Remarks by Jim Hall, Chairman
National Transportation Safety Board
before the National Association of Women Highway Safety Leaders
September 9, 1996
Good morning, and welcome to my home state
of Tennessee. I'm delighted you've chosen Nashville for your meeting
Both the National Association of Women Highway
Safety Leaders and the National Transportation Safety Board were
founded the same year -- 1967. Both organizations have worked
to improve the quality of American life by promoting higher transportation
I want to thank you for all you have done on
behalf of highway safety. In particular, your efforts have assisted
us in the passage of two laws throughout the country, mandatory
seat belt use laws and child safety seat laws.
For six years before coming to the Safety Board,
I served in the cabinet of Tennessee Governor Ned McWherter. In
fact, that's where I met your President, Bobbie Caldwell.
I want to first talk about who we are and what
we do, and then discuss areas where you can help us achieve our
mutual goals. The National Transportation Safety Board is small
by federal government standards, with about 350 employees and
a budget of less than $39 million this year. But, I am persuaded
that the money spent on the Safety Board is among the most effective
of all taxpayer expenditures. It costs each citizen less than
15 cents a year to fund my agency.
While we often examine the safety programs
of billion dollar corporations and government agencies having
tens of thousands of employees, to give you an idea of our relative
sizes, the annual budget of the NTSB would fund the Department
of Transportation for just nine hours!
It is not surprising that transportation is
one of the largest segments of our economy, making up 11 percent
of our Gross Domestic Product, because all of us utilize our massive
transportation infrastructure many times a day:
o We all drive our cars on some of the 4 million
miles of roads, highways and bridges. And, if you think the roads
are congested now, by the year 2000 vehicles are expected to increase
another 7 percent.
o Enough of us fly often enough that 550 million
passengers board commercial aircraft in this country every year,
about twice our population. And in 10 years, domestic aviation
operations will increase another 60 percent.
o We all depend on the 123,000 miles of railroads
and 25,000 miles of waterways in the U.S. for most of the commodities
we buy. In fact, the class 1 railroads carried a record 1.2 trillion
ton miles of goods in 1994.
o The gas that heats our homes and the gasoline
that fuels our cars come here in some of the 1.4 million miles
o School buses alone carry more than 9 percent
of the U.S. population during a typical school day.
o After housing, transportation accounts for
the largest single household expenditure, almost 18 percent.
Unfortunately, when you have so much activity,
it is inevitable that some problems will occur. And that, often,
is when my agency is called into action.
Most of you know us because of our high-profile
aviation accident work, but the Board also investigates highway,
rail, pipeline and marine accidents. On call 24 hours a day, 365
days a year, Safety Board investigators travel throughout the
country and to every corner of the world to investigate significant
accidents, developing a factual record that often leads to safety
recommendations aimed at ensuring that such accidents never happen
Our recommendations serve, to a great extent,
as a main area of government transportation safety oversight.
As an independent agency, we don't just look at transportation
companies or individuals when searching for cause, we also look
at the role the pertinent local, State or federal agencies might
have played in an accident.
Through its investigations, the Board has been
able to recommend safety improvements that have saved lives and
led to real reductions in accidents in every mode of transportation,
improvements ranging from anti-collision and windshear warning
systems on airliners, to safer construction standards for school
buses, to head shields and shelf couplers for hazardous materials
railroad tank cars, even to the high mounted stop light on your
When the need arises, we go to great lengths
to gather evidence for our investigations. Ten years ago, one
of our investigators led an expedition up a 20,000-foot mountain
in Bolivia to reach the site of an Eastern Airlines Boeing 727
that had crashed. More recently, another NTSB investigator had
to be evacuated from Panama after suffering a scorpion bite during
an investigation of an airline accident in the jungle there.
And, as you all know by recent events, we have
been involved in several deep-sea underwater searches in the Indian,
Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. A year and a half after a cargo door
blew off a United Airlines Boeing 747 over the Pacific Ocean,
the Navy retrieved the door from the ocean bottom, 14,000 feet
below the surface. The finding enabled us to determine that an
electrical problem led to the accident.
The on-going activity off Long Island is our
second underwater search this year. In February, my agency organized
the successful search for the flight recorders from a Turkish-owned
Boeing 757 that had crashed near the Dominican Republic in over
7,000 feet of water.
