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


Remarks at the Transportation Research Board Annual Meeting, Washington, DC
Jim Hall
Transportation Research Board Annual Meeting, Washington, DC

Thank you, Wayne, for giving me this opportunity to participate in the 79th Annual Meeting of the Transportation Research Board. I especially appreciate being invited to be a part of today's festivities in recognition of the many significant contributions and accomplishments of those you've honored here today.

Each of them has dedicated their professional lives to improving our world through research. I am sure this has been both personally rewarding and, at times, frustrating for them. As you may know, Time Magazine recently named Albert Einstein as its Person of the Century. It was Einstein who best described what researchers experience when he said, "No amount of experimentation can ever prove me right; a single experiment can prove me wrong."

I'm sure that we'd all agree that the best way to ensure that you're right is to have as much valid, reliable data as possible to support your research. Sometimes, that's easier said than done. That's why today I want to discuss the importance of data recorders to transportation safety. For those who investigate transportation accidents, one of the most effective research tools available is the data-recording device.

For many people, the only recording device they're aware of is the ubiquitous "black box" that receives so much notoriety following a major plane crash. And, most think that when the recorders are brought back to our lab, the secrets of the event are immediately revealed. I wish that were true. But, we all know there is much more to these black boxes, and that, like the research many of you are engaged in, it can often be a long and arduous process to understand everything they're trying to tell us.

The availability of accurate data can reduce the amount of time needed to complete an investigation, and, subsequently, the cost to taxpayers. For instance, last March, the Safety Board finally concluded its lengthy USAir flight 427 investigation. Imagine how much of that four and a half years could have been saved if the airplane had not been equipped with a relatively primitive flight data recorder - one with only 11 parameters.

Contrast that investigation to the one into the ATR-72 accident that occurred in Roselawn, Indiana only two months after the USAir crash. In that instance, the plane's 98-parameter data recorder provided sufficient information to allow us to make significant recommendations, within a week of the accident, concerning the operation of that aircraft in icing conditions.

Similarly, we were able to learn a great deal of information about the EgyptAir flight 990 crash well before we begin lifting wreckage from the ocean bottom - thanks to the recorder's 155 parameters. However, because there was a loss of electrical power well before the plane crashed, we were deprived of valuable information about that flight's last moments.

Certainly, over the years, recorders have proven their worth as perhaps the single-most effective investigative tool we have. For that reason, the use of state-of-the-art automatic information recording devices, in all modes of transportation, has been on our Most Wanted list of safety improvements since the list's inception in 1990. They have undoubtedly helped us prevent future accidents by enabling us to pinpoint accident causes and determine whether an error may exist in the vehicle's design or in its operation. We can then take that information and make recommendations to improve vehicle designs, training, or operations - and, ultimately, reduce the number of accidents. As a result, fewer people are killed or injured, insurance premiums are lowered, and the public has more confidence in the integrity of our transportation system.

Look at how dramatically the airline accident rate has dropped over the last four decades. In 1960, there were 1.2 fatal accidents per hundred million aircraft miles flown. In 1970, that number had dropped to 0.1, and it stayed in that range for many years. By 1998, the rate had dropped to 0.02. That's about one-sixtieth the fatal accident rate of 1960.

Data recorder information has also opened doors to new paths of research that have radically changed the way we look at things. In the early 1970s, very little was known about certain extreme weather phenomena that posed serious problems to aircraft, particularly during takeoffs and landings. It was only after recorders began to capture information during accidents and incidents that the windshear phenomenon came to be understood.

A 1973 nonfatal accident in Boston, involving an Iberian Airlines DC-10, gave investigators their first clue as to what pilots were experiencing. The documentation provided by the plane's expanded-parameter FDR clearly identified low level windshear as a true threat to aviation safety. Without this flight recorder information, the cause of this accident might have been labeled "pilot error" and quickly forgotten. However, once it was identified, the process to combat windshear gained momentum.

Research began at a number of facilities, proving Newton's thesis that we succeed in science only because we stand on each other's shoulders. Projects like the Northern Illinois Meteorological Research on Downburst (NIMROD) and the Joint Airport Weather Studies (JAWS) conducted in the late 1970s and early 1980s, provided extensive insights into windshear. Universities, the FAA and NASA also joined forces in the effort.

Later, FDR data from the crash of Delta Airlines flight 191 in Dallas provided an in-depth analysis of microbursts and led to the identification of low level vortex rings. Based on the new FDR data, training was changed throughout the industry to help pilots better deal with windshear encounters.

This is only one example of how information from data recorders has spurred industry-wide research to identify and solve a major safety problem. There's still more to accomplish, particularly in the area of windshear prediction and avoidance. However, since the Dallas accident, we have only had one fatal windshear-related airline accident in this country - the crash of a USAir DC-9 in Charlotte in 1994.

The next iteration of data recorders may include video-recording devices, and the Safety Board is preparing for that eventuality. Earlier this year, the U.S. House of Representatives, based on our request, provided the same protection for any future video-recording devices in any mode of transportation that currently exist for cockpit voice recorders. This provision is pending in the Senate.

