Distracted Drivers Helm Planes, Trains And Buses
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
We've all heard about the dangers from distracted driving. Now distracted flying. Last Wednesday, two pilots on a Northwest Airlines flight overflew their destination in Minneapolis by some 150 miles. They say they were focused on their laptops, trying to figure out their work schedules and lost track of the time. So distracted they didn't hear air traffic controllers calling on one radio frequency or radio - or other pilots calling on another. As jet fighters prepared to scramble in pursuit, the pilots finally figured out the situation, turned around and landed safely. We're not still not sure if that's exactly what happened, but we do know that cell phones, Blackberries and laptops and fatigue can be a problem, not just for pilots, but for bus drivers, train operators and truckers too.
Later in the hour, lessons in the art of snagging a foul ball. But first, if you pilot a commercial airplane, operate a train, drive a bus or a big rig, how distracted are you? Do you occasionally sneak a peek at your inbox or even take a short nap. Our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site, that's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. We begin with Amanda Ripley, the author of the book "The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes." And she's been kind enough to join us today here in Studio 3A. Thanks very much for coming in.
Ms. AMANDA RIPLEY (Author): Thanks for having me.
CONAN: And these Northwest Airlines pilots - is this common?
Ms. RIPLEY: You know, the phenomenon of getting heavily distracted to the point where you don't actually hear and see other things, it's very common in aviation safety, so common that there's actually a phrase for it. Actually, there's a couple of phrases for it. And one is channelized attention, another one is task saturation and it's being a big problem in the past. And I think they thought they've got it sort of figured out with various fixes, but obviously not in every case.
CONAN: There's a tragic case, in fact, that you mentioned in your book.
Ms. RIPLEY: Actually, there were a few cases in the '70s that were really awful where right around the time planes started to get much more complex. So there was a lot of systems going on in the cockpit, just like, say, a laptop where there's a lot of data that you can look at. There started to be a series of problems - one of the ones that I talk about in the book is about an Eastern Airlines jet, and it was late on the December evening. It was headed from New York City to Miami - clear night, smooth flight, should have been a perfect landing, when as they were about to land and put down the landing gear, the pilots noticed that the green light didn't light up showing that the landing gear was fully down. And they got more and more, you know, concerned about this.
They decided to do a U-turn and circle around to try to figure this out. About six minutes went by, the whole crew is fixated on trying to figure out why that light didn't go on. An small alarm sound went off and nobody seems to have heard it, if you look at the transcript of the voice recorder. And then about two minutes later one of the officers noticed that something had happened to the altitude, to quote him specifically. And next thing you know, the plane crashed in the Everglades. And it was a horrific crash, killing hundred and one people.
CONAN: There's another phrase that pilots use - situational awareness. This is something you're supposed to always be focused on, what's going on around you.
Ms. RIPLEY: Right. So that's sort of the opposite, right?
Ms. RIPLEY: Of task saturation which is to always be aware of what's happening. That's actually something that's good for all of us and hard to do. But yes, that is the goal - situational awareness.
CONAN: We're wanting to talk today with people who, well, have our safety at their hands - commercial airline pilots, truck drivers, bus drivers, train operators - what are the distractions you face and how difficult is your job? 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. Paul is on the line from Carmel in Ohio. Paul, are you there?
PAUL (Caller): Yes, I am.
CONAN: Go ahead, please.
PAUL: Alright, well, I was just wanting to say that, you know, being a bus driver, I'm flying at 500 miles an hour with 150 people on board, but 70 miles an hour with 40, 50 people can be white knuckling when you've got a dispatcher who is a little perturbed that you're 10 minutes behind schedule because somebody needed to make a potty break. I've got cell phones with wives, children and sick parents calling in and asking if, you know, they can find their meds. You know, I've got GPS systems that can be distracting in a dark night when you're driving in rain. And then you've got some passengers on board who might have imbibed or are somehow in altered states and think they need to tell you all of their life's problems.
CONAN: And there's no armored door between you and your passengers.
PAUL: No. In fact, I've gotten hit by everything from vomitus to a used diaper.
