Remarks of Jim Hall, Chairman
National Transportation Safety Board
at the Capital Tiger Bay Club
Tallahassee, Florida, February 21, 1997
Thank you for inviting me to speak to you this afternoon.
There are many issues occupying the attention of the National
Transportation Safety Board at this time, issues like grade crossing
safety, runway incursions and even the safety of mixing military
and civilian air traffic. However, I'd like to concentrate on
three items today, ValuJet, TWA flight 800 and primary enforcement
of Florida's seat belt law.
As all of you know, transportation is one of the largest and most
dynamic industries in our economy. According to the Department
of Transportation, it 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
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
as an independent agency 30 years ago by Congress to determine
the "probable causes" of transportation accidents and
issue recommendations to prevent future accidents.
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 was 1 billion consecutive
passengers carried safely to their destinations. 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 my
agency, 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
And it's not just in aviation. The NTSB has had a hand in improving
safety in all modes of transportation. For example:
All this has been accomplished by a 350-person agency that has
no regulatory or enforcement powers. Yet, despite this lack of
direct regulatory authority, I'm proud of the fact that more than
80 percent of our safety recommendations have been adopted by
government regulatory agencies. Although we oversee the safety
programs of billion dollar corporations and federal agencies having
tens of thousands of employees, to put our relative sizes into
perspective, the Safety Board's entire yearly budget could fund
the U.S. Department of Transportation for 9 hours of a single
The events of last year have severely strained the NTSB's resources,
both financial and in terms of its human resources. The enormous
tragedy of the ValuJet and TWA flight 800 accidents, and the intense
public and news media scrutiny of the airline industry and the
regulatory agencies that followed, have combined to raise doubts
in the minds of some Americans about the safety of their airline
I'd like to put this concern into perspective, and I think I'm
in the unique position to do so because Congress established the
Safety Board as an independent investigative agency, to provide
impartial analysis of industry and government alike. Since we
were established 30 years ago, the U.S. airline industry has grown
from 106 million passengers to 550 million last year, a five fold
increase. In that time, the fatal accident rate has dropped 75
But let's face it, when 340 people die in two horrific airline
accidents within two months, as happened last year, all the industry's
good work and image goes right out the window. Although we don't
seem to be excited that on our highways we suffer the equivalent
of a ValuJet accident every day, or three TWA flight 800s every
week, as Americans we rightly expect better from our airline industry
than what we got last year. We should expect more in the area
of highway safety, as well, but I'll get to that a little later.
While all the fatal airline accidents we had last year appear
to be unrelated - including the Delta Airlines engine failure
in Pensacola that killed two passengers and the runway collision
between a commuter airliner and a private plane in Quincy, Illinois
that killed all 14 people on both planes - each has presented
issues that must be pursued.
You are all by now familiar with the circumstances of the ValuJet
accident. A fire broke out in the cargo hold shortly before or
after takeoff. The plane crashed while attempting to return to
Miami. As I told Congress a few weeks after that accident, I would
not be surprised if at the conclusion of our investigation we
find that this accident was the result of previous lessons learned
By that I mean that 8 years earlier, we investigated an accident
that might have foreshadowed the ValuJet tragedy. On February
3, 1988, American Airlines flight 132, a DC-9, departed Dallas/Fort
Worth International Airport for Nashville with a midcargo compartment
loaded with, among other things, a 104-pound fiber drum of undeclared
and improperly packaged hazardous materials.
During the flight, a flight attendant and a "deadheading"
first officer notified the pilots of smoke in the passenger cabin.
The cabin floor above the cargo compartment was hot and soft,
and the flight attendants had to move passengers from the affected
area. Fortunately, the aircraft landed and a successful evacuation
The airworthiness of the airplane was threatened by the fire.
Excessive temperatures reached critical flight and engine control
cables, floor beams and the passenger cabin floor. We believe
that the cargo compartment did not meet the intent of the regulations
designed to contain such a fire.
The passengers and crew of this particular aircraft were fortunate
that day. While no one was seriously injured, the potential for
a catastrophic accident was present. And even this incident wasn't
the first of its kind. Less than 2 years earlier, an undeclared
shipment of 35 percent hydrogen peroxide solution was shipped
in drums with no outside markings to warn about the presence of
hazardous materials. The shipment had travelled from Florida to
Seattle on its way to the Philippines when cargo handlers found
several packages had leaked. This was one of more than 2,000 hazardous
materials incident reports involving air transportation filed
with the DOT in the 17 years leading up to the American Airlines
accident in 1988.
Despite Safety Board recommendations to the FAA to require fire
detection systems, and fire extinguishing systems, and better
fire blocking materials in cargo compartments, the sad fact is
that the crew of ValuJet flight 592 had no more equipment available
to warn them of a fire or to fight it than did the crew of that
American Airlines flight 8 years earlier.
On May 31, 1996, the Safety Board issued urgent safety recommendations
to the FAA to evaluate airline practices, including training,
for detecting the shipment of hazardous materials, and to the
FAA and another DOT agency to prohibit the transportation of oxidizers
in cargo compartments that do not have fire or smoke detection
Last month, Boeing and the airline industry announced that they
would voluntarily install smoke detectors in cargo compartments
that did not currently have them. Although this is a step in the
right direction, it still fails to address the issue of fire suppression,
and the announced two-year installation timetable has not yet
started to run.
