Honorable Mark V. Rosenker
Chairman, National Transportation Safety Board
Remarks before the
Greater New Jersey Motorcoach Association
Atlantic City, NY
June 4, 2008
Good afternoon and thank you Tom Dugan and Tom JeBran for your kind invitation and warm hospitality. I am always happy to be here in New Jersey with my friends and colleagues in the motorcoach industry.
Unfortunately I was unable to meet with you last year so let me take just a few moments to bring you up-to-date on some of the work the Board has done involving motorcoaches since the last time I was here in 2006.
For those of you who are not that familiar with the Board, let me briefly describe what we are all about. We are an independent agency charged with investigating transportation accidents. I’m sure all of you are familiar with the Board’s role in aviation where we are famous for recovering the “black box”, painstakingly sifting through the wreckage, and ultimately determining the cause of major aviation tragedies. We, of course, do the same work and apply many of the same techniques in rail, marine, pipeline, and highway accidents. However, seldom do these surface modes garner public interest as much as aviation accidents. Then again, the Big Dig tunnel ceiling panel collapse in Boston in 2006 and the bridge collapse in Minneapolis last August have come very close.
So when tragedies occur, they attract a huge amount of media attention, and as a result, the potential exists for the public to lose confidence in our transportation systems. A perceived lack of public confidence can mean that fewer people are willing to fly or perhaps ride motorcoaches. Therefore, our job is to restore the confidence of the traveling public after a major transportation disaster by conducting an unbiased, independent investigation to determine the cause of accident and to find solutions to prevent it from happening again.
You and I know that travel by motorcoach is one of the safest modes of transportation, but when accidents and fatalities occur, we must take steps to reassure the public that we are doing everything possible to ensure their safety.
Let me give some examples of that reassurance.
When the Big Dig tunnel ceiling panel collapsed in Boston, public confidence was shaken, so the Congress immediately turned to the Safety Board to investigate this tragedy -- not because we are the world’s experts in building tunnels, but because of our reputation for thorough, independent accident investigations. Any number of other organizations could have conducted an investigation, but for such a high-profile, high-cost, high-visibility project as the Big Dig, with all the problems that it has had, the Congress recognized that the public needed an independent body to lead this investigation.
This accident occurred on July 10, 2006, when a section of the I-90 connector tunnel became detached and fell onto the roof of a sedan, killing one of the two occupants. A total of about 26 tons of concrete and suspension hardware fell onto the vehicle. As a result of this accident, the Board made recommendations that will forever change the way epoxy is used in construction projects.
Not unlike the complexity and uniqueness of the Big Dig accident, the collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis last summer has produced an incredible amount of public attention -- like no other highway accident in the Board’s history. The sudden and seemingly inexplicable collapse of the bridge continues to captivate the news media and, for many, this accident epitomizes a multitude of emotional and political issues far beyond the bridge collapse itself.
Fortunately, because of the Safety Board’s reputation as a highly technical and competent organization, the public has the confidence the Board’s investigation will cut through any political or emotional issues to find the true cause of this accident. For example, we have already discovered a design flaw in the steel gusset plates that hold the bridge members together. Typically these gusset plates are designed to be stronger than the members they connect, but for some reason, in this case they were not.
Immediately after the bridge collapsed, bridge engineers throughout the nation redoubled their efforts to inspect bridges. These additional bridge inspections were not necessarily a bad thing, but they would never have discovered a design flaw, because bridge inspections are more oriented toward the deterioration of a bridge and not any original design issues. Therefore, the Board’s interim recommendation in January to recalculate the design adequacy of gusset plates helped focus the bridge engineering community on issues relevant to the bridge collapse and reassured the public that those issues would be resolved. The Board has not completed its investigation nor determined the probable cause, but when our investigation is completed, we will likely make a number of recommendations to improve bridge safety in the future.
So my point is that bad things happen, but it is NTSB’s job to find the problems, make the fixes, and restore the public’s confidence in our transportation systems.
Your job is much the same. Fatal motorcoach accidents are rare events. But each time one occurs, all of us must work hard to make changes to prevent it from happening again -- so that the public will continue to have confidence in one of the safest modes of transportation. We are partners in this endeavor and our reputations depend on how effective we are in preventing accidents.
So, for example, think about the safety image you project to the public when your drivers are talking on cell phones. There isn’t a person in this room who has not been frustrated by a driver who was paying more attention to his or her cell phone conversation than to the driving task at hand. Do you really want your passengers to have this image of your professional drivers?
In November 2006 we completed our report of an investigation that focused on cell phone use by a motorcoach driver who was traveling on the George Washington Memorial Parkway in Alexandria, Virginia. As the motorcoach approached an arched stone overpass with low clearance on one side, the driver failed to move to the center lane where the clearance was sufficient. This driver was talking on a hands-free cellular telephone at the time of the accident and was so distracted that he didn’t even follow the lead motorcoach into the center lane. As a result, the motorcoach struck the underside of the bridge. Of the 27 passengers, 10 received minor injuries and 1 sustained serious injury.