PAUL: Yeah. But the pay is really good and the hours are peachy keen.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: I bet. What kind of bus do you drive?
PAUL: I drive everything from the airport vans you might be familiar with, if you're - and up to the standard GMC coaches.
CONAN: Okay. Well, Paul, thanks for letting us know about the lucrative world of bus driving.
PAUL: All right, and give the right-away to the buses.
CONAN: All right. Thanks very much for the phone call. Joining us now is James Hall. He is the managing partner at Hall & Associates, a consulting firm in Washington, D.C. Also a former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, and he's with us from his home in Tennessee. Jim, nice to have you on the program with us today.
Mr. JAMES HALL (Hall & Associates): Well, nice to be with you, Neal.
CONAN: And I wonder if you listen to the explanation these pilots told us, that they were, well, not paying a lot of attention to the airplane systems but rather on their laptops, a violation of company rules, trying to workout their schedules. Do you find this credible?
Mr. HALL: Well, since they volunteered that they were breaking their own company's rules, which will probably result in their discharge, I do find it credible. Hopefully it is a very unusual occurrence.
CONAN: We all hope that. Nevertheless, some people would say, wait a minute, there's all kinds of alarms that air-traffic control can set off and there were other pilots trying to call him at the same time too.
Mr. HALL: Yeah, it's - of all of the things that I've seen in aviation in several decades of working in the area of aviation safety, this has to be one of the most unusual.
CONAN: We're having a little problem with the phone line, Jim. We're going to call you right back.
Mr. HALL: All right.
CONAN: All right, we're just going to hang up for just a moment. We'll get right back to you. James Hall, the former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board at his home in Tennessee. Amanda Ripley is still with us, the author of the book "The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes." Let's get another caller on the line. Jonathan with us calling from Chatanooga, also in Tennessee.
JONATHAN (Caller): Oh, hi. How are you?
JONATHAN: Hi, listen I'm 18-wheeler driver. I'm an owner-operator. And I just thought I'd call in about the pilots there. You know, but I mean, even when it comes to our operation out here, you know, we had the paper log book and they're moving on with that. We're going into a PeopleNet system, which is electronic. And even as you operate the truck, you can reach with your right hand and start, you know, finding directions or, you know, reading, you know, while you're driving. And it's a device to make you safe and to keep you compliant with the Department of Transportation and their guidelines and whatnot. And all of the fleet throughout the country will end up going in this direction.
JONATHAN: Other than that, you can still, you know, lose control and whatnot, even with that simple thing.
CONAN: Well, it sounds like it's also pulling your eyes off the road.
JONATHAN: Yes, it is.
CONAN: There are a number of things, of course, that you, you know, that take you away from doing what you're supposed to do, which is driving, that's correct. But you know, in the case of the pilots there, I just don't - I think that's a professional response. I think that they were either sleeping or they were in an argument. I don't know how that got started, but I have a hard time believing that all the bells and whistles that are on those things, that they would not have the wherewithal to hear that, you know, given that kind of time frame, which it may have been just 15 or 20 minutes, but that's a pretty long period of time…
CONAN: More like 45 minutes because it only took the whole thing and hour and a half…
JONATHAN: That's right because you had, you know, the preparation to lower, you know, your altitude and get it to Minneapolis and whatnot. So I think there's a little more involved than that, but you know, I was appalled.
When I saw, you know, Michael Moore's movie, I couldn't believe it. It confirmed - my company's based out of Eagan, Minnesota, right there at Minneapolis-St. Paul, and our shuttle also picks up and drops off pilots who are in training. And I was astounded to find out that even while I'm paying for an 18-wheeler, even in this economy, I earn about twice what they do.
CONAN: Airline pilots, yeah, at least regional airlines, at least. Jonathan, thanks very much. You've got our other guest back, and so I want to go back to James Hall, appreciate the phone call. Jim, are you there with us?
Mr. HALL: Yeah, I'm back again, sorry about that.
CONAN: And I don't know if you had a chance to overhear, but there are people who remain skeptical of these pilots. There's so many systems that seem to be redundant systems to get the pilot's attention, if necessary, that a lot of people just find this hard to believe.
