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Capital Tiger Bay Club, Tallahassee, Florida
Jim Hall
Capital Tiger Bay Club, Tallahassee, Florida

Thank you for inviting me to speak to you this afternoon.

There are many issues occupying the attention of the National Transportation Safety Board at this time, issues like grade crossing safety, runway incursions and even the safety of mixing military and civilian air traffic. However, I'd like to concentrate on three items today, ValuJet, TWA flight 800 and primary enforcement of Florida's seat belt law.

As all of you know, transportation is one of the largest and most dynamic industries in our economy. According to the Department of Transportation, it accounts for about 11 percent of our annual gross domestic product - that's about $700 billion. All of you utilize our massive transportation infrastructure many times a day:

  • We all drive our cars on some of the 4 million miles of roads, highways and bridges. And, if you think our roads are congested now, by the year 2000 vehicles are expected to increase another 5 percent, with no significant increase in capacity.
  • Many of us fly often enough that 550 million passengers board commercial aircraft in this country every year, about twice our population. And in 10 years, domestic aviation operations will increase another 60 percent.
  • We all depend on the 123,000 miles of railroads and 25,000 miles of waterways in the U.S. for most of the commodities we buy.
  • The gas that heats our homes and the gasoline that fuels our cars come to our neighborhoods in some of the 1.4 million miles of pipeline. And,
  • School buses alone carry about 9 percent of the U.S. population during a typical school day.

Unfortunately, when you have so much activity, it is inevitable that accidents occur in our transportation system. Most of you know the National Transportation Safety Board because of our high-profile aviation accident work - especially the ValuJet and TWA flight 800 accidents last year - but the Board also investigates highway, rail, pipeline and marine accidents. The NTSB was established as an independent agency 30 years ago by Congress to determine the "probable causes" of transportation accidents and issue recommendations to prevent future accidents.

And despite the inevitable scare stories that you read after a major accident, we actually have an extremely safe transportation system. Just a few years ago, the major airlines went an incredible 27 months without a passenger fatality; that was 1 billion consecutive passengers carried safely to their destinations. Depending on the year, the major airlines suffer one fatal accident for every 2 to 5 million flights. As many highway crashes as we have, the accident rate continues to decline. In 1995, the highway fatality rate reached 1.70 per 100 million vehicle miles traveled, a 65 percent decrease since 1970.

This safety record is due in no small part to the efforts of my agency, which issues recommendations after every major accident to prevent future accidents. Let me give you a short list of aviation improvements you're probably familiar with that came out of our recommendations:

  • Floor exit lighting, smoke detectors in lavatories and fire-blocking cabin materials on airliners.
  • Ground proximity warning systems on airliners. Since they were required on large transport category aircraft in the mid-1970s, accidents involving controlled impact into the ground by large airliners have virtually disappeared in this country.
  • Windshear detection equipment and enhanced windshear training for pilots. There has been only one windshear-related accident involving a major airliner in this country in the last 10 years.

And it's not just in aviation. The NTSB has had a hand in improving safety in all modes of transportation. For example:

  • Close to 2 million carloads of hazardous materials move by rail each year. Head shields, shelf couplers and thermal protection on railroad tank cars have dramatically reduced catastrophic accidents during the last decade.
  • Age-21 laws, which are again entering the national debate, have saved an estimated 15,000 lives since enactment in all the States in the 1980s. Safety Board recommendations sparked the national movement for such laws.
  • Nationwide Operation Lifesaver programs have helped cut crashes at highway-rail grade crossings in half.
  • It was our safety study last fall that began the nationwide debate of the safety of passenger-side air bags for children. Since then, DOT has announced that it is reconsidering the method by which air bags are certificated and will consider allowing people to disconnect them under certain circumstances.

All this has been accomplished by a 350-person agency that has no regulatory or enforcement powers. Yet, despite this lack of direct regulatory authority, I'm proud of the fact that more than 80 percent of our safety recommendations have been adopted by government regulatory agencies. Although we oversee the safety programs of billion dollar corporations and federal agencies having tens of thousands of employees, to put our relative sizes into perspective, the Safety Board's entire yearly budget could fund the U.S. Department of Transportation for 9 hours of a single day.

The events of last year have severely strained the NTSB's resources, both financial and in terms of its human resources. The enormous tragedy of the ValuJet and TWA flight 800 accidents, and the intense public and news media scrutiny of the airline industry and the regulatory agencies that followed, have combined to raise doubts in the minds of some Americans about the safety of their airline system.

I'd like to put this concern into perspective, and I think I'm in the unique position to do so because Congress established the Safety Board as an independent investigative agency, to provide impartial analysis of industry and government alike. Since we were established 30 years ago, the U.S. airline industry has grown from 106 million passengers to 550 million last year, a five fold increase. In that time, the fatal accident rate has dropped 75 percent.

But let's face it, when 340 people die in two horrific airline accidents within two months, as happened last year, all the industry's good work and image goes right out the window. Although we don't seem to be excited that on our highways we suffer the equivalent of a ValuJet accident every day, or three TWA flight 800s every week, as Americans we rightly expect better from our airline industry than what we got last year. We should expect more in the area of highway safety, as well, but I'll get to that a little later.

