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Remarks for the International Bus Expo, United Motorcoach Association, Indianapolis, Indiana
Marion C. Blakey
International Bus Expo, United Motorcoach Association, Indianapolis, Indiana

Good morning. Let me begin by thanking you for inviting me to participate in your annual conference. I am delighted to be here.

I would also like to introduce two members of the NTSB's Office of Highway Safety who are with me today - - Joe Osterman, the office's director, and Ken Suydam, one of the office's senior investigators-in-charge. I'm sure many of you have had the opportunity to work with them over the years.

The NTSB and the UMA enjoy a unique partnership. We share the same objective - - ensuring safety of our fellow citizens as they travel on our nation's highways.

For more than 30 years, the Safety Board's mission has been to prevent accidents. We conduct thorough, independent, and objective investigations and issue recommendations to correct the problems we discover. Together with organizations - - such as the UMA - - that provide specific expertise needed in particular investigations, our small agency of less than 500 employees has investigated thousands of aviation, railroad, marine, highway, and pipeline accidents.
I want to thank the UMA - - and all its members - - for your continuing efforts to improve motorcoach passenger safety on our roadways. It has certainly paid off. In the past five years, more than 219,000 people were killed on our nation's highways. During that same time, there were 56 motorcoach occupant fatalities. Last year, only three individuals were killed in motorcoach accidents. These are remarkable statistics - - especially considering that motorcoaches log an average of 28 billion passenger miles annually.

Even though our efforts have been successful - - we cannot become complacent. We must continue to reduce the number of accidents to the lowest level possible. Just last week, on January 10, in Miami, Florida, a car driving on the wrong side of the road ran a stop sign and struck a bus carrying senior citizens. One woman in the bus was ejected and died several hours later. Another 11 people were injured.

We are all here today to do our best to make sure that accidents - -such this one - - are prevented.

However, we can no longer focus solely on safety. Just over four months ago, the terrorist attacks of September 11th ushered in a new focus on safety and security in our Nation's transportation infrastructure. The public's confidence in the safety and security of the Nation's transportation system has understandably been shaken by these tragic events.

The NTSB - - along with many of UMA's members - - bolsters the safety and security of America's transportation system by assisting federal and local law enforcement agencies in criminal accident investigations.

Just last October, a passenger aboard a Greyhound bus, slashed the throat of a driver with a box cutter and overturned the bus, killing himself and five other passengers. The NTSB - - along with Greyhound - - provided assistance to the FBI in its investigation.

Indeed, such cooperation and the constant vigilance of everyone in the transportation community is required to regain and maintain the level of public confidence in America's transportation system that existed just four short months ago.

The NTSB - - as you may know - - also assisted the FBI in its investigations of the September 11th plane crashes at the World Trade Center (WTC), the Pentagon, and in western Pennsylvania.

And therefore, soon after I became Chairman, I visited Ground Zero in New York. For those of you who have not toured the site - - let me tell you - - nothing prepared me for the magnitude of the devastation.

The pictures we have all seen on television did not help me comprehend the tremendous toll the attacks took on the heroic members of New York's police and fire departments or the representatives of the countless other government agencies working there. Certainly, the photos did not help me appreciate the renewed sense of compassion, teamwork, resilience, and creativity that the attacks engendered. I had to witness the site first hand - - only then did I begin to understand the magnitude of the recovery effort.

While at Ground Zero, I visited an empty apartment in an abandoned building that was set up as an observation post adjacent to the WTC site. Everything in the apartment was coated in inches of debris, ash, and dirt and seemed frozen in a moment in time - - it felt like Pompeii. There, NTSB investigators armed with video cameras, telescopes, and binoculars surveyed the wreckage - - through blown-in windows - - attempting to find the aircrafts' black boxes.

Next, I visited FreshKills landfill where rubble from the site is being sifted through to recover evidence and personal effects. Teams of police and firefighters - - working alongside members of other investigative organizations - - have discovered innovative ways to segregate wreckage, steel girders and other heavy materials. Creative uses for unconventional equipment are also being employed. I observed one gentleman operating an agricultural combine to help sift through mounds of debris.