Mr. HALL: Well, you know, the bottom line is, it's really unimportant whether the pilots were asleep or whether they were distracted. They failed to do their job. They failed to look after the safety of their passengers, and after 9/11, clearly any type of incident like this is not just a matter of aviation safety, it's also a matter of aviation security.
CONAN: Which is why they were getting ready to send fighter planes up, and which is why, when the pilots did re-establish contact and re-establish control, they asked them to perform certain maneuvers to indicate that they were still in control of the aircraft. And I just wonder, though, as you look at this story, whatever it was, okay, it was bad, and presumably these men are going to lose their jobs, but nevertheless, as you think about what they were doing, they say they were working on their private laptops. Is this a function, at least in part, of the extent to which modern aircraft are automated?
Mr. HALL: Well, it is, and that's a reason I'm very encouraged that we have a bill that your listeners may not be familiar with that was proposed in the House of Representatives. It's 3371. It's passed the House. It is being up for vote in the Senate, which will put together an expert panel to address a number of the training issues that the NTSB has been concerned about over the years, as well as, for the first time, address the whole issue of fatigue.
So if that legislation goes into effect, I think that the area of fatigue, the area of training will be addressed, and then the third major (unintelligible) that was made while I was chairman has not been implement, of course, is cameras in the cockpit. And I think this clearly indicates that there is a need for cameras in the cockpit.
CONAN: Pilots unions disagree with you there, but we'll get more on that when we come back from a short break. We're talking with James Hall, former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board; and with Amanda Ripley, who is the author of the book, "The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes?"
Of course, we're talking about distracted flying, but there is also distracted, well, ship-captaining and operating a train and driving a big rig. What do you get distracted by? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. We got this email from Mike in Oregon. I'm a police officer, and we deal with it daily. Consider the radio, computer terminal and watching for bad guys. It's difficult, but we train for it and must keep all of it in perspective.
Well, we're talking about it, is distracted driving in the case of, well, police officers and big-rig drivers, bus drivers, too, but all the kinds of people who have a whole bunch of people's lives in their hands. That includes commercial airline pilots and, well, we're talking about the instant case of the two men who overflew their destination in Minneapolis by 150 miles.
They say they were engaged on their laptops and got distracted and lost track of the time. Some people have questions about that, but if you're one of those people who flies planes, operates trains or buses or ferry boats, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. Our guests are Amanda Ripley, the author of "The Unthinkable: Who Survives when Disaster Strikes?" We're also speaking with James Hall, managing partner at Hall and associates, former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board.
And Jim, I want to read you this other email that we have from Elias(ph) in - excuse me, Scott(ph) in Sacramento. As a former flight attendant on a major airline, I was well aware of crew boredom. Although it was a big no-no to snooze, it did happen, not both pilots at the same time, but it does happen.
We'd go into the cockpit and shoot the breeze, we'd get them coffee or sodas or block the aisle for restroom breaks. We'd help them stay awake as much as they helped us. We're not robots, but together, we kept each other and everyone on board safe.
Our company forbade pilots from reading newspapers. I'd walk into some cockpits, and the guys would just be staring out at 370 miles of Sonoran Desert, all topics of conversation obviously exhausted. Cut them some slack. They need to keep their minds alive. Getting on their laptops I think is acceptable; not hearing ATC call them for 150 miles, not so much.
And I wonder if that has some resonance for you.
Mr. HALL: Well, I mean, clearly the NTSB's looked at this issue and has recommended what is a very sort of controversial - that the pilots, one at a time, obviously, be allowed to take short naps in the cockpit, particularly on long-haul trips. We think that would actually increase the awareness and attention in the cockpit.
I certainly would be opposed for personal laptops or BlackBerrys in the cockpit. There's plenty for the - plenty of responsibility, and the flight crew has, on any given flight, that they don't need to be attending to personal business.
CONAN: Okay, let's see if we can get another caller on the line. This is Jim, and Jim with us from Kansas City.
JIM (Caller): Yes, sir.
CONAN: Another Jim. Go ahead, please.