While all the fatal airline accidents we had last year appear to be unrelated - including the Delta Airlines engine failure in Pensacola that killed two passengers and the runway collision between a commuter airliner and a private plane in Quincy, Illinois that killed all 14 people on both planes - each has presented issues that must be pursued.

You are all by now familiar with the circumstances of the ValuJet accident. A fire broke out in the cargo hold shortly before or after takeoff. The plane crashed while attempting to return to Miami. As I told Congress a few weeks after that accident, I would not be surprised if at the conclusion of our investigation we find that this accident was the result of previous lessons learned and forgotten.

By that I mean that 8 years earlier, we investigated an accident that might have foreshadowed the ValuJet tragedy. On February 3, 1988, American Airlines flight 132, a DC-9, departed Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport for Nashville with a midcargo compartment loaded with, among other things, a 104-pound fiber drum of undeclared and improperly packaged hazardous materials.

During the flight, a flight attendant and a "deadheading" first officer notified the pilots of smoke in the passenger cabin. The cabin floor above the cargo compartment was hot and soft, and the flight attendants had to move passengers from the affected area. Fortunately, the aircraft landed and a successful evacuation was conducted.

The airworthiness of the airplane was threatened by the fire. Excessive temperatures reached critical flight and engine control cables, floor beams and the passenger cabin floor. We believe that the cargo compartment did not meet the intent of the regulations designed to contain such a fire.

The passengers and crew of this particular aircraft were fortunate that day. While no one was seriously injured, the potential for a catastrophic accident was present. And even this incident wasn't the first of its kind. Less than 2 years earlier, an undeclared shipment of 35 percent hydrogen peroxide solution was shipped in drums with no outside markings to warn about the presence of hazardous materials. The shipment had travelled from Florida to Seattle on its way to the Philippines when cargo handlers found several packages had leaked. This was one of more than 2,000 hazardous materials incident reports involving air transportation filed with the DOT in the 17 years leading up to the American Airlines accident in 1988.

Despite Safety Board recommendations to the FAA to require fire detection systems, and fire extinguishing systems, and better fire blocking materials in cargo compartments, the sad fact is that the crew of ValuJet flight 592 had no more equipment available to warn them of a fire or to fight it than did the crew of that American Airlines flight 8 years earlier.

On May 31, 1996, the Safety Board issued urgent safety recommendations to the FAA to evaluate airline practices, including training, for detecting the shipment of hazardous materials, and to the FAA and another DOT agency to prohibit the transportation of oxidizers in cargo compartments that do not have fire or smoke detection systems.

Last month, Boeing and the airline industry announced that they would voluntarily install smoke detectors in cargo compartments that did not currently have them. Although this is a step in the right direction, it still fails to address the issue of fire suppression, and the announced two-year installation timetable has not yet started to run.

NTSB investigators are currently drafting a final report on the ValuJet accident that should be presented to the Board by late spring.

The loss of TWA flight 800 two months after the ValuJet tragedy not only plunged the nation into mourning, it plunged the aviation industry into a period of self-evaluation. As you know, President Clinton formed the White House Commission on Aviation Safety and Security shortly after the TWA accident, and I was honored to have been asked to serve as a Commissioner. Just last week, we concluded our work by issuing more than 50 recommendations addressing security and safety issues. But these recommendations won't be worth anything unless they are enacted as expeditiously as practicable. The President and Vice President Gore have expressed their commitment to getting our recommendations implemented.

The TWA investigation has been unprecedented in its human scope and in its expense. We have been on-scene for more than 7 months - a record. Our latest estimates are that this investigation will cost $27 million, not counting salaries of government employees that would have been paid anyway - that is, representatives from the NTSB, the FBI, the Coast Guard, the Navy, FEMA and others. Consider that the entire yearly budget of the NTSB is just over $40 million.

As far as the investigation itself, we have begun constructing a three-dimensional mock-up of a major portion of the aircraft's wreckage. Although we have most of the wreckage, we are continuing trawling operations off the Long Island coast to find every bit of debris possible. We have retained the California Institute of Technology to determine the explosive characteristics of the fuel that was aboard flight 800. We will continue to work closely with the FBI and all other parties until we are convinced we have pursued every possible credible scenario that could have led to the explosion.

And, yes, those three possible scenarios you've heard about for so long - a bomb, a missile or mechanical failure - are still on the table. We have identified a potential mechanism by which the center fuel tank of Boeing 747s could explode, but we don't know if that happened in this case.

. We at the NTSB deal with the hardware of an accident - the structure of the plane, the engines, the pilot and maintenance records. But we also deal with the human element, be it the role of the crew in the accident, or the survival aspects for the passengers.

There is one group of people, however, who have been overlooked in the past by government and industry, alike - the victims' families. Four times in the last two and a half years, I have been to the scene of a non-survivable major airline disaster. These accidents - in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Roselawn, Indiana; the Everglades and Long Island - have claimed the lives of 540 people. Two other recent non-survivable accidents in Illinois and Michigan have claimed another 43 lives.