It's time for transportation leaders to take the knowledge and progress that have helped make the skies safer, technology already funded by taxpayers, and apply it to the other modes of transportation - especially on our highways. It's hard to believe that we're not already using every available technology to solve our nation's number one safety problem.

Highway crashes now account for more than 40,000 deaths and 3 ½ million injuries a year. They are the leading cause of death for young Americans ages 6 to 27. Since 1990, over 72,000 children under age 20 have died in motor vehicle crashes, including almost 14,000 under the age of 10. That means that this nation is losing 33 of its children under the age of 10 every week in motor vehicle crashes. We've also lost nearly 51,000 teens between the ages of 15 and 20 in traffic crashes since 1990 -- over 122 each week. In addition to the immense human and emotional toll of these crashes, they cost the American economy more than $150 billion each year, much of that borne by the States.

Between 1986 and 1996, the number of vehicles on our highways grew by 16%. During the same period, the mass of those vehicles increased by 20%. Many of our interstate roads - which also serve as major truck corridors - are over capacity and ill suited for heavy vehicle traffic. Safety on our highways is challenged by more volume, more mass, and more pressure.

As "just in time" delivery has helped grow our economy, it has increased pressure on operators, shippers, brokers, and drivers to keep vehicles moving to meet demanding production schedules. The impact of this change in doing business has almost doubled the production of heavy trucks in the past 10 years and resulted in many trucks being used as mobile warehouses for products.

In 1998, 412,000 large trucks were involved in crashes - killing 5,374 people and injuring another 127,000. And although many tout that the accident rate, accidents per million vehicle miles, has declined since 1991, in actuality, the number of fatalities continues to increase.

Our highways are expected to see continued growth in traffic in the coming years. What's more, the number of youthful and elderly drivers are also expected to continue to increase. We expect to see a 22 percent increase in young drivers nationwide by 2005. And, by 2010, there will be 5 million more drivers over the age of 65 on U.S. roads.

Combined, these factors are a recipe for even more disaster. Why then is there a reluctance to take measures that would help prevent the carnage we're seeing on our highways - even something as simple as supplying truckers with sufficient rest areas to keep fatigued drivers off the road? Under TEA-21, DOT has allocated $162 billion for highway construction and maintenance. But, it hasn't earmarked one cent for new rest areas for truckers - even though we know there's a significant shortage of appropriate and safe places for drivers to rest if the need arises.

Regulators and the industry also seem unwilling to make use of available data recording devices despite the fact that there doesn't seem to be any compelling arguments for not equipping commercial heavy vehicles with them. The Safety Board issued its first recommendation regarding recorders for highway trucking transport in April 1990 as a result of our safety study on fatigue, alcohol, drugs, and medical factors in fatal-to-the driver heavy truck crashes. We concluded that these devices could provide a tamper-proof mechanism that could be used to enforce the hours-of-service regulations, rather than relying on drivers' handwritten logs.

In fact, the U.S. trucking industry has already installed tens of thousands of these recorders. U.S. Xpress and manufacturers such as Freightliner have taken the initiative to incorporate recording technology into their vehicles. Additionally, engine manufacturers, such as Detroit Diesel, now install engine control modules for tracking and analyzing vehicle performance. We are just now learning how this maintenance device can be applied to safety management activities. These companies are showing what the private sector can do; it is time for the regulators to show what government should do, because until mandated, millions of commercial trucks will be on the roads without even the simplest of on-board recorders.

The Safety Board will continue to press for automatic information recording devices in all modes of transportation because every accident, every incident, and even the monitoring of normal operations provide an opportunity to pinpoint problems in our transportation system and to solve them before another life is lost. We believe it is past time to act, and that recorder use should be mandatory throughout the industry, as it is in most of Europe. In fact, this technology is already required in the 15 countries in the European Economic Union.

However, we also acknowledge that as we expand the use of recorders throughout the transportation industry, we must be attuned to the difficulties that arise as we gain more access to information. The legal, privacy, and proprietary implications of recording systems need to be addressed so that the safety of the travelling public and the privacy rights of vehicle operators are both protected. That is why the Board will be sponsoring a symposium, on April 25th and 26th in Crystal City, Virginia, to discuss many of these key issues. I hope you'll all attend.

In addition, I'm pleased to report that the study of future requirements and capabilities of flight data recorders that FAA Administrator Jane Garvey and I announced at the Board's recorder symposium last May is underway. The Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics, or RTCA, has formed a committee to examine these issues, especially as they pertain to accident investigation and fleet management. Administrator Garvey and I will chair a public meeting here in Washington to solicit input on the committee's work in early May.

Since the Safety Board came into existence some 32 years ago, we have been partners with the TRB. It has been a productive relationship and one that I'm sure will continue well into this new millenium. I come here today to ask for your assistance in helping us gain acceptance of the recommendations that I discussed today. In the last decade alone, more than 400,000 Americans were killed on our nation's highways. Many of those accidents could have been prevented. The tools are there. All that's needed is the will to use them.

Thank you, again, for inviting me to join you today.