I was truly inspired by the "can do" spirit shown by everyone involved in the recovery effort. I am confident that this same spirit exists both in this room here today and among all members of America's transportation system. Indeed, safety and security have become our collective responsibilities.

To that end, I was encouraged to learn that UMA has been instrumental in encouraging and promoting security measures for motorcoaches.

While our focus as a nation is predominantly on security, we must remember that safety is a priority that cannot be compromised.

And despite our great strides - - we must continue our pursuit. There are still several safety recommendations by the Board that have yet to be implemented by the motorcoach community. I want to address two of those recommendations today - -

(1) the use of collision avoidance technologies; and
(2) driver qualifications.

Last May, the Safety Board adopted a report on infrastructure-based technology for the prevention of rear-end collisions. Rear-end collisions account for almost one-third of all fatal crashes. Between 1992 and 1998, the percentage of rear-end collisions involving all vehicles increased by 19 percent. In 1999, commercial vehicles were involved in 40 percent of fatal rear-end collisions, even though they only comprised three percent of all vehicles and seven percent of the miles traveled on our nation's highways.

For the report, the Safety Board investigated nine rear-end collisions that killed 20 people and injured another 181. Two of the collisions involved motorcoaches -- Elk Creek, Nebraska and Eureka Missouri. In each crash we investigated, degraded visibility or perceptual conditions, such as fog and glare; highway conditions; or a distracted driver were involved. As a result, the drivers were unable to detect the slowed or stopped traffic ahead of them in time to stop their vehicles to prevent rear-end collisions.

Research by Mercedes-Benz has found that if passenger vehicle drivers could have a half second of additional warning time, about 60 percent of all rear-end collisions could be prevented. An extra second of warning time could prevent about 90 percent of the crashes.

Technologies such as collision warning systems (CWS), and infrastructure-based congestion warning systems - - provide these crucial extra seconds. Our investigations have shown that had one or more of these technologies been available - - many accidents could have been mitigated or prevented.

Collision avoidance technologies are not new - - they have been around for years. In fact, the Safety Board discussed them in a 1995 report when we recommended that the Department of Transportation (DOT) sponsor fleet testing of collision warning systems for trucks. We also addressed this issue at a 1999 public hearing - - attended by representatives of the truck and bus industries, technology companies, and DOT - - on advanced safety technologies for commercial vehicles. Even without DOT's sponsorship, industry is implementing vehicle-based safety systems. In fact, many truck and bus manufacturers, including Freightliner, Volvo, and Mack, now offer collision warning and adaptive cruise control as optional equipment.

In 1999, DOT commenced operational tests of ACC and CWS systems for both trucks and cars. Testing for each is expected to be completed in 2003 and 2004. In addition, several states have projects under way to deploy infrastructure-based technology that will alert drivers as they approach traffic queues in work zones and congested areas.

We are encouraged by such progress. Given the steadily increasing number of rear-end collisions, it would benefit us all to support these endeavors and urge that these systems be implemented as quickly as possible.

Another important area of concern for the Safety Board is that of driver qualifications and qualifications for commercial driver examiners. The NTSB's recent report on the 1999 New Orleans bus crash that killed 22 people and injured 22 others highlights the importance of ensuring that fitness examinations for commercial drivers are properly conducted and adequately evaluate an individual's condition.

As you may remember, this accident was the fourth deadliest bus crash in U.S. history. A 55-passenger motorcoach enroute to Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, ran off the highway into a grassy side slope, crashed through a guardrail and a chain-link fence, vaulted over a paved golf cart path, and collided with a dirt embankment before finally coming to rest.

