Keynote to Transportation Research Board

​​THE HONORABLE JENNIFER HOMENDY

CHAIR, NATIONAL TRANSPORTATION SAFETY BOARD

REMARKS AS PREPARED FOR DELIVERY BEFORE THE TRANSPORTATION RESEARCH BOARD

JANUARY 11, 2023, 102ND ANNUAL MEETING


WASHINGTON, DC

June 10, 1999: Bellingham, Washington.

A hazardous liquid pipeline ruptures and releases over 200,000 gallons of gasoline into a creek that flows through Whatcom Falls Park.

About 90 minutes later, the gas ignites and burns 1 ½ miles along the creek. The massive fireball sends a plume of smoke 30,000 feet in the air, which is visible from Vancouver, Canada.

Three children are killed.

One teenager, who’s flyfishing, is overcome by fumes, loses consciousness, and drowns.

Two other children survive the initial blast but suffer second- and third-degree burns over 90% of their bodies and die the next day.

They’re just 10 years old. 

Fast forward to January 6, 2005: Graniteville, South Carolina.

The crew of a freight train traveling 47 miles per hour encounters a misaligned switch that diverts them from the main line onto an industrial track leading to a textile mill, where their train hits an unoccupied, parked train.

The collision derails both locomotives and 16 of the 43 freight cars on their train, including three tank cars containing chlorine, one of which breaches, releasing chlorine gas.

One tank car might not seem like a lot, but the volume of a cloud of chlorine gas is 450 times greater than the volume of the liquid released.

The locomotive engineer, who’s just 28 years old, six employees of the textile mill, a truckdriver at the mill, and one local resident die of chlorine gas inhalation within minutes of exposure.

Over 500 people suffering from respiratory difficulties are taken to local hospitals. Over 5,000 others are evacuated.

The locomotive engineer, whose parents I came to know, survives the collision but walks about 100 yards and lays down, hoping to shield himself from the toxic cloud. 

Unfortunately, chlorine gas is 2 ½ times heavier than air, so it settles to the ground, where the locomotive engineer is laying. He dies. 

One more.

Labor Day 2019. It’s 3 a.m. onboard the Conception, a dive boat anchored about a mile off the coast of Santa Barbara, California.

Thirty-three passengers and one crewmember ​are below deck in the bunkroom asleep when a fire erupts right above them.

The bunkroom has two exits: the main exit up a set of stairs and a difficult-to-locate emergency escape hatch. Unfortunately, both lead to the same location: directly into the path of the fire.

The Conception burns to the waterline. Just after daybreak, the vessel sinks, taking 34 souls along with it.

It remains the deadliest marine accident in recent U.S. history. 

When I was asked to deliver this keynote address, I considered talking about safety challenges and opportunities in aviation, commercial space, maritime, pipelines, rail and transit, and on our roadways — an area I have a tremendous passion for.

I considered talking about some of our safety recommendations, from mandating SMS — safety management systems — to improving fishing vessel safety, to requiring collision avoidance and V2X in all vehicles, to protecting all road users through a Safe System Approach — all of which are on our Most Wanted List.

I considered talking about our recent research on turbulence, which is aimed at preventing injuries to flight attendants and passengers. Or the safety risks of lithium-ion battery fires in electric vehicles.

I want to take a second and mention that I’m concerned about the increased risk of severe injury and death for all road users from heavier curb weights and increasing size, power, and performance of vehicles on our roads, including electric vehicles.

A GMC Hummer EV weighs over 9,000 pounds, up from about 6,000 pounds. Its gross vehicle weight rating is a staggering 10,550 pounds. The battery pack alone weighs over 2,900 pounds — about the weight of a Honda Civic.

The Ford F-150 Lightning is between 2,000 and 3,000 pounds heavier than the non-electric version. The Mustang Mach-E, Volvo XC40 EV, and RAV4 EV are all roughly 33% heavier. That has a significant impact on safety for all road users.

Now I want to be clear: I’m inspired by the Administration’s commitment to phasing out carbon emissions. We do have a climate crisis that needs to be addressed. The U.S. transportation sector accounts for the largest portion of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, and I firmly believe it is a human right to breathe clean air.

