Opening Remarks
Honorable Jim Hall
Chairman, National Transportation Safety Board
Public Hearing on Driver Safety Issues
New Orleans, Louisiana
January 20, 2000


Good morning and welcome.

I am Jim Hall, Chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board and of this public hearing.

The National Transportation Safety Board is an independent government agency mandated by Congress to investigate all modes of transportation accidents, to make recommendations to prevent similar accidents from recurring, and to provide independent oversight of the government and private entities involved in our nation's transportation system.

Today's hearing is a part of the Board's yearlong study into truck and bus safety. The first hearing, held last April in Washington, D.C., focused on a broad range of truck and bus safety issues, including government oversight, the validity of crash data, and the changing nature of roadway transportation. The second hearing, held in late August in Nashville, Tennessee, focused on Advanced Safety Technology Applications for Commercial Vehicles. During that hearing, we discussed the potential of these new technologies to reduce the number of accidents involving commercial vehicles. The third hearing, held last November in Los Angeles, focused on the safety implications of the North American Free Trade Agreement. That hearing investigated whether vehicles and drivers from the U.S., Canada, and Mexico have comparable standards and oversight for vehicles, drivers and motor carriers.

This two-day hearing will examine the adequacy of oversight for the more than eight million commercial driver license (CDL) holders and its impact on transportation safety. In particular, we want to focus on the CDL program, to investigate whether it is effective in ensuring the proficiency and capability of the commercial vehicle operators traveling on our nation's roadways. We will also examine the medical certification process for drivers and the industry's and the government's - both state and federal -ability to provide adequate oversight of these programs and drivers. As part of that review, we'll also look at how other modes of transportation, such as aviation, and other countries, including the European Union and Australia, certify their vehicle operators.

These issues have long been of concern to the Safety Board. However, several recent accidents have brought them to the attention of the nation as well. One of the most tragic accidents on our nation's highways occurred just outside of New Orleans last Mother's Day. A motorcoach drifted off the roadway and crashed, killing 22 of the passengers on board. Although the Board's investigation is still underway, we've found serious deficiencies in the CDL and medical certification processes - deficiencies that allowed an apparently impaired driver to get behind the wheel of a bus full of passengers. Tragically, that accident is indicative of the consequences that can arise from inadequate and ineffective driver oversight programs - by all of those who should be overseeing them - the industry, the states, and the Department of Transportation (DOT).

Just two weeks ago, the Board approved a major investigative report on the June 20, 1998 collision of a Greyhound motorcoach with two tractor semi-trailers in Burnt Cabins, Pennsylvania. Six passengers and the bus driver were killed in that accident and the other 16 passengers were injured. The Safety Board determined the busdriver's level of alertness had been reduced because he had taken a sedating antihistamine and he was fatigued because of his irregular work-rest periods.

During that same meeting, the Board adopted several recommendations regarding the use of medications by vehicle operators. These recommendations call for the DOT and its modal administrations to develop a list of approved medications and/or classes of medications that may be safely used when operating a vehicle and to establish comprehensive toxicological testing requirements to sample fatal vehicle accidents, in all modes, to identify the role of prescription and over-the- counter (OTC) medications in those accidents.

We are a self-medicating society. The OTC pharmaceutical industry is a multi-billion dollar business. Most of us are unaware of the side effects of the OTC medications we take - or of the possible effects of combining them. The United States is one of the few countries in the world that allow such extensive self-medication. In fact, many countries make any drug with the potential to cause drowsiness available by prescription only. Because of the number of incidents the Board has found there were caused by operators taking OTC medications, we believe that it is time for DOT to take action on the issue. And, why, we will examine it in more detail here.

Last year, more than 5,300 individuals were needlessly killed on our nation's roadways in accidents involving a large truck. This situation will worsen as more volume, mass, and pressure challenge the safety of our highways. In the last decade, the number of vehicles on the roads has grown about 16 percent and the mass of those vehicles has increased by about 20 percent. Yet, the road system hasn't appreciably changed. As a result, many of our interstate roads - which also serve as major truck corridors - are over capacity and ill suited for heavy vehicle traffic.

