Remarks by Jim Hall, Chairman
National Transportation Safety Board
before the
Automotive Original Equipment Manufacturers Annual Workshop
Washington, D.C., May 6, 1998


Good morning, and thank you for the kind introduction and the opportunity to speak before such an influential group.

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 annual gross domestic product - thatís approaching $800 billion each year.

With such a massive industry, it is inevitable that some problems will occur. And that, often, is when the National Transportation Safety Board is called into action. My agency is small by government standards, with about 400 employees nationwide and a budget of about $50 million each year. But, I am persuaded that the money spent on the Safety Board is among the most cost effective of all taxpayer expenditures. It costs each citizen about 18 cents a year to fund my agency, less than to mail a postcard.

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 10 hours of a single day.

Although, you most often hear of us because of our high-profile aviation accident work, 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 donít 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.

This is a daunting responsibility and one we take seriously. I believe our record speaks for itself. Over the years more that 80 percent of our recommendations have been implemented and those recommendations have influenced or led to such safety improvements as proximity warning systems for aircraft, center high-mounted stop lamps for passenger vehicles, age-21 drinking laws, personal flotation devices for children in recreational boats, depowered air bags for passenger vehicles, and anti-lock brakes for heavy trucks.

Obviously, the Safety Board hasnít achieved these successes alone. The effectiveness of our safety initiatives are also the result of the enforcement efforts of regulatory agencies. But, ultimately, the success of any safety measure rests with the transportation industries, the operators, the manufacturers, and their suppliers.

Through the efforts of government and industry over the past several decades, tens of thousands of lives are saved on our highways every year. The Department of Transportation estimates that had the 1969 death rate of 5 fatalities for every 100 million vehicle miles persisted, more than 120,000 people would have died in motor vehicle crashes in 1995, rather than the actual figure of less than 42,000.

But there still is much to do. Even though the rates have improved, we still lose about 40,000 men, women and children a year on our highways. NHTSA recently reported that, based on a survey it conducted, it believes that 1 out of every 4 Americans over the age of 16 has been injured in a motor vehicle crash that required medical attention at some time in their lives.

I donít have to tell you about your importance, as equipment suppliers, to the nationís automotive economy and its safety successes. But let me tell you about your importance to us.

As you probably know, our investigators are delving into different issues daily and therefore are, for the most part, generalists in nature. With an agency as small as ours there is no way we can have leading experts in every automotive product, system, or component. We need the expertise, and have obtained the assistance of companies such as Allied Signal, Borg-Warner, Bosch, TRW, and the Budd Company in many of our investigations.

In fact, your companies have been generous in sharing and supplying technical manuals, in opening the doors of your facilities to us for component teardowns, and in reading out electronic diagnostic modules when they exist. And you provide a direct service to the American people through the hands-on training our investigators get at your facilities.

But to be truly effective, we not only need your expertise during our investigations, we also need your objectivity. We need to know that you are sharing relevant information with us, regardless of the consequences.

We have no interest in undermining public confidence in your products. However, we also have a responsibility to our bosses, you and the other American taxpayers, to reach an independent and impartial determination on accident causes and safety issues. To do that we need all the facts. Regardless of our personal, economic, or professional interests, transportation safety affects us all.

Safety and accident prevention are everyoneís concern and responsibility. Our government is responsible for setting standards and guidelines. Our corporate management is responsible for enhancing the compliance with those standards, while allowing for individuality in its products. And the operator is responsible for using the training provided by management and the experience obtained on the job to do the task in the safest way.

In short, we must look beyond the immediate cause of an accident to see if there are systemic reasons that permitted the accident to occur. As the eyes and ears of the American people at accident sites, the NTSB is a national archive - funded by the taxpayer - of what not to do so that the same mistakes are not repeated. Our almost 11,000 safety recommendations are written with that goal in mind. Among those systemic reasons we explore is what is called "corporate culture."

What is corporate culture? Simply put, "itís the way an organization does business." Although the Board may not always describe "corporate culture" per se in its reports, it does investigate and analyze how the "manner of doing business" may have set the stage for accidents. The full cooperation and dedication of every level in an organization is needed in order to produce an atmosphere where safety is given pre-eminent status in a corporationís strategic planning.

Allow me to change gears a little and share with you the challenges the Safety Board sees as high priorities for the automotive supplier industry.

Foremost on the list is the continued improvement in occupant restraints. This is particularly important as the disparity in vehicle size is increasing daily. Heavy trucks and sport utility vehicles are growing both in size and number and the passenger vehicle mix is changing as light trucks are being used more and more for personal transportation.

This places more demand on the restraint systems to provide the protection the public needs and expects in the event of a crash.

However, the publicís confidence in the current restraint systems has eroded. My agency hears from concerned citizens every week asking about the safety of air bags.

We also continually hear about young children being killed by passenger-side air bags. Yes, itís tragic that most of these children are not in a proper child restraint or are not using their lap and shoulder belts. And, weíre taking steps to better educate the public. However, itís also tragic that most of these crashes in which children are killed are crashes where the air bag deploys unnecessarily and does not serve its intended purpose as a life saving device.

Estimates of the total number of air bag deployments and estimates of the total number of lives saved by air bags indicate about 1,000 deployments for every life saved Ė a clear sign that we are seeing many unnecessary deployments. We need crash sensors that are better at discriminating which crashes warrant an air bag to deploy and which crashes donít.

Issues such as this prompted the Safety Board to convene a Public Forum on air bags and child safety about a year ago. During that forum, we learned about a number of other issues where your assistance is needed.

