Remarks of Jim Hall, Chairman
National Transportation Safety Board
at the Vanderbilt University Institute for Public Policy Studies
Nashville, Tennessee, December 15, 1997

Thank you, Clifford, for inviting me to speak to you tonight.

Thomas Jefferson once said, "The care of human life and happiness…is the first and only legitimate object of good government." It is this simple phrase that describes the mission and goals of the National Transportation Safety Board.

The NTSB is a small, independent agency - fewer than 400 employees - charged with the responsibility of investigating aviation, and major rail, highway, marine, pipeline and hazardous materials accidents, and issuing safety recommendations to prevent future, similar accidents. It costs each of you less to fund the NTSB than it does to mail a single postcard every year, about 16 cents each.

As all of you know, transportation is one of the largest and most dynamic segments of our economy. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, it accounts for about 11 percent of our annual gross domestic product - that's approaching $800 billion. All of us utilize our massive transportation infrastructure many times a day:

When I became Chairman of the NTSB more than 3 years ago, I of course had no inkling about the level of activity my agency was about to enter. The USAir accident in Charlotte, North Carolina in July 1994 saw the end of an unprecedented 27-month period in which the major U.S. scheduled airlines incurred no passenger fatalities. During that time a billion passengers were carried safely to their destinations.

Unfortunately, that accident was followed soon after by another USAir crash in Pittsburgh; then the crashes of an American Eagle ATR in Roselawn, Indiana; an American Eagle Jetstream near Raleigh-Durham; an American Airlines 757 in Colombia; a ValuJet DC-9 in the Everglades; a Delta Air Lines MD-88 in Pensacola; TWA flight 800; a United Express Beech 1900 in Quincy, Illinois; a Comair Embraer in Monroe, Michigan; and the Korean Air 747 in Guam. We also have had three major cargo accidents - two involving Federal Express widebodies and a Fine Air DC-8 in Miami.

Although each investigation into these accidents is unique, the TWA flight 800 investigation is like no other in American history. The Safety Board has had to seek a supplemental appropriation equal to more than half our annual budget to cover the extraordinary expenses of the recovery and reconstruction. NTSB investigators have been on-scene for 17 months, and just this past weekend we completed an extensive public hearing on this investigation, in Baltimore.

If I may say so, this hearing represented something of a milestone in forging an approach to dealing with the dangerous vapors that accumulate in fuel tanks. As NTSB research demonstrated, dangerous conditions in fuel tanks occur more commonly than has been believed.

I welcome the FAA's willingness to take another look at the recommendations on fuel/air mixture volatility made by the NTSB a year ago. I also welcome Boeing's expressed openness to additional ways to dealing with the dangers of fuel tank vapors. The NTSB has long advocated a two-track approach to the fuel tank problem pointed up by the crash of TWA 800, addressing both ignition sources and explosive vapors. This position was based in part on hard experience.

Our work will continue and we will spare no effort to determine the cause of the crash of TWA 800. I am confident that, in the process, we will learn a great deal that will help make a safe air transport system even safer.

A few years ago, most Americans didn't know what the NTSB was or what it did. Today, unfortunately - and I do mean unfortunately, as I have been to the scene of most of the accidents I mentioned - we find ourselves on the front page or the top item on the nightly news. Whether its John Denver's aviation accident, a ship striking a mall in New Orleans, the recent rash of Union Pacific train derailments, a safety study on passenger side air bags - all news. In fact, at our hearing last week, there were more news media representatives credentialled than there are employees in the entire Safety Board.

This intense public spotlight serves to remind us that we are accountable to the American people for our investigations and allows them to see what they are getting for their investment in us.

I'm sure you'll agree with me that the way our fellow citizens react to transportation accidents has intensified in recent years. The world has changed and all of us involved in the events following major transportation 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 environment.

Among all the organizations that ensure the safety of our transportation system, the independent Safety Board stands apart. As the eyes and ears of the American people at major transportation accidents, we focus on all facets - the private and public transportation owners and operators, the manufacturers, and the government regulators. We look at every aspect for ways to improve the safety of systems. It is important to note that we have no regulatory authority. We can only effect safety improvements through indirect pressure - mainly through our issuance of safety recommendations. And, we know that our ability to be effective depends on our ability to do quality work.

This is a daunting responsibility and one we take very seriously. I believe our record speaks for itself. Over the years, more than 85 percent of our recommendations have been implemented and those recommendations have led to such safety improvements as ground proximity warning systems for aircraft, shelf couplers and thermal protection for railroad tank cars, age-21 drinking laws, personal flotation devices for children in recreational boats, and fatigue testing of buried pipelines, as well as one level of safety for airline passengers whether they fly on big jets or commuter airlines.

