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Remarks at the 2003 Annual Meeting of the Board of Directors, Hudson Institute, Indianapolis, Indiana, June 26, 2003
Ellen Engleman Conners
2003 Annual Meeting of the Board of Directors, Hudson Institute, Indianapolis, Indiana

Thank you very much. I’m delighted to be here tonight. I’ve had the privilege to be associated with the Hudson Institute since 1987.

And I’m also delighted to acknowledge that Bill Wylam is here this evening. He is the chairman of Electricore, Inc., where I was president and CEO prior to being asked to join the Bush Administration. So my former boss is here, he’s checking up on me, and I hope I won’t disappoint you tonight, Bill.

As everyone here knows, this Institute was founded by Herman Kahn. And it has been relayed to me that Herman Kahn, in a report to President Dwight David Eisenhower, once wrote, “Women, by their raging hormonal imbalances, are ill-suited to executive position.”

Oops. Not one of his best observations. In fact, President Bush has selected many women for important jobs in his Administration, particularly in transportation. I am Chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, Marion Blakey is Administrator of the FAA, Jenna Dorn is Administrator of the FTA, Mary Peters is Administrator of Federal Highways, Annette Sandberg is Administrator of Federal Motor Carriers. So, if the ghost of Herman Kahn is with us tonight, sorry, women are here to stay.

I was asked tonight to talk about a subject that is very important to me -- the balance between safety and security in the post-9/11 world. Now, 9/11 was a beautiful day. If you’ve heard the rumors, it’s true; I do live on a houseboat. Her name is Potomac Freedom, and I walk to work. And so I was walking to work that day and I turned my cell phone off because this is the time that I plan my day and I remember how beautiful blue the sky was.

As I walked into the Department of Transportation, it was about a quarter to 9:00 and I had people running to me going, “Ellen, Ellen, we’re so glad you’re here,” and I thought well, gee, thank you. Then they said, “A plane has struck the World Trade Center.”

In my mind’s eye, I’m seeing a small plan with the tail hanging out of the building. That was the image I immediately had because I hadn’t seen the television screens yet. And only the first plane had hit at that time.

So I put down my purse and I said, “Has the CMC been activated?”, meaning the Crisis Management Center, for which I was responsible. It coordinates all the emergency communication for the department under the federal response plan. So I put my purse down and I went to the CMC and 38 hours later, I remember saying, “Has anyone seen my purse?” Because Day One was 38 hours long for those of us who were there.

And in fact, Day Two was 38 hours long; Day Three was 38 hours long. For those of us who were at our post, those days are somewhat of a blur.

Yet, although it has been almost two years hence, when I see folks who were in that room with me, we all have that same corporate memory of unspoken apprehension and at the same time determination. And that’s the bond that America shares and that’s the bond that those of us who have the privilege to serve in Washington share. We will not let you down. We serve you and it’s your tax dollars that pay us to do this job.

And what a job it is. When I was RSPA Administrator we were responsible for 2.2 million miles of pipeline in the United States, the economic backbone of this country. All the natural gas, all the oil, all the hydrogen, and aviation fuel to military and civil airports. We had 800,000 shipments of hazardous material every day that we had regulation authority over. All the emergency transportation that I’ve mentioned and all the research. And it was a scary day on 9/11 for many reasons, because for the first time in a long, long time, other than maybe the Trojan horse, the transportation system itself was used as a weapon. Now, many people far more expert than I have talked about this interesting issue. Our transportation system was used as the weapon. This wasn’t a missile, this wasn’t a bomb; here a commercial airliner, part of our transportation system, became the weapon.

And so those of us in the transportation world were thinking about the 2.2 million miles of pipelines, we’re thinking about our nuclear power plants, we’re thinking of all the shipments of hazardous material, we’re thinking of our ports. As I said, we were apprehensive. And within forty-eight hours of the initial attack, we were already doing vulnerability assessments, looking to the private sector, asking for their support, asking for their help, and trying to find solutions. And many from the private sector responded. And it was with the private sector’s partnership that we were able to respond so quickly in the government, and that’s the way it should work, where everybody comes to the bar and everybody works together.

