Remarks by Jim Hall, Chairman
National Transportation Safety Board
before the National Association of Women Highway Safety Leaders
Nashville, Tennessee
September 9, 1996


Good morning, and welcome to my home state of Tennessee. I'm delighted you've chosen Nashville for your meeting this year.

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 safety standards.

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 of pipeline.

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 again.

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 automobile.

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 last May.

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 readings.

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 iced-over probe.

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.

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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 licensed drivers.

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 in 1991.

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 unrestricted license.

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 well.

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 30 percent.

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 addressed.

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 safety deficiencies.

Here's what some States have done since the accident:

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 to come.

| Jim Hall's Speeches