JIM: I wanted to address the issue of fatigue in the cockpit. I think that contributes to a lot of distraction or just the potential for distraction. Right now, I don't know if people know this, but they can schedule for up to 16 hours in any given day, and that means from showing up at the airplane to leaving the airplane. And they're legislating this in Congress right now, or trying to, but I think they're not taking it nearly far enough. They're still allowing people to be scheduled 12 and 14 hours in any given day, and that really affects what happens in the cockpit and your ability to stay focused for long periods of time. I'd like to hear your NTSB person talk about how they can change that to make that even better for pilots.
CONAN: Well, he's not a member of Congress, but Jim Hall, what do you think?
Mr. HALL: Well again, these are recommendations that were made while I was chairman in the 1990s, that have finally been - well, are part of this House legislation, this Bill 3371. This would require all of the major airlines, all the operating airlines, to put together a fatigue management plan, and for the first time, it is looking - putting together a - designating the National Science Foundation to put together a task force to look specifically at commuting and its impact on fatigue in the cockpit.
CONAN: Jim, I wonder - the other Jim, the caller from Kansas City - did you ever find yourself nodding to sleep in the cockpit?
JIM: Honestly, yes, and I think the recommendation of the board to allow one pilot at a time is a very smart thing - even on short hauls. The fact is we show up at the airport at 4 o'clock in the morning and work until 6 or 7 o'clock that night. And if you're doing five legs in any given day, there's going to be some time when you need to recharge yourself. And if that is structured and monitored, I think that's a great idea.
CONAN: Okay, Jim, thanks very much for the phone call.
JIM: Thank you, Neal.
CONAN: And Jim Hall, we wanted to thank you for your time today.
Mr. HALL: Well, it's a pleasure because your discussion today is probably the number one safety issue in all of transportation, and that's what we're going to do with all the distraction that all of us now can enjoy with the various devices that are available to us.
CONAN: James Hall, the former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, now managing partner at Hall and Associates, with us from his home in Tennessee. We thank him for his time.
And Amanda Ripley, we're talking about sort of on-the-job distractions, all of the computers that the police officers are required the operate and the systems the trucker driver was talking to us. In addition, you've got your friend calling you about the ball game on your cell phone, and you're reading about the fact on your BlackBerry, you've got some new email.
Ms. RIPLEY: You know, it's actually a great point because for anyone who says I can't believe these guys could be this distracted, I want to point out that all of us have experienced tunnel vision that comes from this kind of distraction probably every day.
So there was a great study that came out a few years ago that showed when you talk on your cell phone, you lose a significant amount of your peripheral vision. You literally lose some vision. And actually, that loss continues about 20 minutes after you've hung up the phone.
So we all know what this is like, subconsciously or consciously on some level, the brain is wired to focus one thing. And we have created wonderful technology to focus on many things. And we have not caught up.
CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. This is Tim - Tim with us from Juneau in Alaska.
TIM (Caller): Yes sir.
CONAN: Go ahead please.
TIM: Well, I just wondered if you had a question for me. But the first thing that popped into my head when I heard this, just goes back to the first principle of navigation; which is you can't know where you're going if you don't know where you're at.
CONAN: Ha ha.
TIM: So, if someone in that cockpit doesn't know precisely where the airplane's at at any given moment, that's a big problem.
CONAN: And navigation, you have experience with?
TIM: Yes sir.
CONAN: As what?
TIM: As a boat captain.
CONAN: As a boat captain. What kind of boat?
TIM: It's a 90 foot crew boat.
CONAN: And I assume there are all kinds of distractions that you have to look out for, including things like the weather and the sea state.
CONAN: What other problems do you have?
TIM: Well, it can be different for any given day. But often times, it could be as simple as a cell phone ringing or a conversation in the wheel house. Different individuals have different capacities for multi-tasking. I think for what I do when I - as I try and set up a standard procedure that addresses what's pretty basic for that human capacity to multi-task, so that it's simple and, you know, the rules are simple enough that someone who's not that good at multi-tasking isn't subject to too much distraction.
CONAN: Okay. And it sounds like you're close enough to shore that you're still within cell phone range.
CONAN: Okay. All right, Tim; thanks very much and sail safe.
