Remarks by Jim Hall, Chairman
National Transportation Safety Board
Symposium on Transportation Safety and the Law
Crystal City, Virginia
April 25, 2000

 


Good morning and welcome. I want to thank all of you for being here this morning. I am really looking forward to hearing from the many panelists who have agreed to help us think through a most important set of issues involving the collection and use of information that can help make our transportation system safer. I sincerely hope you will enjoy the next two days - but more importantly, I hope that you will learn some things you didn't know and will hear different experiences and points of view that will give you a better, if not different, perspective on the issues discussed. In the end, I hope we all come away with a better understanding of the complexity that surrounds a single, simple point - the more information we have, the safer we can all be.

About a year ago, the Safety Board held a symposium, right here, to explore the varied uses of recorded data to increase both safety and economic efficiency. The participants generally agreed that the intelligent use of recorded data can improve equipment reliability and help a company's bottom line, and that more importantly, it can greatly enhance operational safety. But there was also a profound sense of anxiety about who - outside a company - might use that company's recorded data and for what purposes. As a result of those concerns, I proposed this second symposium to provide an opportunity for all interested parties to speak directly to the legal ramifications of data collection.

To that end, we have gathered a diverse group of over 400 participants from all sides of the bar, from federal and state governments, from our counterparts abroad, from domestic and international transportation companies, from labor, from academia. And from all modes of transportation. I hope you'll all remember that communication is key to good policy, and that you'll actively participated as we deal with these complicated, important and sometimes controversial issues.

Just a few weeks ago, an anchor on one of our local news programs aired a story about his experience with transportation data collection technology. A camera caught him running a red light. He recalled seeing a flash as he went through the intersection, but thought it was the sun reflecting off something.

He learned later that the flash came from an automated camera mounted at the intersection as it photographed his car - in great detail -- advancing through the red light. Thanks to this technological breakthrough he received a citation and a $75.00 fine. Although he claimed that he had not deliberately ran the red light, he chose to pay the fine rather than wage a time-consuming and potentially frustrating legal battle. He admitted that he had made a conscious decision to proceed through a green-to-yellow light rather than stop too quickly - possibly causing an accident.

The reporter asked the viewing audience to let him know how they felt about using this new technology as an enforcement tool. The responses were predictable. Some said that it was a great tool against unsafe operators. Others saw it as an invasion of privacy that punishes behavior out of context. We all know that the use of technology, by enforcing certain behaviors, does require us to sacrifice some freedom of movement, choice, and anonymity for the public good.

Just consider some of the other safety and security measures in use today - passenger and baggage screening equipment at airports, elimination of smoking in public areas, cockpit voice recorders, and highway radar guns. However, workable compromises and good policy decisions can allay the public's fears about perceived invasions of privacy. Let's hope that we can make some progress in that direction today.

Initially, this symposium was to be a mechanism for allowing us to examine ways to facilitate the development of new data recording systems while also minimizing fears that the data would be used inappropriately. It quickly became evident that these issues affect not only recorders, but also any new initiatives meant to improve our understanding about how well other systems operate as well.

Many companies appeared poised to develop aggressive programs to assess their own performance, but were concerned about what would happen to the data they developed in doing so. Would regulators use materials derived from voluntary self-assessments as a basis for enforcement? Would the information be made available to the public or for use in litigation?

The Aviation Safety Reporting System, administered by NASA, has been used for 25 years as a non-punitive avenue for pilots to report problems encountered in the aviation system. Anonymous reports from pilots can provide an early warning system about trouble spots. About 3,000 of these reports are reviewed each month by a dozen professionals who analyze them and make recommendations for changes that will improve performance and prevent mishaps.

It has been a wonderful tool, and no one doubts that, without the anonymity feature, much of the preventative information would remain invisible, at least until some tragedy struck. However, that said, the Aviation Safety Reporting System is random and unfocused and its very success points to the need for more aggressive use of non-punitive reporting programs.

Initial tests of this program, with coordinated administration by an air carrier, its employees, and its FAA overseers, have been successful at American, USAirways, and elsewhere. Carriers are able to target specific issues and solicit in-depth information from the workforce with reduced fear of enforcement penalties. Widespread use of this approach has been slow, largely because of concerns regarding who will ultimately have access to the data and how they might use it.

Last January, President Clinton announced that FAA would use American Airlines' demonstration program, known as ASAP (short for Aviation Safety Action Program) as a model for non-punitive reporting programs that would, in the President's words, fix problems, not blame. But, widespread adoption of the program is slow in coming. And, again, it appears that legal issues are at the heart of the regulators' and the transport companies' reluctance to proceed.

The same uncertainty often surrounds critical self-evaluation of any kind. No one doubts the importance of self-appraisal -- safety audits are important tools and most of us would encourage their use. But, many wonder what becomes of those reports and audits when an incident occurs and the accident investigator wants to look that them, or the regulator has a change of heart, or the media presses for their release.