Obviously, the Safety Board hasn't achieved these successes alone. The effectiveness of our safety initiatives are also the result of the enforcement efforts of the regulatory agencies, such as the Federal Aviation Administration, the Federal Highway Administration and the Federal Railroad Administration, and the oversight provided by State and local governments. But, ultimately, the success of any safety measure rests with the transportation industries, the operators, and the manufacturers.

I believe that the public's safety should be the highest priority of government at every level. In some instances, local or State governments are best able to judge what policies best promote safety because they know best the local conditions. In many instances, however, such as the minimum drinking age, or the use of safety belts in motor vehicles, local conditions are not a factor. The safety benefits do not change from region to region. Thus, national standards are appropriate and, indeed, the best way to assure that citizens in all parts of our nation are provided a similar level of safety.

Let's look at this more closely. We see two reasons for federal intervention in the area of transportation safety. The first is the need for uniformity of laws from State to State. Interstate commerce cannot be regulated by 50 individual States or innumerable local jurisdictions. Aviation and railroad, to name two modes, could not function under the resulting myriad regulations. For different reasons, we need uniformity of laws when it comes to something like age-21 laws, as I'll explain in a moment.

There are those who would suggest that the marketplace and the States are sufficient to ensure the safety of our transportation systems - that the federal government isn't needed, or wanted. However, I can say from my years of experience working at the State level that, without federal involvement and support, certain safety functions would not be performed at the State and local level.

I support the initiatives underway to reinvent and downsize the federal government, as I assisted Governor McWherter when we downsized the Tennessee State government. I also support the efforts to return some powers to the States. However, I also believe that there are some responsibilities that should remain at the federal level - and transportation safety is one of them.

Bridge safety is a case in point. It was not until the collapse of the Silver Bridge over the Ohio River in 1967, which incidentally was the Board's first bridge investigation, that a National Bridge Inspection Program was established. In 1983, the Board's investigation of the collapse of the Mianus River Bridge in Connecticut led to a stricter State inspection program of bridge superstructures. And it was only after the collapse of the Schoharie Creek Bridge in New York in 1987 that the need for underwater inspections of pier footings was realized, and the collapse of the Hatchie River Bridge in Tennessee in 1989 that the need for comprehensive hydrological studies was identified.

After the 1993 Amtrak derailment in Mobile, Alabama, which was caused by a barge striking an overwater bridge, the Board recommended that States survey all their bridges for vulnerability to collisions. We have investigated a number of accidents where bridge supports were struck by highway vehicles or marine vessels, sometimes repetitively. We believe that risk assessments should be conducted including what types of hazardous cargo are either crossing the bridges or passing under them.

All of these initiatives resulted from federal investigations, and have resulted in nationwide improvement of bridge safety.

But the federal role in transportation safety is being challenged on some fronts. For example, the federal law requiring States to implement effective bridge management systems in order to receive federal funding has been dropped.

Also, last year, in the same legislation that repealed the federally-mandated 55 mile per hour speed limit, Congress repealed two mandatory transfer of funds provisions - one that required education programs for States that don't have safety belt enforcement laws, and another that required similar programs for States without helmet laws. Speaking for myself, I can only say that it seems contradictory to simultaneously potentially increase the risk on the nation's highways while at the same time eliminate safety programs that could help save lives of those most at risk.

Additionally, the sponsors of that bill almost succeeded in repealing sanctions related to the age-21 drinking law. This law, which is estimated to have saved 17,000 young lives so far, has eliminated the so-called "blood borders" that allowed teenagers to drive across State lines to legally drink and then make the return trip home - in a less than sober condition, sometimes killing or maiming themselves and others.

Some would argue that all of this isn't the federal government's business - it's the States and/or the individual's responsibility. There is no doubt that in some instances State and local governments are in a better position to judge what measures will create the most effective safety environment - because they know the local conditions better than many of us in Washington.

But, when it comes to their safety and security, the government has a responsibility to protect the interests and well-being of all of its citizens. This is true whether it is maintaining a military force, protecting our borders, inspecting our food supply, or ensuring that all Americans are beneficiaries of policies that support one level of safety for all our citizens.

As a case in point, besides the safety issues I mentioned earlier, let me give you two examples. To protect our children, we have established uniform school bus construction standards across the nation. We believe that all children, whether they live in Maine, California or here in Tennessee, deserve the safest transport possible to school and back. Twenty years ago, as a result of Safety Board recommendations, the Department of Transportation's school bus construction standards were strengthened to protect the gas tank from puncture and provide for stronger vehicle bodies, as well as mandate better cushioning in the seating areas.

Second, we now have a national Commercial Driver's License for all interstate truckers and bus drivers. This, too, resulted from Safety Board recommendations. Before the advent of the CDL, these drivers could - and did - obtain driver's licenses from any number of States and then were able to accumulate traffic violations and remain on the road despite rather appalling driving records. The CDL eliminated many of the loopholes that allowed that to happen.