And now, for the past 8 weeks, we have been
engaged with the U.S. Navy in an incredible recovery effort. As
you know, on July 17, TWA flight 800 crashed shortly after takeoff
from New York's Kennedy Airport. All 230 people aboard died. In
an effort to determine whether the tragedy was the result of an
accident or an act of sabotage, we have expended millions of dollars
retrieving the wreckage.
I'd like to present a 5-minute video of the
recovery effort to show you what has been involved in this endeavor.
[A VIDEO IS SHOWN AT THIS POINT]
Among other major investigations we are currently
conducting this very busy year are a recent cruise ship fire in
Alaska that killed 5, a collision between a commuter train and
an Amtrak train in Maryland that killed 11, and the ValuJet crash
It only takes one visit to the scene of such
a tragedy or a short visit with family members of victims to recognize
that we must do everything we possibly can to reduce transportation
accidents, deaths and injuries.
I am proud of the meticulous work our investigators
conduct to solve the mysteries that confront us. The work going
on now in a hangar on Long Island, while daunting, is just another
example of our painstaking activities. Our investigators have
sometimes been dubbed "Disaster Detectives." Let me
give you just one example to show you why.
On January 13, 1982, an Air Florida Boeing
737 crashed while taking off from Washington's National Airport
in a snow storm, hitting a major bridge before settling into the
frozen waters of the Potomac River. While icing was an obvious
culprit, statements by the pilots on the cockpit voice recorder
were puzzling. As they were lifting off, a pilot was questioning
the readings he was getting on his gauges. Could there have been
an equipment problem in the cockpit, and not icing, as many believed?
Our engineers took that recording and filtered
out all sounds except the background engine noise. They then used
spectrographic analysis on the engine sounds to determine that
the engines were not producing the power that the crew was indicating.
Through this work, we were able to deduce that the engine inlet
probe had iced over and therefore provided the crew with incorrect
Yes, icing was the cause of the accident, but
rather than it being a case of icing destroying the lift of the
wings, we found that the crew didn't provide the proper amount
of power to the engines because of the faulty reading from the
For months now, headlines have followed every
new development in the ValuJet and TWA flight 800 investigations.
But, as horrible as these accidents have been, we cannot forget
that such accidents represent a tiny fraction of transportation
fatalities every year. In 1995, more than 44,000 persons were
killed in transportation accidents, over 90 percent of them on
the highway. That is equivalent to a ValuJet crash happening every
day of the year, or 3 TWA flight 800s going down every week.
And with new highway construction not keeping pace with traffic growth, our existing roads and bridges will have to accommodate 8 million more vehicles by the year 2000, including a significant number of heavy trucks. Traffic crashes cost the nation over $150 billion a year, adding about $144 a year to the average household tax burden.
While the number of highway fatalities had
declined substantially from its peak in the 1970s, it has now
increased for three years in a row, and, for the first time in
a decade, alcohol-related fatalities have increased. The U.S.
Department of Transportation has estimated that if the fatality
rate remains unchanged and traffic grows at a conservative 2.2
percent a year, by 2005 we will see 10,000 more Americans die
on our highways every year.
Your organization can play an important role
in reversing these disturbing recent trends. Here are a few areas
where I hope you'll get involved:
One of the most important highway safety actions
any State can take is to permit primary enforcement of their mandatory
safety belt use law. We support this so strongly that we added
the issue to our Most Wanted list of safety improvements.
States with primary enforcement have 13 percent
higher seat belt use rates. This is increasingly important as
speed limits have increased and as more and more vehicles are
equipped with air bags, which are a proven lifesaver for properly
restrained passengers but can kill or seriously injure a person
who is not wearing a seat belt.
Even though most States have enacted a series
of measures to address the problem of drinking and driving, the
recent rise in alcohol-related fatalities shows that more needs
to be done.
This is where another one of our Most Wanted
issues comes in: Administrative License Revocation. ALR gives
a law enforcement officer the authority, on behalf of the state
licensing agency, to confiscate the license of any driver who
either fails or refuses to take a chemical breath test. Eleven
States have not yet adopted this important safety initiative.
Regrettably, my home State of Tennessee is one of them.