First, the Safety Board believes that many of the problems related to child passenger safety, including the dangers that air bags pose to children, can be resolved by ensuring that children ride in the back seats of vehicles when a back seat is available.

This is particularly important since there are currently about 70 million vehicles on the road with first-generation, or full-powered air bags. The owner and drivers of these vehicles are likely to be more aware of the dangers air bags pose to children than will be the second and third owners of these same vehicles.

Second, children of all ages need to be properly restrained. Some will argue that the current design of the back seat does not accommodate children. The Board recognized that this was a concern with some vehicles and made recommendations to make the back seat of the vehicle more child-friendly.

We would like to see all automobile manufacturers offer integrated restraints in their passenger vehicles. This would encourage use of the back seat where the integrated seat is installed and provide a restraint system specifically designed for children.

We also want to see lap/shoulder belts provided as standard equipment in the center back seat position. Individuals seated in the center back seat should be afforded the same level of protection as other occupants of the rear seat, who have been afforded lap/shoulder belts for almost 8 years.

In addition, we have recommended that adjustable upper anchorages should be provided in the outboard rear seating positions to allow children who have outgrown booster seats a way to obtain proper fit of the shoulder belt. If the shoulder belt fits comfortably, the child is more likely to wear it properly and thus obtain the full benefit of the upper torso protection. Some of the automobile manufacturers have told us that the design of the car makes it impossible to install the adjustable upper anchorages in the back seats. "We canít do it" is not an acceptable answer anymore. If we have learned anything from the air bag experience, it is that you cannot ignore the needs of children in automobile safety.

The issue of air bag safety certainly extends to adults as well as children. The Safety Board was a supporter of the regulatory process to allow for depowering of air bags, both driver and passenger. We have gone on record as supporting that belted occupants be given priority over unbelted occupants in the design of air bags and the total restraint system.

We also have consensus among automobile safety advocates that the seat belt system is the primary restraint system. And yet, the typical belt restraint system designed for American cars lacks the safety belt pre-tensioner that is common on European cars. These systems are well proven. We need to approach our primary restraint design Ė our belt system Ė with the same sophistication we are putting into our air bag designs.

I am pleased that the second generation air bag vehicles are now being marketed with depowered air bags. However, I am concerned this will not be as effective in reducing child air bag fatalities as it might be for reducing the problem with adults. We have very little data at this time on the real world experience with the 1998 vehicles as to how effective this change will be. Unfortunately, it appears that it will be some time before we have enough data to see how much improvement has been made.

It is also unfortunate that we are at least several years away from the more complete solution of advanced air bags. That is, air bags that will tailor their response to the size and position of the occupant rather than the "one size fits all" air bag now in use. Meanwhile, about one million vehicles per month are being built without advanced air bag technology.

So, for the restraint system suppliers here today, you are facing one of the biggest technological challenges of modern times. The public wants advanced air bag technology now, yet it is often hard to speed up technology development and it is vitally important that any new air bag technology installed in cars be as well developed as possible. And I think as the auto manufacturers are leaning more toward "one stop shopping" for a complete restraint system, the supplier industry will be more influential in the system design than ever before.

In the interim, for those owners or occupants who are at highest risk for air bag injury, the Safety Board has also gone on record as supporting disconnecting the air bag for those who choose to do so. Although air bag disconnect switches are becoming available, and consumers are going through the process to get disconnect authorization, I am concerned that these citizens can not readily find franchised dealers to perform this service.

However, for each increment we raise the use of seat belts Ė through the Presidentís seat belt initiative, legislation, and education Ė the total benefit is great. That goes for both the benefit from the belts themselves and in the reduction of injury directly from air bag deployment. In that regard, I would urge you to help your legislators in the passage of primary enforcement laws to augment mandatory restraint use.

A subject related to the air bag crash sensor, but not the restraint itself, is the crash event recorder or "black box" so often referred to in the media. We feel valuable information is being gathered by air bag sensors in each crash but not being retained to help improve the design of current safety systems. We have recommended that these sensors, with the inclusion of stored memory computer chips, become valuable event recorders and the data from them go into Department of Transportation data bases for safety research purposes.

In the large highway vehicle arena, we support further development of Intelligent Transportation Systems, or ITS, technology to enhance safety for heavy trucks and buses. Particularly, emphasis should be placed on developing collision warning and lane departure warning systems to assist commercial operators with accident avoidance capabilities.

Also, we believe further safety improvements could be realized in vehicle subsystems, such as the development of electronic braking systems for tractors and trailers, and the use of on-board recorders to capture crash data similar to that recommended for passenger vehicles and also to monitor driversí hours of service.

I canít say enough about the importance of reducing commercial driver fatigue through better monitoring of compliance with Federal hours of service regulations. Combating fatigue is a shared responsibility of government, industry and employees. It is incumbent on transportation companies not to provide the wrong signals to employees with respect to safety by tacitly or overtly allowing fatigued employees to operate safety-sensitive equipment.

In closing, I would like to commend those here who have answered previous challenges from the Safety Board. Specifically, I would like to acknowledge the air brake suppliers who have produced anti-lock brake systems for heavy trucks that are meeting the stringent durability demands of the long haul, over the road, operators. And, I would like to add, the Safety Board has just this week issued new recommendations designed to stimulate the market for the inclusion of traction control systems integrated with the anti-lock brakes now required.

Again, I thank you for the privilege and honor of being invited to speak to you today; I look forward to your continued support in the area of transportation safety.

 

Jim Hall's Speeches