As you can tell, I could talk about the accomplishments of the Safety Board for a very long time, but I don't want to leave you just with a litany of the past. The transportation industry is changing, and we have to keep ahead of the curve to fulfill our responsibilities to the traveling public. I want to discuss a few of the issues that are taking more prominence as we approach the 21st century. The surprising aspect of most of these is that they don't require space-age solutions.

Child Occupant Protection: In the past two years, the Safety Board has issued over 60 recommendations to improve automobile occupant protection. The majority of these recommendations would directly affect the safety of the millions of children who are transported every day in their parent's, caregiver's of friend's cars.

These recommendations are based on the Safety Board's belief that it is time we as a society put children first in the design of automobiles. This is long overdue, as our safety study last year showed. We found that more than two-thirds of the children in the sample were not in the appropriate restraint for their age, height and weight; over half of the children who used child restraint systems, and a quarter of the children who used seat belts, were improperly restrained.

The automobile industry is responding. More manufacturers are providing integrated child restraints, center lap/shoulder belts and adjustable upper shoulder belt anchorages to make the back seat of the car more child-friendly. Let me point out one reason why it is so important that we make every effort possible to get children into the back seat and everyone in the car buckled up.

There are currently about 70 million cars on the road today with first generation air bags. It is now acknowledged that many of these air bags are more aggressive than needed. Over the next 15 years, these cars will likely be passed on through the after-market to less sophisticated, higher risk families, and then on to teenagers. We know that voluntary restraint use decreases as you pass through these population groups and that teenagers are the least likely to buckle up. Unless we act now to make it a habit that children ride in the back seat and that everyone in the car buckles up, it is very likely that children will continue to die in crashes that they could have survived.

Automation: As we enter a more and more sophisticated information age, data collection techniques and vehicle automation continue to improve. Aircraft "black boxes", the flight recorders that are often so valuable after major accidents, are now being used to monitor day-to-day performance of aircraft to spot problems before they occur.

But as vehicles in all modes become more and more sophisticated with electronics and computers, operators must be properly trained in the capabilities of the technology, and the shortcomings. We held the first marine public forum on computer based shipboard control systems following the grounding of a cruise ship that occurred because the crew was unaware of the limitations of an electronic guidance system they were relying upon. A disturbing trend has emerged in recent years where operators abdicate too much responsibility to sophisticated guidance systems rather than rely on their skills and judgment.

Corporate Culture: As mechanical causes of accidents are being eliminated, the transportation community is gaining more appreciation of the role of corporate culture in accidents. Earlier this year, the Safety Board convened a forum on this issue near Washington, prompted by accidents in which we've uncovered cultures that, rather than encourage safe operations, actually foster unsafe practices. The Safety Culture must begin in the Board Room or it won't be implemented in the work rooms.

Fatigue: With our evolving 24-hour, on-demand society, operator fatigue is becoming a more widely acknowledged concern in all transportation modes. Two years ago, more than 600 people from 16 countries attended a forum on this subject that the Safety Board held with NASA. We have issued recommendations for all modes to adopt procedures to mitigate the potential for operator fatigue leading to major transportation accidents. As an example, the railroad industry is experimenting with countermeasures such as strategic napping and scheduled freight trains.

We don't have to look any farther than the grounding of the EXXON VALDEZ to see accidents fatigue can cause.

Rail Transit: The rail transit industry carries billions of people each year without the benefit of consistent safety oversight. In fact, the NTSB is the only federal agency currently charged with safety oversight of these operations. Recent light rail or subway accidents in New York and San Francisco have shown that there is a need to review operating practices and procedures on these lines to ensure that the traveling public is adequately protected. This has become an emphasis area for the Board.

These are just a few issues that will become more prominent in the coming years as our transportation system becomes more sophisticated and more congested. And we will have to continue to improve our accident investigation techniques to eliminate potential accident causes. In a widely cited study, the Boeing Aircraft Company has estimated that, if our current accident rate in commercial aviation remains constant, within 20 years there will be a catastrophic transport category aircraft accident every week somewhere in the world.

It is dedicated employees in the transportation industry and in government agencies like the Safety Board that are committed to seeing that this projection does not become a reality.

I have served in both the State and federal government because I believe in Thomas Jefferson's words and ideals. Certainly, they exemplify the NTSB's principal goals. That's why, over the years, we have recommended that automobile air bags be depowered, that airline cargo compartments have smoke detectors and fire suppression equipment, that railroads and transit systems install positive train separation to prevent collisions, and that gas utilities install excess flow valves to prevent many household gas explosions. All designed to ensure the care of human life - and yes, perhaps even their happiness, if it means that they or one of their loved ones are not lost in a tragic, preventable accident.

I think I have one of the best jobs in Washington, because we work every day to prevent that next accident. Thank you for inviting me and giving me the opportunity to share my pride in the endeavors of the National Transportation Safety Board and its dedicated, professional employees, and my thoughts on transportation policy.

Jim Hall's Speeches