A problem that all society needs to be concerned
about is the high incidence of crashes involving youths. Almost
20 percent of all highway fatalities involve 15- to 20-year-old
drivers, even though they comprise only about 7 percent of all
Although we all had achieved success in reducing
these crashes, the last 2 years have shown increases. Why? Because,
our youth population has reversed a decade-long decline and a
second baby boom generation is now coming of driving age. Deaths
involving a 15- to 20-year-old driver in 1995 were higher than
Some States are acting. Kentucky has enacted
a zero tolerance law and a graduated licensing program to ease
young drivers into the traffic flow, reward crash- and violation-free
young drivers with a full license and give young risk-taking problem
drivers remedial training and time to mature before they get an
Florida recently enacted a nighttime driving
restriction for the first year of driving. Driving with an adult
or parent at night gives the young driver the supervised practice
they need without the risk-taking diversions of their peers in
the car. Some States with nighttime restrictions have shown reductions
in youth nighttime crashes as high as 70 percent.
The other problem area involving our young
drivers is alcohol. Raising the legal drinking age to 21 in all
States has saved nearly 15,000 lives so far, but just as more
needs to be done to keep adults from drinking and driving, we
need to do more to keep our youth from drinking and driving, as
The Safety Board has called on all States to
tighten and vigorously enforce their underage drinking and driving
laws. Although no State allows the sale of alcohol to persons
under age 21, only 15 States have comprehensive age 21 laws and
many States still allow underage consumption and use of fake IDs.
Our position is, if young people cannot buy
alcohol, they should not be given tacit approval by the State
to drink it. This nation should adopt a policy of Zero Tolerance
for drivers under the age of 21, and combine it with administrative
license revocation. Forty two States have a low BAC law, but 5
of them need to improve the laws by lowering the BAC or raising
the applicable age and 8 others need to take action this year.
Doing so will reduce youth alcohol-related crashes by more than
Since becoming Chairman of the Safety Board,
one of my great concerns has been that of fatigue among transportation
operators in all modes. Let me suggest one area where there is
a significant need for action at the State level right now. Fatigue
is a constant concern in the trucking industry, in part because
there is a shortage of places for drivers to stop and rest when
they need to do so.
The steady growth of trucking nationwide has
increased the demand for rest areas along the Nation's highways.
In part this is reflected by evidence that truck drivers seeking
rest are increasingly parking illegally on highway shoulders and
exit ramps. One study found a shortfall of 28,400 truck parking
spaces. And each year aggravates the problem; by the year 2004,
there will be 13 percent more heavy trucks on our road, according
to an industry study. This is a nationwide problem that must be
The final highway issue I want to address is
grade crossing safety, particularly those crossings whose signals
are pre-empted by train movements. Hundreds of Americans die every
year at grade crossings. You all remember the tragedy last fall
in Fox River Grove, Illinois, when 7 high school students died
when the rear of their school bus was struck by a train at a pre-empted
crossing. In the early days of our investigation, we sent recommendations
to all the States to survey their preemptive grade crossings for
Here's what some States have done since the
o Virginia has established a time-delay so that a train's arrival will not trap a vehicle before it can clear the crossing.
o Oklahoma has developed a school bus driver training video on the subject.
o Missouri developed a warning notice to be
placed inside each signal house so that changes in the crossing
design cannot be made without getting the approval of both the
railroad and the highway authorities.
In addition, the City of Chicago surveyed all
of its preemptive grade crossings and found that more warning
signs were needed because in many cases the standard size school
bus did not fit in the available storage space. The city trained
1,800 school bus drivers and is preparing a training video.
This shows that action can be taken to solve
safety problems, if there is a will. It is your job and ours to
provide that will, and to provide support to those who have the
will to act.
You can do a lot right now. Convince your State
legislatures to pass those laws we've spoken about here, like
zero tolerance or graduated licensing. Work with advocacy groups
like MADD, RID, Traffic Safety Now or the American Conference
for Traffic Safety.
Let us know when you need our help to make
the final push. I instituted a 50-State Program at the Board where
I or one of my colleagues on the Board will testify before State
governments to get the needed legislation passed.
Thank you for inviting me here today. You are
my boss -- the American taxpayer -- but you are also my partner.
Let's continue to work together to save lives now and for years