TIM: You bet.
CONAN: Bye bye. Let's see, we go next to Boise, Idaho. This is Mary on the line.
MARY (Caller): Hi.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARY: It's nice to be on your show. I sure enjoy it.
CONAN: Oh, well, thanks very much.
MARY: I currently work as a smoke jumper pilot, and we fly - I've flown on forest fires for a long time, about 20, 25 years. And we work at the other end of the aviation spectrum. You know, if we do allow ourselves to get distracted, there's no room for error. We're not up at 30,000 feet. And the training - all of our training is based around that fact.
CONAN: It sounds like you're on the other end of the adrenaline spectrum, too.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARY: Yeah, we are, and I think that's why everyone, you know, does enjoy it so much. But, you know, we do face the same things. You know, the job that I have now is single pilot, and I fly, you know, at low altitudes, usually very hot temperatures, high density altitudes and mountainous terrain, turbulent. You know, usually four radios are going at - you know, all at the same time because we have the aviation - other aviation resources are talking on two of them, and then we have to talk to the fighters on the ground on the other two radios. And then in the middle of that, we have the conversation that's going on inside the aircraft, you know, to work - put the people out on fire, and we have to prioritize. And so I've known a lot of people in this industry - not so much the smoke jumper side, but in firefighting in general - who have been killed because it's a very unforgiving environment.
CONAN: And a lot of the time, it's difficult to see because of all the smoke.
MARY: Yeah. Usually, you know, the actual - the individual fires usually aren't so bad. If they are that bad, we just pull off and…
MARY: …find a better place to, you know, to do our attack. But I kind of admit, when I heard those pilots, you know, had flown 150 miles past an airport, I just, I couldn't believe it.
MARY: I mean, you're either in charge of your airplane or your not.
CONAN: Yeah. Mary, thanks very much for the phone call, and good luck.
MARY: Thank you very much. I appreciate the show.
CONAN: Appreciate your phone call. Thank you. And you get a call like that from a pilot who's obviously - again, that's a different kind of a situation, and she's on the other end of the adrenalin spectrum, as we mentioned. But, boy, that's a lot of distraction.
Ms. RIPLEY: Yeah. You know, it's interesting. There's sort of three conditions that lead to, you know, attentional fixation or this kind of distraction. And they're on polar opposites. One is stress, like she's under, can actually lead to task saturation and this kind of thing. The other is fatigue, which we've talked about. And the other we only briefly touched on, which is boredom. So, you know, the more automated these planes get, the more complacent and bored some of the pilots - I'm talking here obviously, about commercial, big planes - can get. And when you're detached in any way, you're not engaged and you're at risk for this kind of problem.
CONAN: Let's get Jane on the line, Jane calling from Denver.
JANE (Caller): Hello, yes.
CONAN: Go ahead, please.
JANE: I just wanted to mention I'm a regional airline pilot. And I actually fly a not very automated aircraft. And one of the things I found that is very distracting, it's very difficult to go from the boring, slow, quiet cruise phase of a flight…
JANE: …into the task-saturated, rapidly changing, descent, approaching and landing portion. And as regional pilots, we aren't like the major pilots, where they might have two or three legs to their flight, or two or three stops. I've done as many as 11 or 12 legs in a day, with eight hours separating each day.
JANE: And that tires you to a point that's - frankly, it's pretty frightening. And admittedly, I have slept on cruise because I found that if I don't take that little five-minute catnap at cruise…
JANE: …that my body will try to take it on descent. And I think that pilots, you know, all around - we all admittedly have taken short catnaps during cruise portions of flight so that we are aware and as sharp as we can be during that quickly changing descent portion. And I'm really happy to see it starting to be addressed in the Senate bill, 3701 I believe…
JANE: …I mean, has told us about that. And I just wanted to leave that for you to discuss.
CONAN: Well, Jane, also, I wanted to ask - but on those boring cruise parts, have you ever opened your laptop and started checking out your schedule or, you know, see what's on MLB.com?