The Safety Board believes that, except in emergencies, operators of commercial passenger-carrying vehicles and school busses should not use cellular telephones while transporting passengers and we have asked FMCSA to publish regulations to that effect.
Another issue that the Board has addressed is motorcoach fires. In a February 2007, the Board published its report on a motorcoach near Dallas, Texas that caught fire as it was evacuating elderly passengers away from the predicted path of Hurricane Rita. Twenty-three elderly passengers were unable to escape the fire and died.
As a result of its investigation, the Board made a number of recommendations to NHTSA to:
We also made a recommendation to FMCSA to continue to gather and evaluate information on the causes, frequency, and severity of bus and motorcoach fires, and to conduct an ongoing analysis of that data. As a result of this investigation, the Board also highlighted shortcomings in FMCSA’s compliance review system and its oversight of the motorcoach industry so that unsafe motor carriers will be prevented from operating.
As we have come to learn in investigating these and other accidents, motorcoach fires are not uncommon. In fact, there is about one every day of the week. However, injuries and fatalities are extremely rare, mostly because once the fire is detected, the motorcoach pulls over and the passengers exit relatively quickly. In the fire near Dallas the passengers were unable to exit quickly because they were not ambulatory. That is certainly a mistake we cannot afford to repeat.
Now let me take a few minutes to talk about some of our ongoing investigations.
We are in the final stages of completing our investigation of the motorcoach accident in Atlanta, GA involving baseball team traveling from Bluffton University in Ohio. The motorcoach took an exit ramp from the left lane of a dedicated HOV lane, failed to stop at the end of the exit ramp, collided with and overrode a concrete bridge rail, and fell 30 feet to the highway below. Seven occupants were killed and 28 were injured. Although we are still investigating this accident, we do know that some of the occupants were ejected or partially ejected from the vehicle. As a result, it is likely that the final report will address improved occupant protection – a recurring issues that the Board has addressed before. In fact, enhanced occupant protection for motorcoach passengers has been on the Board’s Most Wanted List since 2000. This accident report is scheduled to come before the Board this summer.
The Safety Board continues to investigate an accident involving a tractor-trailer and a motorcoach that occurred in the early morning hours on Interstate 94 (I-94) near Osseo, Wisconsin. The tractor-trailer was traveling at highway speeds when it departed the right-hand travel lane and paved shoulder at an approximate 3 degree angle. The shoulder was grooved with rumble strips. Upon entering the sloped roadside and traveling approximately 535 feet, the driver steered to the left; the truck reentered the lane, overturned onto its right side, and slid to a stop, where it blocked both lanes and shoulders of westbound I-94. The underside of the tractor-trailer was facing oncoming traffic and it was dark.
A motorcoach, carrying a high school marching band, then collided with the wreckage of the tractor-trailer. The motorcoach was the lead bus in a convoy of four motorcoaches traveling from the University of Wisconsin. It had completed 195 miles of the return trip when it came over a rise in the divided highway and collided with the wrecked tractor-trailer. There were no pre-crash skid marks. At the time of the accident, the weather was clear, there was no highway lighting, and the pavement was dry. The bus driver and four passengers were killed; 26 passengers sustained minor-to-serious injuries, and 10 passengers were not injured. The truck driver sustained minor injuries.
Related to this accident is another single-vehicle rollover accident that occurred on October 9, 2004, on Interstate 55 near Turrell, Arkansas. This time the rollover involved a 47-passenger motorcoach transporting 29 passengers to a casino in Tunica, Mississippi. Witnesses following the motorcoach estimated that it was traveling about 70 mph, when it appeared to inadvertently take an exit ramp, veered to the right and entered a grassy area between the exit and entrance ramps. The bus rotated clockwise, striking an exit sign. As it overturned, slid, struck an earthen drainage ditch, and rolled over, the roof of the vehicle separated from the body, allowing passengers to be ejected. The motorcoach had traveled 67 feet after striking the ditch and came to rest upside down, with the roof lying on the ground, still hinged on the right side. The bus had no passenger seat belts, and the driver was not wearing his seat belt. Fourteen passengers and the driver were killed; 16 others were injured.
Both of these accidents will likely come before the Board as a package this fall in the form of a Report on Fatigue Countermeasures.
So, in summary, when tragic accidents occur, it is the Safety Board’s job to determine the cause and make recommendations to prevent them from happening again. But we are not alone in our desire to prevent accidents. You and I are partners in this cause. So when accidents occur, my recommendation to you is to view them as an opportunity to do something different; find a maintenance improvement, implement a new operational policy, provide better training, embrace a new technology, et cetera, but take action and do something different. Each step you take will bring you closer to an accident-free environment and your actions will reassure the public that you are serious about safety and that you continue to want their business.
Remember - to do nothing is irresponsible and to rely on fate to prevent the next accident is foolishly complacent.
Therefore, my charge to you is, when accidents occur, which they inevitably will, take action, and do something to make your company a safer place for your passengers, your employees, your families, and your community.