sort of poor behavior in that area to leverage those technologies that can be beneficial in preventing school bus crashes or crashes around school transportation to prove that those things are also safe in many other environments as well.

How important is it that we stay engaged with the NTSB through your investigations and recommendations to the industry? How can we make that engagement work for us all?

If people are interested in learning more about the NTSB, there are certainly ways that they can get that type of information. We are actually working on some systems in the future to make that even easier. For example, if someone is interested in a specific crash, you can find that information on our webpage. 

We do have the opportunity for people to connect with us on social media so they can access information on NTSB investigations. A number of members have been involved with our webinars and other efforts we have made to push out information. From that, they join our Constant Contact where they will get updates on highway safety related investigations. That might not just be specific to school buses, but of course, as I was saying earlier, it is important to recognize what is happening in the transportation environment all the way around so that school bus safety can be incorporated into those as well.

If people are interested in more data interested, there are some opportunities on our webpage to query our data more. The NTSB for the surface modes now has a database that is tracking our investigation called the CAROL Query. In that case, you can get information from the surface modes from 2010 to present. You can search for school buses and get more information that way too.