Statement by Deborah A. P. Hersman
Nominee for National Transportation Safety Board Chairman
U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation
July 8, 2009
Thank you for that kind introduction, Chairman Rockefeller, and thank you to Ranking Member Hutchison and members of the Committee for the opportunity to appear before you today. Mr. Chairman, as you know, my career began 20 years ago when I interned for Congressman Bob Wise of West Virginia. Returning here today, I recall my years spent working on the Commerce Committee and I have wonderful memories of participating in the critical work you and your colleagues do year after year in this very room.
This is a special day for me, so I have brought with me some of the most special people in my life: my husband Niel Plummer and our three sons, Taylor, Wilson, and Jackson; my father and stepmother, Walt and Inga Hersman; the Plummer family, who are the best in-laws ever; my dedicated staff, Nancy Lewis and Reshan Blackwell, many colleagues (past and present) and dear friends. These are the people who believe in me most and support me in all my endeavors.
I’d like to begin by thanking President Obama for nominating me to the position of Chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. I also thank you for giving me this opportunity today to tell you a little bit about the NTSB and why I would be honored to be its chairman. Since June, 2004, it has been my distinct privilege to serve as an NTSB Board Member. During those 5 years, I have accompanied our investigators on 16 major accident launches. I have watched them drop whatever they were doing, grab their go-bags, and head to an accident scene to get there often before the smoke has cleared. Once on scene, they hardly stop to rest or eat. Some begin the meticulous work of documenting the scene in minute detail, while others seek out witnesses and survivors. While investigators begin piecing together the accident sequence, our Transportation Disaster Assistance team reaches out to victims and their families to help them begin navigating through shock, grief, and eventually, healing. The work we do with the victims’ families may seem difficult, but it’s not. These families are a gift to the NTSB, because they remind us, with their grace and courage, why it is so important to work together to make sure these accidents are prevented in the future.
In the past 5 years, I have come to know the NTSB very well, and I want to share with you what I see there.
First, I see an extraordinary staff. They are smart; they are curious; they love to solve mysteries; and to a person, they have an unparalleled passion for transportation safety. This unique mixture of talent and enthusiasm is why they have been able to tell us—just in the 5 years that I’ve been there—the causes of over one hundred major accidents, including why a jetliner known as Flight 587 crashed in New York, why two freight trains crashed and released chlorine gas in Graniteville, South Carolina, why a cargo vessel hit the pier of the Oakland Bay Bridge as it left San Francisco, why the I-35 bridge over the Mississippi River collapsed in Minneapolis, and why a gas line exploded causing an apartment building to burn down in Bergenfield, New Jersey. Not only did they tell us why these tragedies happened, they told us what should be done so that they never happen again somewhere else. Therefore, I see dedicated professionals doing invaluable work at an annual cost of about 30 cents per American.
I also see an agency that is the safety conscience and compass of the transportation industry. As an independent, non-regulatory agency, the NTSB can articulate needed safety improvements and innovations without having to prove that they are cost beneficial or politically feasible. The NTSB has the full attention of industry leaders, other government agencies, and policy makers, like yourselves. Therefore, I see an organization that is uniquely situated to think about transportation safety in the ideal and then point the way toward a safer transportation system.
Finally, I see a 40-year-old agency working hard to improve safety in a transportation world that looks very little like it did 40 years ago. The mission of the agency has not changed, but the world has. To remain relevant in this fast-moving environment, the NTSB may have to make fundamental changes, perhaps in the way it approaches accident investigations or the way that it issues its recommendations. Therefore, I see an agency whose challenge is to be nimble enough to keep pace with changes that are occurring in transportation and communication, sometimes at breathtaking speed.
I look forward to an opportunity to lead this outstanding organization, if you bestow on me the honor and the privilege to do so. The next few years promise to be very exciting for the transportation industry; I hope to contribute by making it a safer industry.