One of the biggest challenges, though, is that our own people were stunned with this new reality of security, and let me give you an example. One of my key people in the office of hazardous material safety is also an expert in his field. And as I was having a staff meeting, I said, “How are we doing on haz-mat?” We have a placarding issue. You may have seen that placarding of hazardous materials on the side of tanker trucks, and there was a big debate about whether that was a big pointer from the sky saying, “Use this one,” or “Pick this truck.” But placarding was there in order to support emergency response personnel. So we didn’t know what to do and we were challenged by this and I said, “Well, how are we doing?” “Oh, fine.” Every time I asked him about security, the answer was always the same, “We’re doing fine.” And after a while it felt like the little bobbing dog in the back of the window, you know, it was fine, it was fine. I finally said, “Tell me specifically what you’ve done today on security.” He said, “Well, nothing.” I said, “Why?” He said, “We don’t do security. This is the Office of Hazardous Material Safety.” And I said, “Not anymore.”

We all have to understand that security is a permanent part of our new world and, yes, there are some growing pains and some hassles and challenges and anyone who has had that opportunity to travel knows that security is a part of our life now and those who are at the helm – Jim Loy is a very good friend of mine, he’s now running TSA, and the good folks at Department of Homeland Security, with whom I’ve worked – are all working very hard to find the seamless way to incorporate security into our general world of safety, but it’s not without difficulty.

I worked on the transition planning team for the development of the Department of Homeland Security and I also was in charge of the transfer of the Coast Guard from the Department of Transportation to the Department of Homeland Security. That was a 35-year relationship that had to be completely changed in six weeks, so it was somewhat of a challenge. But the key on all of this is that we do it in a partnership, so it’s really the A, B, C, D, if you will, of life.

Issue one that we have to do in this new post-9/11 reality is assessment and acceptance—assessment of our vulnerabilities and acceptance of the fact that security is a part of everything that we do. So assessment and acceptance are the “A.”

The “B” is what I’m going to call the buddy system. That means it has to be done in partnership, and it’s not just the federal government that has the answers, it’s the state government, it’s the local government, it’s the private sector, it’s the universities, and it’s the individual citizens. The emergency responders who are on call—the sheriffs, the highway patrolmen, the seamen and the Coast Guard, the private sector think tanks, the research and engineering capability of the industrial base that we have—we are all in this together, and so I like to say that it is the buddy system that has to work.

One of the challenges, of course, with security is the fact that to some degree it’s this big giant with us right now and the pendulum has gone to the security side so much that you say, “Are we doing anything else?” Well, yes, the government is still in business. The Department of Agriculture is in business, the Department of Labor is in business, the Department of Education is in business. We can’t allow the pendulum to go so far to security that we forget about the rest of government. Good government means a safe and secure world, and the President said three things after 9/11. He said we’re going to go after the bad guys, we’re going to protect our borders and make them safe and secure, and we have to build our economy, keep it strong because our economy is our strongest weapon against terrorism. So we have to continue to do our jobs and find a way to integrate safety and security.

I’m at the NTSB now and we are a safety agency. We’re the ones who you see in the jackets when a major accident occurs. People like to meet me the first time and they don’t want to meet me a second time.

I’ve had that told to me more than once. So at TWA 800, the NTSB was there. The Taki Tooo, the fishing ship that just capsized off Oregon, NTSB was there. The S.S. Norway was my first accident, my inaugural accident, if you will, when a boiler room explosion took eight lives. It’s the original S.S. France, for all you history buffs. That was down in Miami, and the NTSB is there.

What we do is, when a major accident has occurred in any mode of transportation—pipeline, highway, marine, rail or aviation—we go and determine the probable cause of that accident in order to make safety recommendations to prevent recurrences of such tragedies. And I think that’s really critical.

But how is this going to comport with the safety or security issues together, and how do they interact? Well, let me give you some examples of why you cannot separate safety and security. The hardening of cockpit doors in airplanes is a security issue, is it not? But it’s also a safety issue because if there’s a problem in the plane, can the pilots get out? Or does the cockpit need to be accessed by those outside the plane?

