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Remarks to the International Transportation Symposium, Panel on Cross-Modal Safety Issues
Jim Hall
International Transportation Symposium, Panel on Cross-Modal Safety Issues

Before I begin, I want to congratulate Secretary Slater and the Department of Transportation (DOT) for calling for this conference. It is a unique opportunity for transportation leaders from around the world to collectively discuss issues of importance to all of our countries and our citizens. I especially appreciate the opportunity to participate on this panel and to join such a distinguished group of panelists to discuss cross-modal safety issues. Indeed, the issues we're discussing here today - fatigue, hazardous materials, and technology - are of concern to every individual, in every mode, in every country.

I have been asked to focus my remarks on the use of recorders to enhance transportation safety. As many of you may be aware, the National Transportation Safety Board is responsible for independently investigating accidents and incidents in every mode of transportation - highway, marine, rail, pipeline, hazardous materials, and, of course, aviation.

Our experience has shown that an on-board recording device is one of the most useful tools available to us - it can help us quickly find out what happened and, therefore, help investigators and the industry prevent a similar accident from happening again. Recent advances in technology have made it possible to capture vast quantities of information, not only to assist accident investigators, but also to allow operators to monitor and modify their procedures to prevent accidents and incidents before they occur.

There is no place that recorders have a greater potential to prevent deaths and injuries than on the world's highways. In the United States alone, highway accidents account for more than 40,000 deaths and 3.5 million injuries a year. It is hard to believe that we are not already using every available technology to solve our nation's number one safety problem. Tachographs that record hours of duty and speed information are already required in the 15 countries of the European Economic Union. Chart-based tachographs have been required since 1970 and in 2001, digital tachographs will be required. In addition, these countries have also begun using recorders that store crash information.

Over the last few years, the Safety Board has made a number of safety recommendations to DOT on the implementation of on-board recorders. Following our safety study on fatigue and our investigation into a 1995 truck accident in Slinger, Wisconsin, the Board recommended that hours-of-service information and vehicle data be recorded on commercial vehicles. And, as a result of our safety study on air bags, we recommended that car manufacturers record crash pulse data that is used by air bag systems.

Subsequently, following action by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, car manufacturers, such as General Motors, are now recording crash information on their vehicles. With this information, the crash pulses experienced by vehicle occupants and the circumstances prior to and during an accident can be better understood.

Last year, the Safety Board also recommended that recorders be installed on school buses and motorcoaches. This recommendation was prompted by the lack of crash data available to us during our investigation into school bus and motorcoach crashworthiness. Ultimately, access to recorded vehicle information will benefit investigators, manufacturers, and vehicle occupants and improve our highway transportation system.

Although our recommendations have not yet been adopted for commercial vehicles, operators have begun to realize the safety benefits to be gained by using recorders for management activities. As a result, a number of companies in the truck and bus industry are voluntarily installing devices in their vehicles. U.S. operators, such as U.S. Xpress, and manufacturers, such as Freightliner, have taken the initiative to incorporate recording technology into their vehicles.

And, several school districts across the country have installed on-board recording devices on their school buses for management purposes. Even though companies such as these are showing what the private sector can do, the Safety Board believes that governments should make the installation of recording devices mandatory on all vehicles. If they do not, we will all continue to be plagued by safety problems that could be pinpointed and prevented if recorded information was available.

The Safety Board has similar concerns for the marine industry. We first recommended the use of data collection technology for the marine industry in 1976. Most recently, we recommended that the International Maritime Organization (IMO) require all vessels over 500 gross tons to be equipped with voyage data recorders.

Last March, the IMO also issued new standards for improved voyage data requirements - including the number of parameters to be recorded and requirements for survivability, reserve power, and recording medium. In addition, earlier this year, the IMO also decided to require recorders by 2002 on board all new passenger-carrying vessels and cargo vessels engaged in international travel. Retrofit of existing passenger-carrying vessels must be accomplished by 2004. By the end of the year, we also expect the IMO to make a decision on requiring recorders on existing cargo vessels. The Safety Board is encouraged by these actions and believes that they will lead to a much safer maritime industry.

Although the railroad industry first installed event recorders for management purposes in the 1970s, they have also been useful in investigations by providing more accurate accounts of the circumstances leading up to an accident, corroborating witness statements, and helping to eliminate some of the guesswork that may have occurred in previous investigations.

However, even though the event recorders have been a valued asset in investigations, they, like the current marine voyage recorders, need to be improved. Current recorders are of limited use because they do not record train crew actions, have few parameters, and do not meet any crash or fire survivability requirements.

In nearly a dozen major railroad accidents, the locomotive's event recorders were seriously damaged, making it virtually impossible to retrieve any meaningful data. In the last 18 months alone, six recorders were destroyed in three separate accidents. Fortunately, other recorders did survive these accidents and were able to provide some limited information.

Over the years, the Safety Board has made several recommendations to the Federal Railroad Administration to improve recorder survivability and to require voice recorders. The Board believes that a voice recorder would provide key information about crew communications, train coordination, and the environment in the cab.

One Canadian railroad, VIA Rail Canada, has plans to install voice recording devices in 2001 or 2002. A survivable event data recorder that records numerous operating parameters coupled with a voice recorder would be key to resolving questions that can remain unanswered following a railroad accident.

Several railroads have taken the initiative to implement new technologies not yet required by the government. Both the Arkansas-Missouri Railroad and the Illinois Central Railroad have installed cameras and recorders to record the view of the track in front of their locomotives. This use of video recording is a promising tool for documenting the outside environment in front of trains, including the condition of the track as well as the status of equipment and other vehicles at grade crossings and should be promulgated by all railroads around the world.

Although the Board has not yet asked that video recorders be made mandatory in rail, or any other surface transportation mode, earlier this year, we asked that they been installed in the commercial airplane cockpits. As I'm sure many of you are aware, aviation has long been the proving ground many transportation-related safety improvements - including on-board recording devices. As a result, significant safety improvements have been achieved in aviation as a result of flight data and cockpit voice recorders (CVRs).

Despite those improvements, we have had a number of accidents recently for which the information provided by recorders has been insufficient - including ValuJet flight 592; SilkAir flight 185; Swissair flight 111; and EgyptAir flight 990.

With the limits of current flight recorders, the advent of fly by wire controls and glass cockpits, and critical crew non-verbal communications, we need to take advantage of the latest technology by incorporating cockpit image recorders.

The Safety Board is very sensitive to the privacy concerns that have been expressed by pilot associations and others with respect to recording images of flight crews. For that reason, the Board has asked Congress to apply the same protections that exist for CVRs to the use of image recorders in all modes of transportation. Although the Board believes that these concerns can be addressed, we also believe that given the history of complex accident investigations and the lack of crucial information regarding the cockpit environment, the safety of the travelling public should be given preference over individual privacy issues.

Although significant advances have been made with on-board recording devices, we still have a long way to go in incorporating the latest technology to improve safety in all modes of transportation. And, then sharing the information gained with one another. One can only imagine the safety improvements that could be realized if this additional information was available to all of us in the transportation community. By expanding our efforts to implement new technologies, we will have more efficient and cost-effective methods to determine probable causes of accidents, improve operations, and ultimately, enhance transportation safety around the world.