JANE: I've never opened up my laptop, but, yeah, I've read - I've popped open a book and read a book, read a newspaper. And though it's, you know, our company does not allow us to do that, I have done it and I know countless pilots who have done the same. It's very, very exhausting if you don't keep your mind active. So you can only stair at clouds and irrigation circles for some time.
CONAN: Hmm. Okay. Jane, thanks very much for the call. And good luck to you, too.
JANE: Thank you.
CONAN: We're talking about distracted flying and, well, distractions, doing other tasks involving public safety: driving big trucks and buses and ferryboats. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And as you look at these things, Amanda Ripley, the different kinds of distractions that are available, these are very stressful jobs. As she was talking about, it's difficult to go from that, well, we're all on cruise control here and our heartbeats are very low, to oh, so we got to land.
Ms. RIPLEY: Yeah. You know, the good news is that there is room for improvement. So what we learned in aviation after a series of horrific crashes - I mean, there were, you know, I won't go into details, but there was another one where the crew got focused on the gear and ran out of gas. I mean, so there's - there was a series of terrible accidents, and what they found is they could get better at this. So it's not, you know, something that we can't control. The problem is we're in sort of a race, sort of a Cold War with the technology, right?
So as soon as we get better and the technology gets more distracting and so forth, as you see with the laptop incident. So, you know, one of the things they found is that they train pilots now to scan the horizon, to scan the instrument controls, to always have one pilot focused on flying the plane, no matter what else happens. And some of this same training has now been used in hospitals, where you also have this problem in ORs, where, you know, anytime you have people working under stress, where somebody's life is in - is at risk, then you can run into one of the most common errors, in fact, one of the most common errors is, you know, channelized attention. So this is very common. And, you know, we haven't - luckily, thank God - we haven't seen the series of crashes that we saw in the '70s, and flying is actually much safer.
CONAN: Let's go - one more call. Angela, calling from Pine Bluff in Arkansas.
ANGELA (Caller): Yes. As I was saying earlier, I'm a school bus driver and I travel over 200 miles each day in my route. And, you know, there's such things that drivers suffer from, which one thing is called driver's hypnosis. And that's when a driver becomes so familiar with going up and back all the time that the bus begins to drive itself, so to speak. You know, you lose concentration. And that's a danger because, you know, in a split second, anybody can pull in front you - and actually, that can happen - and somebody dies. And so because of our safety meetings that we have each year, we are warned about driver's hypnosis. I'm very appreciative of that.
And also we are told that we can't use any electronic devices like cell phones or Bluetooths or anything. And not only is it against the law here in Arkansas to use one, but there are fines like $300, and we can be suspended or even terminated from our jobs. So I keep in mind that lives are at stake - in a split second, anything can happen if I'm distracted. And so it's very important that I keep my eye on the road and concentrate at all times and not allow other things to distract me.
CONAN: Angela, thank you for doing that. We appreciate it. And I'm sure the parents of your children appreciate it, too.
ANGELA: You're welcome. Have a good day.
CONAN: Bye-bye. And that's - Amanda, that's the critical thing. A split second of distraction at the wrong amount of time, even walking down the street. You don't have to be driving a school bus or a 747. That could be disastrous.
Ms. RIPLEY: Yeah. And I think where we're going to end up here - I mean, we've basically got two competing instincts in your brain that are very powerful. And one is to react to things that give you a little shot of adrenaline - which is like an email or a cell phone message or a call -to get that kind of, you know, hit, if you will.
CONAN: Stimulus, yeah.
Ms. RIPLEY: Yeah. Exactly. At the same time, the brain is wired to focus, to focus on one thing at a time. So now where are we? We're at the intersection of these two competing demands on our attention. So I personally think we're probably going to want to end up in a place where the device helps us instead of hurting us. So, in other words, it doesn't work when we are in motion.
CONAN: Thanks very much for being with us today.
Ms. RIPLEY: Thank you.
CONAN: Amanda Ripley's book is "The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes." And she was with us here today in Studio 3A.
Coming up: yeah, yeah, yeah. We know you want to go to the World Series to root on your favorite team, but what you really want to do when you're there is catch a foul ball. Zach Hample will tell you how. He's got 4,000. I'm Neal Conan. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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