NTSB investigators are currently drafting a final report on the
ValuJet accident that should be presented to the Board by late
The loss of TWA flight 800 two months after the ValuJet tragedy
not only plunged the nation into mourning, it plunged the aviation
industry into a period of self-evaluation. As you know, President
Clinton formed the White House Commission on Aviation Safety and
Security shortly after the TWA accident, and I was honored to
have been asked to serve as a Commissioner. Just last week, we
concluded our work by issuing more than 50 recommendations addressing
security and safety issues. But these recommendations won't be
worth anything unless they are enacted as expeditiously as practicable.
The President and Vice President Gore have expressed their commitment
to getting our recommendations implemented.
The TWA investigation has been unprecedented in its human scope
and in its expense. We have been on-scene for more than 7 months
- a record. Our latest estimates are that this investigation will
cost $27 million, not counting salaries of government employees
that would have been paid anyway - that is, representatives from
the NTSB, the FBI, the Coast Guard, the Navy, FEMA and others.
Consider that the entire yearly budget of the NTSB is just over
As far as the investigation itself, we have begun constructing
a three-dimensional mock-up of a major portion of the aircraft's
wreckage. Although we have most of the wreckage, we are continuing
trawling operations off the Long Island coast to find every bit
of debris possible. We have retained the California Institute
of Technology to determine the explosive characteristics of the
fuel that was aboard flight 800. We will continue to work closely
with the FBI and all other parties until we are convinced we have
pursued every possible credible scenario that could have led to
And, yes, those three possible scenarios you've heard about for
so long - a bomb, a missile or mechanical failure - are still
on the table. We have identified a potential mechanism by which
the center fuel tank of Boeing 747s could explode, but we don't
know if that happened in this case.
. 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 and a half 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 return of victims'
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.
Moving away from aviation, I'd like to talk about an issue that
gets surprisingly little media attention, but will affect many
of us sometime in our lives. Despite the fact that airline crashes
and the occasional railroad accident get most of the headlines,
highway crashes account for more than 90 percent of transportation
fatalities in the United States. Many of us focus on our crime
problem, and well we should, but in the U. S. today, where a murder
will occur every 21 minutes, someone will die on our highways
every 13 minutes.
Our nation, and every state including Florida, have taken steps
to reduce this national tragedy, enacting age-21 laws, strict
drunk driving statutes and mandatory seat belt legislation. These
laws have had beneficial results.
But too often we look upon this problem as one of statistics;
we look at numbers on a page and try to make those numbers lower.
I think we should try to put a face on those numbers. I served
my nation proudly in Vietnam, as I'm sure many of you in this
room did, and I was fortunate to come back alive and well. But
many did not. Yet, it took a black slab of marble cut into the
Mall in Washington, D.C., to make our nation fully appreciate
the magnitude of the loss of life in that conflict.
You might know that 1,947 soldiers, sailors and airmen from Florida
lost their lives in that war. But, do you know that more Floridians
die on your highways every year? What sort of monument can we
erect to those victims that will get the attention of our citizens?
Put another way, the 2,805 people who lost their lives on Florida's
roads in 1995 are the equivalent of a ValuJet crash happening
every two weeks. Can you imagine the outrage if that occurred?
Yet, we seem to accept those highway deaths as long as they occur
one, two or three at a time.
And, in addition to the human tragedy they represent, motor vehicle
crashes cost every single Floridian $580 a year. That's $2,320
for a family of four. About a quarter of medical costs and about
10 percent of all crash costs are paid with public revenues. And
who provides those revenues? You and I do, the responsible majority,
those of us who buckle up and drink responsibly if at all.
Florida has already taken a number of steps in recent years to
strengthen its highway safety laws, including administrative license
revocation; graduated licensing for young, novice drivers; and
zero tolerance laws for drivers under the age of 21.
There is one important change that the Florida legislature still
needs to take in its upcoming session, enactment of primary enforcement
of the mandatory seat belt use law. Most states do not allow a
seat belt infraction to be enforced unless the car was stopped
for other reasons; a primary enforcement bill gives police the
authority to directly enforce Florida's seat belt law.
Safety belts save 14,000 lives a year nationwide. They're even
more important now as more and more cars are equipped with passenger-side
air bags. Last fall, the Safety Board issued a study on child
restraints that found air bags as currently designed could cause
death or serious injury to small children in low-impact crashes.
We recommended that air bags be depowered so that they reflect
the true nature of the average automobile passenger. Air bags
were originally certified to cushion a 165-pound, unbelted adult
male. This is no longer the profile of the typical occupant. In
any case, seat belts are highly effective in keeping a person
in position for air bag inflation before and during a crash, and
are the only restraint available for millions of Americans who
do not have air bags in their vehicles.
AAA estimates that a primary seat belt law would save 170 lives
a year in Florida. I urge all of you to support a primary seat
belt enforcement law for this state. All it takes is the political
will to enact this much-needed legislation.
I think I've taken up enough of your time today. I appreciate
the opportunity to tell you, the American taxpayer, how we are
spending your funds. The National Transportation Safety Board
is the eyes and ears of the American people at accident sites.
We will continue to press for needed improvements in every mode
of transportation, so that those declining accident rates I mentioned
earlier will continue to fall.
It is hard to quantify the accident that never happened because
our recommendations prevented it, or the life that was not ended
or forever altered. Perhaps one of you are here today because
of the work of the NTSB over the last 30 years. Or, maybe one
of your loved ones.
That's why I think I have one of the best jobs in Washington.
I get to save lives. Thank you, as taxpayers, for giving me that
opportunity. And thank you for having me here today.