Skip Ribbon Commands
Skip to main content
Bookmark and Share this page


Kiwanis Club, Cleveland, Tennessee
Jim Hall
Kiwanis Club, Cleveland, Tennessee

Good afternoon and thank you for inviting me here today. It's always great to be back in Tennessee. I'd like to thank President Mike Thomasson and my friend Lou Patten for all they did to make this possible.


As all of you know, transportation is one of the largest and most dynamic industries in our economy. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, 11 percent of our Gross Domestic Product is generated by transportation. This amounted to $688 billion in 1993.

All of us here 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 the roads are congested now, by the year 2000 vehicles are expected to increase another 7 percent.
  • Enough of us fly often enough that a half a billion 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. In fact, the class 1 railroads carried a record 1.2 trillion ton miles of goods in 1994.
  • The gas that heats our homes and the gasoline that fuels our cars come here in some of the 1.4 million miles of pipeline.
  • School buses alone carry more than 9 percent of the U.S. population during a typical school day.
  • After housing, transportation accounts for the largest single household expenditure, almost 18 percent.

Unfortunately, when you have so much activity, it is inevitable that accidents occur in our transportation system. And that, often, is when my agency, the National Transportation Safety Board, is called into action.

Most of you know us because of our high-profile aviation accident work, but the Board also investigates highway, rail, pipeline and marine accidents. The NTSB was established in 1967 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.

Since 1967, the Safety Board has investigated more than 100,000 aviation accidents and almost 10,000 surface transportation accidents as the world's premier transportation accident investigation agency.

On call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, Safety Board investigators travel throughout the country and to every corner of the world to investigate significant accidents, developing a factual record that often leads to safety recommendations aimed at ensuring that such accidents never happen again.

In its 29-year history, the Board has issued almost 10,000 recommendations in all transportation modes to more than 1,250 recipients. Our recommendations serve, to a great extent, as a main area of government transportation safety oversight. We don't only look at transportation companies or individuals when searching for a cause, we also look at the role the pertinent state or federal agencies might have played.

It is quite a task. While we often examine the safety programs of billion dollar corporations and government agencies having tens of thousands of employees, to give you an idea of our relative sizes, the annual budget of my 350-person agency would fund the Department of Transportation for just nine hours! At an annual cost of less than 15 cents a citizen, I think the National Transportation Safety Board is one of the best buys in government.

Despite some highly publicized accidents in recent years, our transportation system has a remarkable safety record:

  • Before the crash of a DC-9 in Charlotte, North Carolina in July 1994, the major scheduled airlines in this country had gone 27 months without incurring a passenger fatality -- an astounding 1 billion passengers safely carried.
  • The railroad accident rate has fallen to less than 4 accidents for each million train miles.
  • As many highway crashes as we have, the accident rate continues to decline. In 1993, the highway fatality rate reached 1.75 per 100 million vehicle miles traveled, a 64 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.
  • Anti-collision devices on airliners, and altitude encoding transponders on small planes that enter controlled airspace. We haven't had a midair collision involving an airliner in this country since 1986.
  • Largely due to our efforts, the FAA has adopted rules that will bring commuter airlines under the same safety regulations as the major carriers, a development I know is welcome news in this part of the country.

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 two million carloads of hazardous materials move by rail each year. We have some major switching yards right here in east Tennessee. Head shields, shelf couplers and thermal protection on railroad tank cars have dramatically reduced the incidents of catastrophic accidents during the last decade.
  • After nearly a dozen years of NTSB recommendations, the FRA instituted post-accident alcohol/drug testing of railroad employees, the first major transportation mode to do so. Positive test results after accidents have fallen from 5.5 percent in 1987 to about 2 percent in 1994.
  • Age-21 laws, which are again entering the national debate, have saved an estimated 14,000 lives since enactment in all the States in the 1980s. Safety Board recommendations sparked the national movement for such laws.

Some major safety improvements are inspired by investigations that the Safety Board participates in overseas. For example, the crash of a South African Airways Boeing 747 in the Indian Ocean led to NTSB recommendations that resulted in major revisions in fire protection standards for airliner cargo compartments.

Board investigators have recently been dispatched to Cali, Colombia, where an American Airlines Boeing 757 crashed just before Christmas; to Arequipa, Peru, where a Boeing 737 crashed; to Ascunsion, Paraguay, where a McDonnell Douglas DC-8 cargo airliner crashed on takeoff; and to Dubrovnik, Croatia, where a military transport crashed, killing Commerce Secretary Ron Brown and 32 other Americans.

On February 6, 1996, a Boeing 757 chartered from Birgenair of Turkey crashed off the coast of the Dominican Republic. We immediately offered our assistance to the Dominican authorities because this was the second fatal 757 accident in 6 weeks. Time was of the essence; if there was an airworthiness problem developing with this major airliner, we had to find out immediately.

Adding to the urgency was the fact that the wreckage was at the bottom of the ocean. The radio beacons on the flight recorders, even if they were in serviceable order, would last only 30 days. Without the signals they emitted, finding the recorders would be almost impossible.

Over the past decade or so, we have been involved in several deep water recovery efforts. For example, the voice recorder from an Air India Boeing 747 that was brought down by a bomb over the Atlantic Ocean was retrieved and read out in our laboratory. A cargo door was found almost 3 miles below the surface of the Pacific Ocean about a year and half after it blew off a United Airlines 747, killing 9 passengers. Clearly, we needed to launch a similar effort in this case.

The Safety Board organized an international consortium of government agencies and private companies to fund a search and recovery mission. Within 2 weeks of the accident, a ship chartered by the U.S. Navy was steaming to the Dominican Republic to begin the search.

The following video briefly shows the fruits of those labors, as we follow our ultimately successful attempt to recover the flight recorders from about a mile and half below the ocean.


Because of our expeditious recovery and readout in our laboratory in Washington, we were able to determine very quickly that the aircraft apparently encountered an operational problem related to faulty air speed readings, and not an airworthiness issue involving the aircraft. This saved the investigating parties potentially millions of dollars by enabling us to determine that we did not have to undertake a massive wreckage retrieval effort.

This year has seen us busy in the surface transportation modes, as well. Thus far, 1996 has been a tragic year for the railroad and rail transit industries. Since January 1, the Safety Board has launched on 20 railroad accidents resulting in 23 fatalities, hundreds of injuries, and over $77 million in damages. We will soon hold a public hearing on the worst of these accidents, the late January collision of an Amtrak passenger train and a commuter train outside Washington, D.C., that killed 11 people.

In early February, we launched a team to Sweetwater, Tennessee to investigate a tank car failure that threatened the water supply and forced the evacuation of some residents. Our highway and rail investigators are in the midst of investigating the tragic grade crossing accident last fall in Illinois that killed 7 highschool students.

I know that you have a very short time here before you all have to get back to work so I'll be happy to take your questions now. I want to thank you again for inviting me and for giving me the opportunity to speak about an agency I'm very proud of, and an agency you as American citizens and taxpayers should be very proud of, as well.

If you're ever in Washington, drop by and I'll show you around.


Jim Hall's Speeches