Remarks of Jim Hall, Chairman
National Transportation Safety Board
before the Congressional Youth Leadership Council
Washington, D.C., February 14, 1997
Good morning, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to Washington.
I want to congratulate Amy Elias, Victoria Tobin and everyone
associated with arranging this most worthy conference. I hope
your experience here in our Nation's Capital provides you with
insights into how our country works, and gives you ideas on how
you can make it work better.
And that doesn't mean just how you can make it work better here.
Leadership is needed on all levels of our government: federal,
state and local. Leadership is needed in our private sector, as
While I am currently the Chairman of the National Transportation
Safety Board, I previously served in Tennessee state government
for a period of six years as a member of Governor Ned McWherter's
cabinet and staff.
I think no quotation best illustrates my philosophy of government
service than something Edmund Burke said several hundred years
ago: "Government is the contrivance of human wisdom to provide
for human wants."
When you look at what government does at its best, it is providing
for human wants. When natural disaster strikes, FEMA and the National
Guard are just two agencies that provide aid. When Americans fall
into physical or legal trouble in foreign lands, our State Department
is there to help. When a viral or bacterial outbreak hits a school,
a business or a town, the Centers for Disease Control are there
And when a major transportation accident occurs, the National
Transportation Safety Board is there to begin an investigation
on several hours notice to find out what happened and what can
be done to make sure it doesn't happen again.
Transportation accounts for about 11 percent of our annual gross
domestic product - that's about $700 billion. All of you utilize
our massive transportation infrastructure many times a day:
Unfortunately, when you have so much activity, it is inevitable
that accidents occur in our transportation system. Most of you
know the National Transportation Safety Board because of our high-profile
aviation accident work - especially the ValuJet and TWA flight
800 accidents last year - but the Board also investigates highway,
rail, pipeline and marine accidents. The NTSB was established
30 years ago by Congress to determine the "probable causes"
of transportation accidents and issue recommendations to prevent
future accidents. We are independent of the U.S. Department of
Transportation, and have no regulatory or enforcement powers.
And despite the inevitable scare stories that you read after a
major accident, we actually have an extremely safe transportation
system. Just a few years ago, the major airlines went an incredible
27 months without a passenger fatality; that's 1 billion passengers
in a row carried safely. Depending on the year, the major airlines
suffer one fatal accident for every 2 to 5 million flights. As
many highway crashes as we have, the accident rate continues to
decline. In 1995, the highway fatality rate reached 1.70 per 100
million vehicle miles traveled, a 65 percent decrease since 1970.
This safety record is due in no small part to the efforts of the
National Transportation Safety Board, which issues recommendations
after every major accident to prevent future accidents. Let me
give you a short list of aviation improvements you're probably
familiar with that came out of our recommendations:
And it's not just in aviation. The NTSB has had a hand in improving
safety in all modes of transportation. For example:
One of our important functions is to assess how well our regulatory
agencies are fulfilling their safety responsibilities. That is
why we were set up as an independent agency, because in the course
of our investigations we investigate the Federal Aviation Administration,
the Federal Railroad Administration, the Coast Guard, and other
DOT modal agencies. We do this while investigating more than 2,000
aviation accidents a year, and about 500 in the other modes of
transportation. We do this with a staff of 350 people, about the
number of people in this hall today.
To give you an idea of our relative sizes, the annual budget of
the NTSB would fund the Department of Transportation for just
That is why I'm so proud of my agency, and so honored to have
been given the opportunity by President Clinton to lead it. The
Board consists of 5 Members nominated by the President and confirmed
by the Senate. I needed separate nomination and confirmation for
the Chairmanship. So far, I've gone through the Senate confirmation
process three times for my job.
The Safety Board has no authority to regulate the transportation
industry. Therefore, our effectiveness depends on our reputation
for being timely and accurate in our investigations and for maintaining
a staff composed of some of the world's best investigators. This
is unique in government. We are a non-regulatory agency that exerts
significant influence because of the quality of our work. In sum,
we are the eyes and ears of the American public at accident sites.