But we have to be careful that we aren’t also creating unintended consequences: more death on our roads. Safety, especially when it comes to new transportation policies and new technologies, cannot be overlooked. Ever

As I look across this room, I see so many friends and colleagues and people I look forward to meeting: state DOTs, federal agencies, associations, and researchers. All of you are safety champions. Thank you for your work!

Speaking of safety champions, I’d like to thank Nat Ford for inviting me and for an extraordinary year leading TRB. I’d also like to welcome incoming Chair Shawn Wilson and add my congratulations to the award winners on stage here with me; we’re all safer for your efforts — thank you!

I’d like to thank Victoria, Neil, and the entire TRB team for the incredible work you do.

And, of course, I want to acknowledge my colleagues from the NTSB here in the room or watching virtually. I’m so proud to work with each of you. 

What I want to focus on today is why we’re here — and it’s not the receptions that follow transportation camp!

What I want to focus on today is why we do what we do at the NTSB and why I’m so passionate…we’re so passionate…about safety. 

Their names are Liam, Wade, and Stephen: the three children killed in the Bellingham pipeline rupture.

Their names are Chris, Steven, Tony, Allen, John, "Rusty," Willie Charles, Joseph, and Willie Lee — the victims of the Graniteville train collision.

And their names are J.P., Patricia, Neal, Marybeth, Charlie, Kendra, Raymond, Justin, Lisa, Kristy, Yuko, Vaidehi, Adrian, Andrew, Yulia, Dan, Allie, Jang, Sunil, Carrie, Kristian, Kaustubh, Sanjeeri, Steve, Diana, Tia, Berenice, Evan, Angela, Michael, Fernisa, Nicole, Ted, and Wei — all of whom perished on the Conception. 

There are so many others whose names don’t make headlines — including those hurt by decisions made decades ago — decisions guided by systemic racism, poverty, inequality, and sexism.

That includes sexual harassment, especially in transportation. Seventy-one percent of women in aviation experience sexual harassment at work. That has an impact on performance and safety. 

We’re fighting for the nine people who died two Januarys ago in Avenal, California, in a horrific crash that could’ve been prevented with speed limiters and in-vehicle alcohol detection technology — two things the NTSB has been calling for for years. Seven of the victims were children. The oldest was 15 and the youngest was just 6 years old. 

We’re fighting for the seven people who died — including a 10-year-old — in a 2019 air tour helicopter accident in Kekaha, Hawaii.

Sightseeing flights, helicopter air tours, hot air balloon rides, and similar experiences are not held to the same safety standards as other commercial flights.

I’m pleased that, today, the FAA proposed extending SMS requirements to charter, commuter, air tour operators, and aircraft manufacturers — all of which are longstanding NTSB recommendations. That’s a great first step! 

We’re fighting for the 43,000 people who die annually on our roads and the millions more who are injured. Not just drivers, but all road users. No matter their race, ethnicity, ability, income, or where they live. No matter whether they’re walking, biking, rolling, or driving.

That is who the NTSB is fighting for…who we’re all fighting for. 

And let’s not forget what we’re fighting for: zero in every mode of transportation.

Plenty of people think zero deaths is an unrealistic goal.

I remember one op-ed called zero a “pipedream” when Secretary Buttigieg embraced the goal last year — the first U.S. Secretary of Transportation to do that. It was brave.

What about you? Who thinks we’ll never see a day with zero transportation deaths?

Every time I ask that question, no one wants to put their hand up. I understand.

Then think about a good goal. Should we aim to cut transportation deaths by 25%? How about 50%? By when? 

Keep that goal in mind. 

Now, let me ask you: what’s an acceptable number of transportation deaths for YOUR family? 

Zero just became real, didn’t it?

There’s no acceptable amount of injury or death when it’s OUR colleague. OUR best friend. OUR partner. OUR parent. OUR son. OUR daughter.

When we say zero is impossible, there’s an unspoken caveat: as long as “mypeople are safe.

When anyone plans for more deaths, calling them projections, it says there’s an “acceptable” number of lives lost.

It says some death is OK.

