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Remarks at the NTSB 2016 Most Wanted List Press Conference
Christopher A. Hart
Washington, DC

​Good morning. I am Christopher Hart, and it is my privilege to serve as Chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. Today I am accompanied by my colleagues, Vice Chairman Bella Dinh-Zarr, Member Robert Sumwalt, and Member Earl Weener, to announce our 2016 Most Wanted List of transportation safety improvements.

First, I would like to thank Neil Pedersen and the Transportation Research Board for hosting us to announce our Most Wanted list for a third year.  This convention is an excellent venue for us to announce our Most Wanted List because many items on the list require research to develop the best way to improve safety, and research is TRB’s middle name.  So I hope that our working together has been as beneficial to the TRB as it has been to us.

The NTSB investigates transportation accidents, determines their causes, and issues safety recommendations to prevent recurrences. But we have no power to require that our recommendations be implemented. So it is a testament to the thoroughness of our amazing staff of accident investigators and analysts that recipients of our recommendations act favorably on them more than 80 percent of the time, even though they do not have to.

That still leaves many recommendations that have not been implemented.  For more than 25 years, we have issued our Most Wanted List to help spur action on these unimplemented recommendations. Our Most Wanted List is our roadmap from lessons learned to lives saved.

Most of the items on the 2016 List, if implemented, will help to prevent accidents altogether, and one item on the list is intended to save lives and minimize injuries in those accidents that do occur.

Some areas on this year’s list remain from last year: End Substance Impairment in Transportation, Disconnect From Deadly Distractions, Prevent Loss of Control in Flight in General Aviation, and Require Medical Fitness for Duty. We’ve also added or reinstated several other issue areas.

How do we decide what goes on the List each year? The extent to which an improvement can help save lives and reduce injuries is a factor, but not the only factor.  If it were, all of the items would relate to highway crashes, where the vast majority of transportation deaths and injuries occur. 

We also look at so-called bang for the buck - how to use our limited resources most effectively to improve safety.  The fact that an issue is not on our list does not mean that we are not interested in it; rather, it means that there are more effective and efficient ways for us to improve safety.

Let’s begin with aviation.  The good news is that airline accidents have become thankfully rare in America.  The bad news is that the fatal accident rate in general aviation, the aspect of aviation that many people are not familiar with, has been stubbornly resistant to improvement.

The worst single cause of general aviation fatal accidents has been loss of control in flight – inadvertent spins and stalls - which has taken more than 1200 lives from 2008 through 2014.  We are again pushing for better pilot training, currency, self-assessment, and more vigilant situational awareness, aided by improving technologies such as angle-of-attack indicators.

Many of our Most Wanted issues relate to all modes of transportation but their impact is most significant on our highways. One example is substance impairment.  In the last 15 years, about one-third of highway deaths involved an alcohol-impaired driver. But alcohol is only one impairing drug.

In the State of the Union address last night, the President mentioned helping people who are battling prescription drug abuse. Recently we are seeing that prescribed, over-the-counter, and recreational drugs are exacerbating the problem of impaired driving. We are also concerned about the emergence of synthetic drugs.

Impairment is a multi-faceted problem. It will take stricter laws, better enforcement of those laws, and improved education, to get impaired drivers off our roads. And it will take all of these measures, in addition to technological solutions, to prevent people from driving impaired. The President also mentioned making technology work for us, not against us. Throughout transportation, technology has saved countless lives, and many of our most wanted list items this year are intended to help take advantage of new technologies to save countless more lives. But some of these new technologies are also creating more opportunities for distraction.

As with impairment, we have investigated accidents involving distraction throughout transportation. Regarding highways, all but a few states prohibit texting while driving, and many states prohibit hand-held cellphone use while driving.  No state, however, prohibits hands-free cellphone use while driving. But hands-free calls cause cognitive distraction.

We have recommended prohibiting all cellphone use, including hands-free, because a driver’s mind must be on driving, just as their hands must be on the wheel.

Fatigue and medical fitness for duty are also multi-modal concerns that take their toll not only on highways but throughout transportation.  The basic problem here is that most commercial transportation is 24/7, but humans are not. 

We all remember the drowsy driving crash on the New Jersey Turnpike that seriously injured comedian Tracy Morgan, and killed fellow comedian James McNair. Amazingly, the driver was in compliance with the applicable rest and duty time rules, yet he had been awake for 28 straight hours before the crash.

Medical fitness for duty often interacts with fatigue. As Americans gain weight, we’re seeing an increase in obstructive sleep apnea, which is strongly associated with Body Mass Index.

Sleep apnea often goes undiagnosed, and even if it is diagnosed, it often goes unreported for fear of adverse consequences, such as job loss. But sleep apnea is treatable. Employers with sleep apnea programs find that when people seek treatment, they become safer drivers, their morale improves, the cost of training new drivers decreases, and productivity increases.

