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Congressional Youth Leadership Council, Washington, DC
Jim Hall
Congressional Youth Leadership Council, Washington, DC

Good morning, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to Washington. I want to congratulate Amy Elias, Victoria Tobin and everyone associated with arranging this most worthy conference. I hope your experience here in our Nation's Capital provides you with insights into how our country works, and gives you ideas on how you can make it work better.

And that doesn't mean just how you can make it work better here. Leadership is needed on all levels of our government: federal, state and local. Leadership is needed in our private sector, as well.

While I am currently the Chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, I previously served in Tennessee state government for a period of six years as a member of Governor Ned McWherter's cabinet and staff.

I think no quotation best illustrates my philosophy of government service than something Edmund Burke said several hundred years ago: "Government is the contrivance of human wisdom to provide for human wants."

When you look at what government does at its best, it is providing for human wants. When natural disaster strikes, FEMA and the National Guard are just two agencies that provide aid. When Americans fall into physical or legal trouble in foreign lands, our State Department is there to help. When a viral or bacterial outbreak hits a school, a business or a town, the Centers for Disease Control are there to help.

And when a major transportation accident occurs, the National Transportation Safety Board is there to begin an investigation on several hours notice to find out what happened and what can be done to make sure it doesn't happen again.

Transportation 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 7 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, including those of you unfortunate enough not to have your own cars yet.

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 30 years ago by Congress to determine the "probable causes" of transportation accidents and issue recommendations to prevent future accidents. We are independent of the U.S. Department of Transportation, and have no regulatory or enforcement powers.

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's 1 billion passengers in a row carried safely. 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 the National Transportation Safety Board, 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. You might live near a major rail hub. Head shields, shelf couplers and thermal protection on railroad tank cars have dramatically reduced the incidents of 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. When I look upon groups of young people like you, I like to think that some of you have already benefited from these 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.

One of our important functions is to assess how well our regulatory agencies are fulfilling their safety responsibilities. That is why we were set up as an independent agency, because in the course of our investigations we investigate the Federal Aviation Administration, the Federal Railroad Administration, the Coast Guard, and other DOT modal agencies. We do this while investigating more than 2,000 aviation accidents a year, and about 500 in the other modes of transportation. We do this with a staff of 350 people, about the number of people in this hall today.

To give you an idea of our relative sizes, the annual budget of the NTSB would fund the Department of Transportation for just 9 hours!

That is why I'm so proud of my agency, and so honored to have been given the opportunity by President Clinton to lead it. The Board consists of 5 Members nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate. I needed separate nomination and confirmation for the Chairmanship. So far, I've gone through the Senate confirmation process three times for my job.

The Safety Board has no authority to regulate the transportation industry. Therefore, our effectiveness depends on our reputation for being timely and accurate in our investigations and for maintaining a staff composed of some of the world's best investigators. This is unique in government. We are a non-regulatory agency that exerts significant influence because of the quality of our work. In sum, we are the eyes and ears of the American public at accident sites.

This past year has been a challenging one for the Board and its staff. Two major aviation accidents strained the agency's resources, both monetarily and in terms of its human resources. Some of our investigators had barely had time to catch their breaths after spending a mnth in the Everglades folloiwng the ValuJet crash when they were launched to Long Island.

The TWA flight 800 investigation has proved to be the most costly in the Board's history. Where we usually are able to wrap-up our on-scene activities in 10 days to 2 weeks, we have now been on-scene on Long Island for almost 7 months. And just a month ago, we launched on another major aviation accident, the crash of a commuter flight near Detroit that killed all 29 persons aboard.

A full slate of surface accidents last year was highlighted by almost two dozen railroad accidents in the first 2 months of the year, the spectacular collision of a freighter into a pedestrian mall in New Orleans just before Christmas, and the pipeline explosion in San Juan, Puerto Rico that killed 33 people.

As you can see, 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 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 shipment 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.

I have had the additional honor this past year of being named a Commissioner by President Clinton on the White House Commission on Aviation Safety and Security, the so-called Gore Commission. The final report we issued this week addressed some major issues that, if left unchecked, will erode the public's confidence in our already safe air transportation system. Because of continuing growth in air traffic, just maintaining our excellent safety record is not good enough. We must continue to reduce the accident rate, and the Gore Commission recommendations is a good blueprint to achieve this.

I'd like to close by saying what I hope all government officials you'll meet here this week will tell you: I work for you. I consider myself a public servant, and I'm happy to say that those who work for me do, too. Our investigations are conducted in the open; we release factual information on a daily basis immediately after a major accident. Our offices are open for tours. Our reports are being put on the internet.

The Congressional Youth Leadership Program is an important one because it brings the nation's finest students to Washington and gives us the opportunity to show you who makes up your government. We are all Americans like you, with families and homes and home towns. We all came here hoping to make a contribution to this country that we love so much.

I hope whatever path you choose you dedicate yourself to your family and your community. I have always kept that in mind, whether I've been working in private industry in Chattanooga, or in government in Nashville and Washington. My best piece of advice for you comes from Winston Churchill, who is said to have delivered the shortest commencement address in history. His advice to a graduating class? "Never give up."

I've spoken a little longer than he did, but my message is the same. Thank you for inviting me today.


Jim Hall's Speeches