Historically, while we could never forget the human tragedy that the accidents represented, the Safety Board has maintained a professional distance from the families of accident victims, giving them all the factual information we have, but leaving other accommodations to the airlines. Basically, since the dawn of commercial aviation, the unpleasant duty of notifying next of kin after airline accidents has fallen upon the airline that had the accident, and that carrier often made arrangements for the transportation of family members to a location near the accident site, and for the return of victims' remains.

Whether or not this way of doing business was ever adequate to address the needs of victims' family members, it is clear that the way things used to be done is not adequate today. The world has changed and all of us involved in the events following major airline accidents have to change with it. The combination of a litigious society, aggressive 24-hour news coverage, and perhaps a mistrust of authority, all contribute to this very challenging environment.

Family members are demanding more accountability and more services from those of us involved in the various aspects of an accident. I believe that most of these demands are just common sense. Late last year, Congress gave the Safety Board the authority to provide liaison services between these family members and government agencies. We have now had the experience of two accidents since the passage of that law, and are developing agreements with public and private agencies to provide services to these people in the weeks following the accident. We know we can't really alleviate the grief they are going through, but we want to make sure no government actions add to their burden.

Moving away from aviation, I'd like to talk about an issue that gets surprisingly little media attention, but will affect many of us sometime in our lives. Despite the fact that airline crashes and the occasional railroad accident get most of the headlines, highway crashes account for more than 90 percent of transportation fatalities in the United States. Many of us focus on our crime problem, and well we should, but in the U. S. today, where a murder will occur every 21 minutes, someone will die on our highways every 13 minutes.

Our nation, and every state including Florida, have taken steps to reduce this national tragedy, enacting age-21 laws, strict drunk driving statutes and mandatory seat belt legislation. These laws have had beneficial results.

But too often we look upon this problem as one of statistics; we look at numbers on a page and try to make those numbers lower. I think we should try to put a face on those numbers. I served my nation proudly in Vietnam, as I'm sure many of you in this room did, and I was fortunate to come back alive and well. But many did not. Yet, it took a black slab of marble cut into the Mall in Washington, D.C., to make our nation fully appreciate the magnitude of the loss of life in that conflict.

You might know that 1,947 soldiers, sailors and airmen from Florida lost their lives in that war. But, do you know that more Floridians die on your highways every year? What sort of monument can we erect to those victims that will get the attention of our citizens?

Put another way, the 2,805 people who lost their lives on Florida's roads in 1995 are the equivalent of a ValuJet crash happening every two weeks. Can you imagine the outrage if that occurred? Yet, we seem to accept those highway deaths as long as they occur one, two or three at a time.

And, in addition to the human tragedy they represent, motor vehicle crashes cost every single Floridian $580 a year. That's $2,320 for a family of four. About a quarter of medical costs and about 10 percent of all crash costs are paid with public revenues. And who provides those revenues? You and I do, the responsible majority, those of us who buckle up and drink responsibly if at all.

Florida has already taken a number of steps in recent years to strengthen its highway safety laws, including administrative license revocation; graduated licensing for young, novice drivers; and zero tolerance laws for drivers under the age of 21.

There is one important change that the Florida legislature still needs to take in its upcoming session, enactment of primary enforcement of the mandatory seat belt use law. Most states do not allow a seat belt infraction to be enforced unless the car was stopped for other reasons; a primary enforcement bill gives police the authority to directly enforce Florida's seat belt law.

Safety belts save 14,000 lives a year nationwide. They're even more important now as more and more cars are equipped with passenger-side air bags. Last fall, the Safety Board issued a study on child restraints that found air bags as currently designed could cause death or serious injury to small children in low-impact crashes. We recommended that air bags be depowered so that they reflect the true nature of the average automobile passenger. Air bags were originally certified to cushion a 165-pound, unbelted adult male. This is no longer the profile of the typical occupant. In any case, seat belts are highly effective in keeping a person in position for air bag inflation before and during a crash, and are the only restraint available for millions of Americans who do not have air bags in their vehicles.

AAA estimates that a primary seat belt law would save 170 lives a year in Florida. I urge all of you to support a primary seat belt enforcement law for this state. All it takes is the political will to enact this much-needed legislation.

I think I've taken up enough of your time today. I appreciate the opportunity to tell you, the American taxpayer, how we are spending your funds. The National Transportation Safety Board is the eyes and ears of the American people at accident sites. We will continue to press for needed improvements in every mode of transportation, so that those declining accident rates I mentioned earlier will continue to fall.

It is hard to quantify the accident that never happened because our recommendations prevented it, or the life that was not ended or forever altered. Perhaps one of you are here today because of the work of the NTSB over the last 30 years. Or, maybe one of your loved ones.

That's why I think I have one of the best jobs in Washington. I get to save lives. Thank you, as taxpayers, for giving me that opportunity. And thank you for having me here today.




Jim Hall's Speeches