Transportation of hazardous materials is another important issue. Again, there are 800,000 shipments of hazmat every day. Now, hazmat can be everything from radiological pharmaceuticals to very significant materials such as spent nuclear waste that we will be transporting to Yucca Mountain and everything in between. But a lot of it is very, very significant including biological products that we don’t want to escape from the box, shall we say. So that becomes a safety and security issue: you can take the blue stuff and the red stuff and put them in a box and put a lot of locks on them and they’re secure, but here’s the problem. You put the blue stuff next to the red stuff, and in an accident it combines and turns into the purple stuff that becomes deadly. You can therefore have things that are secure and not be safe, so you have to work safety and security together.

Now, there’s another issue that’s very important and that’s just the bottom-line cost on lives and the economy for transportation accidents. There are almost 50,000 fatalities every year in transportation accidents. Forty-three thousand people die every year on the highway. Last year, in the year 2002, we had 1,300 deaths due to rail-related accidents, more than twice the 600 deaths due to aviation accidents. I hope you find that as surprising and alarming as I do.

You see, it’s not just about the big commercial airliner, though our friends in the media always seem to find a place on the slot for accidents like that. But we’re talking about accidents that happen every day—rail, marine, buses, cars, pipelines, and aviation, both general aviation and commercial aviation—and it’s critical because in the year 2000, which are the last figures I have, the cost of highway accidents alone was $230 billion – that’s more than $800 for every man, woman and child in this country. We’re not just talking about the $500 deductible on your auto policy or the inconvenience of having your car in the shop. It may be your lives or the lives of you and your family, and the entire economic impact of that. So we have to work on these things together, and that requires the buddy system. And we have to look at combinations and collaboration of how we’re going to interact. So that’s my “C,” combination and collaboration, to follow this up.

So where does this lead? Well, “D” is for direction. What is the direction we must take on a policy perspective, on a technical perspective, on a legislative perspective, on an economic perspective? Well, for me the key is safety. In the majority of the nations in the world when you talk about safety, safety and security are used interchangeably and they’re actually the same word, that is safety and security. The administrative requirements, the laws, the agencies themselves work on safety and security. So we can’t ignore the two and how they must go together.

This is the new face of safety, and I see NTSB having a significant role. We are the bully pulpit and I’ve been quoted as saying, “I plan on having daily services,” because we’re not a safety regulator, but we are the bully pulpit. We are an independent, technical agency, and we make our recommendations based on fact, science and data, not guesswork, not desire, not supposition and not influenced by others. Fact, science and data says that we must look at safety and ensure that all transportation is safe, not only for the cost to lives, but the huge economic impact that is required. Because it all boils down to public confidence.

Now, for those of you who invest in the stock market, you know that public confidence is that one amorphous thing that’s hard to grab hold on, but without it, people won’t invest. Well, without public confidence in the safety of our transportation system—and please remember as I began my comments, the transportation system itself was the weapon on 9/11, that’s why we must ensure that public confidence remains secure in our public transportation system, and that doesn’t just mean the metro bus. I’m talking about any mode, any transportation aspect that is used—car, rail, boats, trains and planes. So this is part of our economy, and it’s also part of the world economy because I’ll also let you know that the American aviation industry is one of the areas where we have a trade surplus of 40 percent, so there’s a direct economic impact on our ability to have that biggest weapon we have against terrorism, which is a strong economy. So we have to do both, safety and security.

One last lesson that has come since 9/11 is the issue of SARS. Those of you who have watched the SARS scare have seen that transportation is intermodal and international. You cannot be isolated in today’s world. SARS has certainly shown that once again transportation was the weapon, although this time inadvertently, because it did help spread the disease. It was through the transportation modes that SARS spread. So there are no borders when it comes to transportation. It’s intermodal and international.

And so lastly, we’re going to work very aggressively in the pursuit of safety. I have the privilege to serve you in this capacity, and we will do our utmost to ensure that the phone never rings.

I’ll close by saying why it ultimately matters. When the phone rings in the family home and the family is informed that they’ve lost a loved one, the pain is no different to them whether it’s a commercial airliner, the World Trade Center, or an auto accident on the Interstate. The pain is still there. So it’s my job to find a way to reduce those 50,000 deaths every year in our transportation system so that maybe the phone won’t be ringing as often. Thank you very much.