The NTSB recently encountered many of these issues with a pipeline operator, and we will talk about the experience later today. Many of the same principles of law and arguments that surround recorded data were involved in this incident. But, unlike event or voice recorders, there was no prior general agreement that independent, non-regulatory accident investigators could use audit reports. We weren't given access to them, but their production was later ordered in a civil suit.

The experience has caused us to become interested in understanding how self-appraisals should be used in an investigation, and what effect this usage may have on the quantity and quality of such appraisals.

The SabreTech prosecutions that resulted from the Valujet flight 592 crash in the Everglades caused us to alter the focus of the symposium somewhat. We had been mostly concerned about impediments to the development of new information, new types of data, new programs and new technology.

Those prosecutions caused us to take a hard look at the possibility that old types of information might also be lost to the accident investigator. For decades, we had relied on individuals to tell us what happened in an accident - and they usually, sometimes reluctantly, did so.

We feared that what had been reluctance to cooperate would now become refusal. A pipeline accident in Bellingham, Washington proved us right. A criminal investigation was immediately launched into the accident, and we have yet to talk to most of the individuals who were operating the pipeline when it ruptured last June. As a result, serious safety issues and serious questions about prevention, remain unanswered.

So we added a number of panels about criminal proceedings. We want to examine such issues as -- What crimes are accidents, and when do accidents become criminal? What is the relationship between pre-incident regulatory compliance and the likelihood of criminal inquiry? How should companies respond to the possibility of parallel criminal and accident investigations? What rules of process and evidence apply when parallel accident and criminal inquiries go forward? What are the respective roles and proper confines of the independent accident board, the regulator, and the prosecutor?

These are complex issues - and we probably won't solve them over the next few days. But, some principles can begin to emerge that may help stabilize a situation that is now in flux. I look forward to hearing these questions debated, and I am grateful to Ken Mead, DOT Inspector General, for volunteering his time and considerable experience to help us with this important panel tomorrow.

Our luncheon speaker tomorrow, Bob Hager from NBC News, will help us look how the media impacts our actions and those of the public. How much does the media circus that surrounds high profile accidents pressure the decision-making process of individuals and agencies responsible for responding to the crisis. What is the media's responsibility is in those situations?

As many of you may know, one of the network news programs recently played the CVR from the American Airlines crash in Cali, Columbia. The chilling effect of that broadcast has been incalculable - not only to the investigative process - but more importantly, to the families of that crew.

I'm also looking forward to today's discussions about the collection and use of new data. Just two weeks ago, as a result of our experiences with investigations involving the crashes of SilkAir flight 185, Swissair flight 111, and EgyptAir flight 990, the NTSB made recommendations to the FAA asking for the retrofit of existing passenger aircraft, and the manufacture of new aircraft, with cockpit video recording devices. We know these recommendations are controversial.

In addition, the NTSB has advocated the use of recorder technology in commercial vehicles. The European experience, where five million heavy trucks and other commercial vehicles are already recorder-equipped, shows very positive results. And, it's time for us to make full use of this technology as well.

The bottom line is the government's responsibility and the Board's primary mission is to ensure the public's safety. The NTSB investigates accidents with the sole goal of preventing similar accidents from recurring and to make the system safer. Each year, transportation crashes kill and injure millions of individuals around the world - causing a tremendous loss to our societies and untold pain to the family members of those victims. While we need to have a full discussion of all of these issues, it's in everyone's interest to take the steps necessary to ensure the public good.

And, while every individual's right to privacy must be respected and protected as much as possible - should that be the determining factor when we make decisions on public safety issues? And, should there be differing standards for those who operate in our skies and those who operate on the ground? I encourage all of you to listen and learn and share ideas over the next two days, so that, together, we can enhance the safety of our transportation systems safer and protect those who use them.

Before I conclude, I want to thank the members of the Safety Board who have worked so hard to put this symposium together. Julie Beal was the project team leader, and Maren McAvoy was the chief research assistant. Carolyn Dargan was our logistics champ. Thank you all as well as the others who have worked to make the next two days possible.

I also want to welcome Ken Smart, Chief Inspector of Air Accidents in the UK. Ken has come a long way to talk to us tonight and to help us with a panel tomorrow, and I appreciate his willingness to share his unique insights with us.

I also want to welcome those of you who represent the families of victims of transportation crashes and the family associations. Your presence reminds us of what is truly at stake and of the real costs of transportation crashes. Thank you for coming here to be a part of this very important discussion.

With that, let me again welcome all of you, and ask NTSB's Managing Director, Dan Campbell, to provide a short overview of what we will be talking about and who will be doing the talking the next two days.