An impairing medical condition can be every bit as lethal as an impairing drug; the public should not be subjected to risk from either.

But even if all drivers were un-impaired, well-rested, and attentive, there would still be crashes because we are all human, and humans sometimes make mistakes.  So we are also promoting wider availability of the next layer of protection on our highways – collision avoidance technologies.

Currently available technologies for passenger cars, trucks, and buses could prevent a multitude of crashes on our highways. Last year we were encouraged by NHTSA’s move to add collision avoidance systems to the 5-star safety rating for cars.

We look forward to the inclusion of these technologies on all highway vehicles. Seat belts are standard equipment, rather than a luxury option, and the same should be true for collision avoidance technologies.

And even seat belts, which have been required on most vehicles for decades, can only save lives when drivers and passengers use them.

That is one reason that we are also pushing for better occupant protection.  We will support primary enforcement of seat-belt use in every seating position in every vehicle that is so equipped, and age-appropriate restraints for youngsters.

We are also looking at improved occupant protection in other modes of transportation.  For example, in rail transportation we will press for passenger railcars that are more crashworthy.

And we are seeking other life-saving changes in rail transportation, including advances in transit rail, passenger rail, and freight rail.

We have seen too many fatalities and injuries on rail mass transit, a daily transportation choice for millions of Americans. We are seeking to improve rail transit safety oversight to make this very safe choice even safer.

A year ago yesterday, an electrical arcing and smoke event near WMATA’s L’Enfant Plaza Metrorail station trapped hundreds of passengers in a smoke-filled tunnel. Eighty-six people were treated on-scene, nine were transported to medical facilities, and tragically, one passenger died.

Our investigators identified many safety issues that led to that event, several of which related to shortcomings in the safety oversight of WMATA. This year, we will continue to examine the way that the Federal Transit Administration is implementing such oversight – not only in Washington, but nationwide.

We are also urging the completion of two rail safety initiatives which appeared on last year’s Most Wanted List: implementation of Positive Train Control (PTC) and improvement of rail tank car safety.

The NTSB has been advocating for PTC for more than 45 years. However, it took an act of Congress to require its implementation.

In 2008, after a PTC-preventable collision in Chatsworth, California killed 25 people and injured more than 100, Congress passed a law mandating PTC implementation by the end of 2015.

In the seven years between 2008 and the implementation deadline last December 31, there were many PTC-preventable accidents.  In freight rail, the NTSB investigated at least ¬¬¬11 PTC-preventable accidents that resulted in fatalities, injuries, environmental damage and/or evacuations.

In passenger rail, PTC would have prevented the over-speed derailment in the Bronx in 2013 that killed four and injured 61, as well as the over-speed Amtrak derailment in Philadelphia in 2015 that killed eight and injured more than 200.

Now it’s 2016, and according to the 2008 law, such tragedies should be things of the past.

But the railroads missed the deadline. Faced with a looming rail shutdown, Congress extended the deadline to 2018, with further extensions possible.  As a result, much of our rail infrastructure remains unprotected by PTC.

Every PTC-preventable accident, death, and injury on tracks and trains affected by the law will be a direct result of the missed 2015 deadline.

Similarly we are concerned that the DOT-111 tank cars that are being used to transport increased quantities of flammable liquids such as crude oil and ethanol are not up to this task.

In 2013, a train carrying crude oil in DOT-111 tank cars destroyed much of the town of Lac Megantic, Canada, killing 47 people and forcing 2,000 to evacuate. The Department of Transportation has announced a rule phasing out the use of DOT-111s to transport flammable liquids by 2025.

But ten years is much too long.  We have been lucky thus far that derailments involving flammable liquids in America have not yet occurred in a populated area, but an American version of Lac Megantic could happen at any time.

All of these most wanted transportation safety improvements are the result of many meticulous accident investigations.  Our most powerful tool to learn safety lessons from accidents is data recorders. So, we are looking for their increased use in all modes of transportation.  Not only can they help us learn what causes accidents, but they can also be a valuable tool for identifying and fixing operational safety issues to prevent future accidents.

Similarly, inward- and outward-facing cameras can help provide a view of the actions of operators and occupants in accidents in all transportation modes.  And we are advocating for solutions that move us toward the day when we do not risk losing data even in deep ocean disasters, such as the loss of Malaysia flight 370 and more recently, the sinking of the El Faro.

That completes our list for 2016.  As we build the 21st century transportation system that the President spoke of last night, the NTSB will continue to press for safety improvements, this year and into the future.To help spread the word, we’ve developed this short video overview of our Most Wanted List for 2016. After the video we will take your questions.

We are committed as one Board to every one of these ten life-saving transportation safety improvements, but we have assigned each issue to a Member.  As I field your questions, I will refer them to the Board member who is taking the lead on that issue. Thank you for attending, and we would be happy to take your questions.