Northampton woman lauded for transportation safety work

  • DEB BRUCESubmitted photo DEB BRUCESubmitted photo

For the Gazette
Published: 5/24/2018 12:57:41 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Two decades of service investigating crashes of national interest culminated in a career award for a Northampton resident last month.

Deb “Debin” Bruce received the Chairman’s Award from the National Transportation Safety Board for her significant contributions to the field during an April 26 ceremony in Washington, D.C.

“I’m very proud of joining the other noteworthy people in history who have earned the award by leaving their mark on transportation safety,” said Bruce, when she was bestowed the honor. “It’s a recognition from people that I respect very much.”

Bruce works remotely from Northampton as a human factors engineer for the board, specializing in human error. Since joining the agency in 1996, she has investigated and made recommendations on high-profile aviation, marine and highway crashes. Her work involves accepting investigative assignments through the board’s Office of Highway Safety, which often involves extensive travel.

She called being appointed the investigator in charge and project manager for the first known fatal car crash in Florida involving an automated vehicle in May 2016 a career highlight.

Bruce’s role was to collect evidence from the crash, where a 2015 Tesla Model S 70D struck an 18-wheel truck, killing the Tesla’s driver. Ultimately, Bruce and her team determined that the crash was caused by an over-reliance on the vehicle automation system in the Tesla.

“The car had been operated in an automated fashion in many times where it was ill suited,” Bruce said in a phone interview from Tennessee this week.

Her public report suggested changes to the way we think about automation. She explained that there is a big difference between the marketing of automated cars and the actual engineering technology.

“I want the person who buys the car to realize that the technical engineer had some limitations they were working with, even now with the advances from cruise control to automated vehicle following,” Bruce said.

Bruce’s body of work has led to changes in the transportation industry and her most recent work has been focused on pedestrian safety. She was recently involved in the investigation of a pedestrian fatality involving a self-driving rideshare car in Arizona.

“Pedestrians are a huge proportion of highway fatalities now: 6,000 people get hit by automobiles on highways every year. That’s 16 people killed per day on average,” Bruce said. “That is why I’m pleased to be working on pedestrian safety.”

Originally from Hopkinsville, Kentucky, Bruce began her career working for the National Aeronautics and Space Association performing technical communications work. She later worked as a Federal Aviation Administration contractor for about 10 years before returning to college studies and later working for the safety board.

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