This past year has been a challenging one for the Board and its
staff. Two major aviation accidents strained the agency's resources,
both monetarily and in terms of its human resources. Some of our
investigators had barely had time to catch their breaths after
spending a mnth in the Everglades folloiwng the ValuJet crash
when they were launched to Long Island.
The TWA flight 800 investigation has proved to be the most costly
in the Board's history. Where we usually are able to wrap-up our
on-scene activities in 10 days to 2 weeks, we have now been on-scene
on Long Island for almost 7 months. And just a month ago, we launched
on another major aviation accident, the crash of a commuter flight
near Detroit that killed all 29 persons aboard.
A full slate of surface accidents last year was highlighted by
almost two dozen railroad accidents in the first 2 months of the
year, the spectacular collision of a freighter into a pedestrian
mall in New Orleans just before Christmas, and the pipeline explosion
in San Juan, Puerto Rico that killed 33 people.
As you can see, we at the NTSB deal with the hardware of an accident
- the structure of the plane, the engines, the pilot and maintenance
records. But we also deal with the human element, be it the role
of the crew in the accident, or the survival aspects for the passengers.
There is one group of people, however, who have been overlooked
in the past by government and industry, alike - the victims' families.
Four times in the last two years, I have been to the scene of
a non-survivable major airline disaster. These accidents - in
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Roselawn, Indiana; the Everglades and
Long Island - have claimed the lives of 540 people. Two other
recent non-survivable accidents in Illinois and Michigan have
claimed another 43 lives.
Historically, while we could never forget the human tragedy that
the accidents represented, the Safety Board has maintained a professional
distance from the families of accident victims, giving them all
the factual information we have, but leaving other accommodations
to the airlines. Basically, since the dawn of commercial aviation,
the unpleasant duty of notifying next of kin after airline accidents
has fallen upon the airline that had the accident, and that carrier
often made arrangements for the transportation of family members
to a location near the accident site, and for the shipment of
Whether or not this way of doing business was ever adequate to
address the needs of victims' family members, it is clear that
the way things used to be done is not adequate today. The world
has changed and all of us involved in the events following major
airline accidents have to change with it. The combination of a
litigious society, aggressive 24-hour news coverage, and perhaps
a mistrust of authority, all contribute to this very challenging
Family members are demanding more accountability and more services
from those of us involved in the various aspects of an accident.
I believe that most of these demands are just common sense. Late
last year, Congress gave the Safety Board the authority to provide
liaison services between these family members and government agencies.
We have now had the experience of two accidents since the passage
of that law, and are developing agreements with public and private
agencies to provide services to these people in the weeks following
the accident. We know we can't really alleviate the grief they
are going through, but we want to make sure no government actions
add to their burden.
I have had the additional honor this past year of being named
a Commissioner by President Clinton on the White House Commission
on Aviation Safety and Security, the so-called Gore Commission.
The final report we issued this week addressed some major issues
that, if left unchecked, will erode the public's confidence in
our already safe air transportation system. Because of continuing
growth in air traffic, just maintaining our excellent safety record
is not good enough. We must continue to reduce the accident rate,
and the Gore Commission recommendations is a good blueprint to
I'd like to close by saying what I hope all government officials
you'll meet here this week will tell you: I work for you. I consider
myself a public servant, and I'm happy to say that those who work
for me do, too. Our investigations are conducted in the open;
we release factual information on a daily basis immediately after
a major accident. Our offices are open for tours. Our reports
are being put on the internet.
The Congressional Youth Leadership Program is an important one
because it brings the nation's finest students to Washington and
gives us the opportunity to show you who makes up your government.
We are all Americans like you, with families and homes and home
towns. We all came here hoping to make a contribution to this
country that we love so much.
I hope whatever path you choose you dedicate yourself to your
family and your community. I have always kept that in mind, whether
I've been working in private industry in Chattanooga, or in government
in Nashville and Washington. My best piece of advice for you comes
from Winston Churchill, who is said to have delivered the shortest
commencement address in history. His advice to a graduating class?
"Never give up."
I've spoken a little longer than he did, but my message is the
same. Thank you for inviting me today.