It says some people don’t count. 

That’s the message we send to the grieving parents of Liam, Stephen, and Wade.

To Chris’s parents.

To the 34 Conception families.

Hear me: it’s NOT acceptable. Not a single life lost. Zero has to be just as real for them as it is for us.

We must care about the safety of strangers: people we will never meet. 

Because it’s the right thing to do.

It’s what drives everyone at the NTSB and many of you. 

Getting to zero isn’t easy. You all know that.

What I’m about to say might surprise you: to take on a challenge as big as zero and succeed, we need more than smarts. 

Don’t get me wrong; we need your research to inform new policies, new systems, new regulations, new laws — especially when we have so much advancement in new technology. And we need safety champions to bring it all to life. 

We need everyone in this fight.

That’s the power of TRB and everyone here: you have incredible power to help get us to zero.

But we also need something else — something less tangible.

We need to be fearless: unafraid to open our hearts to the preventable pain of transportation disasters and to fearlessly pursue solutions.

Fearless in refusing to take “no” for an answer.

Fearless in having the political will to do the hard things, say the hard things.

Fearless in the conference rooms and boardrooms where we work. In our communities and in our personal lives.

Fearless.

That’s why I told you stories — true stories — not statistics.

That’s why I talked to you today about people I’m fighting for…we’re fighting for.

Here’s one last story. It’s a familiar one.

In 1961, President John F. Kennedy challenged the nation to land a man on the moon and return him safely to the earth. His deadline? By the end of the decade — just 8 ½ years to make the impossible possible.

You all know what happened next. 

We did put a man on the moon — two, in fact! — and days later, we safely returned them to earth.

Since then, a dozen Americans have walked on the lunar surface. This number will soon climb when the first woman and the first person of color join their ranks, courtesy of the Artemis missions!

JFK’s moon shot began not with facts, but with a feeling.

A powerful feeling that we could do more than dream of reaching new heights — we could achieve it.

Brilliant minds — like all of you here — fought day in, day out, to make it happen.

People like you fearlessly pursued the greatest feat of human ingenuity ever undertaken at the time.

The feelers. 

The fighters.

The fearless.

These are the people who do the impossible. Who always have throughout human history, and who always will. 

These are the people we need right now, in this moment.

Because zero is our moon shot.

That’s what we’re fighting for. 

In the year ahead, I challenge you: be a feeler.

Feel for Liam, Stephen, and Wade — three kids who just wanted to go fishing or play at the park.

Feel for Chris and the eight other people who died in a toxic cloud caused by a rail disaster.

Feel for the 34 people who set sail on a scuba trip…34 people who never made it back home.

Let it fuel you as you fight for safety.

Fight for their bereaved families.

Fight for all the grieving families who’ve lost someone they love to a transportation disaster.

Fight so your family is never one of them. 

Most of all, be fearless. 

Fearlessly pursue zero as your only goal, in every mode of transportation.

Zero at sea and on our waterways.

Zero on passenger rail and freight rail.

Zero on our transit systems.

Zero on our streets and sidewalks.

Zero in our bike lanes and bus lanes.

Zero along every inch of pipeline running under your feet and mine.

Zero in our skies and in our airspace.

Zero under the stars of outer space.

The feelers. The fighters. The fearless. 

That’s you. 

You are the leaders we need right now — this very instant.

Leaders who feel it in their bones: safety is my calling, not just a career.

I come from the labor movement, and we have a saying: mourn the dead and fight like hell for the living. We need leaders who fight like hell, not for the safety of “their” people, but of ALL people.

Leaders who recruit their heart and soul to this fight, in addition to their intellect. 

Leaders who are fearlessly vulnerable.

Leaders who never forget what we’re fighting for…who we’re fighting for.

If you do all that...you will achieve the “rejuvenation” this meeting calls for. You will get us to zero.

When it gets hard — and it will — look to the people next to you for strength.

And you can always, always look to the NTSB. I promise you this: we will never, ever give up.

Until there’s no longer a need for our safety recommendations.

Until there’s no longer a need for the NTSB.

Until we have a safe transportation system for all

Until there’s zero.


Thank you. 

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