According to the American Trucking Associations (ATA), the trucking industry employs 9.5 million individuals and includes more than 442,000 companies which operate more than 4 million medium and heavy trucks and haul about 6.5 billion tons of freight. Although "just in time" delivery has helped our economic growth, it has also increased pressure on operators, shippers, brokers, and drivers to meet demanding production and delivery schedules.

The result has been a doubling in the production of heavy trucks in the past 10 years and many trucks being used as mobile warehouses. In the 1980s, about 130,000 heavy trucks were manufactured annually - that number exceeded 220,000 in 1999 - with most of them on the roadways hauling cargo. Production is expected to double again in the next 10 years. Not only are more heavy trucks being produced each year, so are more light trucks, vans, and sport utility vehicles.

The addition of motorcoach traffic only compounds the situation. In an average year, more than 360 million bus passengers travel 28 billion passenger miles in North America. About 945 million of those miles are by motorcoach. The American Bus Association estimates that about 4,000 companies operate about 26,000 to 28,000 commercial buses for charters, tours, regular route services, and special operations. The greatest users of those motorcoaches are some of our most vulnerable citizens - our children and senior citizens. As those segments of our population increase, as they are projected to do, so will their reliance on this mode of transportation with a corresponding increase in traffic.

These factors, in combination, could lead to a significant increase in commercial vehicle accidents unless we ensure that the drivers behind the wheel are skilled and physically able to operate an 80,000-pound truck or bus. We must change the safety culture on our highways. We - the industry, the states, and the federal government - must be more proactive in finding ways to improve the safety of our roadways and our citizens. That's the reason I focused the Board's resources on this issue over the last year and the reason we are all here today.

A Safety Board public hearing is a fact-gathering exercise. It is not an adversarial proceeding. We will not debate or analyze the facts and conclusions presented. Rather, we will spend our time examining current safety problems and studying possible solutions. The Safety Board will use information from this public hearing to develop possible recommendations and other material as part of our initiative on truck and bus safety.

On the Board of Inquiry with me are: Mr. Barry Sweedler, Director, Office of Safety Recommendations, Dr. Vern Ellingstad, Director, Office of Research and Engineering, Mr. Joseph Osterman, Director, Office of Highway Safety, and Ms. Barbara Czech, Hearing Officer with the Office of Highway Safety.

The Board of Inquiry will be assisted by a Technical Panel from the Safety Board's Offices of Highway Safety and Research and Engineering. They are: Dr. Margaret Sweeney, Ms. Jennifer Hopkins, Mr. Gary Van Etten, Mr. Raphael Marshall, Mr. Ken Suydam and the Board's medical officer, Dr. Mitch Garber.

Also here to assist me are my Special Assistant, Ms. Deborah Smith, and Ms. Lauren Peduzzi and Frank Ciaccio, from our Office of Government, Public, and Family Affairs. Mrs. Mary Jones, Mrs. Vickie Parezo and Mrs. Carolyn Dargan are here to assist with administrative matters. We are also happy to have in attendance Member George Black and his assistant Candi Bing.

The Safety Board has designated as "parties to the public hearing" those government agencies, companies, associations, and individuals whose special knowledge will help us develop the pertinent facts for this initiative.

I would like to introduce the parties for the record. They are:

The procedures for the hearing are as follows:

As Chairman of the Board of Inquiry, I will be responsible for the conduct of the public hearing. I will make all rulings on the admissibility of questions, documents, or information as factual evidence, and all such rulings will be final.

Witnesses will serve on panels devoted to specific topic areas. The technical panel will question the witnesses first. I will then call upon each party spokesperson to question the witnesses. We will conclude with questions from each member of the Board of Inquiry.

A transcript of the public hearing and all exhibits entered into the record will become part of the public record in the Safety Board's Washington, D.C., office. Anyone desiring to purchase the transcript should contact the court reporter; the Safety Board does not provide copies of the transcript. In addition, the Safety Board's highway reports are published on our website: http://www.ntsb.gov/publictn/publictn.htm

Thank you. Ms. Czech, please introduce the first panel of witnesses.

Chairman Hall's Speeches & Testimony | Public Hearing on Driver Safety Issues |