During our investigation, the Safety Board found that two years before the crash, the 46-year-old driver had been diagnosed with a terminal heart condition and suffered symptoms including impaired heart function, an enlarged heart, and congestive heart failure. In fact, the driver had been hospitalized several times for congestive heart failure. In addition, in July 1998, the driver was diagnosed with advanced kidney failure. By December 1998, he was receiving kidney dialysis three times a week.

Clearly, this individual should not have been driving a commercial vehicle. Yet, he was still able to obtain a valid commercial driver's license and pass a commercial driver's fitness examination in August 1998. As shocking as this situation is - - it is not unique. In fact, over the years, the Safety Board has examined many crashes involving drivers who did not meet the medical qualifications specified in the Code of Federal Regulations or who were unfit to drive commercial vehicles.

Based on the data uncovered during our investigation, the Board concluded that the medical certification process for commercial drivers was ineffective and inadequate. As a result, we recommended that the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) develop a comprehensive medical oversight program to revitalize and improve the program.

The Safety Board is also concerned that the commercial driver examiners - - themselves - - may not be qualified to evaluate the medical conditions of drivers and their medications.

Currently, examiners can be members of many different medical professions including medical doctors, advanced practice nurses, and chiropractors. Regardless of their credentials, none of the examiners are required to attend standardized training courses that would address specific fitness concerns for commercial drivers. As a result, the Safety Board recommended that - - as part of FMCSA's medical oversight program - - individuals performing commercial driver medical exams must be educated on driver occupational issues and must have access to specific information relating to commercial drivers and transportation.

Furthermore, the Safety Board is concerned that examiners will not read or fully understand the new eight-page examination form. Our investigations have indicated that previous two-page examination forms were often misunderstood or not read at all. Not only is the new form significantly longer than prior forms, but it also contains a more detailed health history section, providing more information to commercial driver examiners.

The lack of federal requirements for the review and tracking of completed examination forms by state licensing authorities continues to concern the Safety Board. In the case of the New Orleans bus driver, discussed a few minutes ago - - the driver indicated on his medical form that he did not have a heart condition, despite the fact that that he listed several well known heart medications he was currently taking. Although the examiner asked about this glaring discrepancy, she eventually provided the driver with a new medical certificate after - - somehow - - concluding he did not have a current heart condition.

Unfortunately, even if the examiner had declared the driver unfit for duty, he could very well still operate a commercial vehicle. Current regulations do not require either the driver or the examiner to inform anyone of a fitness exam failure. The driver could have taken a second fitness exam with a different medical examiner or he could have ordered the form from a vendor or downloaded it off the Internet and completed it himself. Actually, the Safety Board has investigated crashes where drivers have done just that.

If examiners were required to forward all completed examination forms to state licensing agencies for tracking and review, unqualified drivers could be identified. In the New Orleans case, a tracking and review process may have subjected the driver to further scrutiny. Some states already require such review and tracking of commercial driver examination forms and certificates and have merged the medical exam with the commercial driver's license exam. We have recommended that FMCSA include a review process, as part of their medical oversight program, that prevents, or identifies and corrects, the inappropriate issuance of medical certificates.

Law enforcement officials must also be given the necessary tools to identify unfit drivers. In most states, law enforcement officials determine driver fitness solely by a driver's possession of a current medical certificate or by perceived compliance with a certificate's restrictions. Some state have gone further, such as California and Arizona, and have instituted systems that provide a mechanism to determine during routine traffic stops if a driver has a current medical certificate. As we recommended in our report, more must be done to identify whether commercial drivers are actually fit to operate their vehicles.

Another area of concern involves the medical community's willingness to intercede in cases involving fitness examinations. One of the most frustrating aspects of the New Orleans situation was the number of doctors and nurses who knew that the driver was very ill, but made no effort to notify anyone who could have prevented him from operating a bus. We must do more to encourage healthcare providers to report such cases. In fact, we need to ensure that there is a mechanism in place that facilitates their reporting, and we have recommended that FMCSA incorporate such a mechanism into its oversight program.

The final issue of concern for the Safety Board relates to current federal drug testing regulations. Going back to our case of the day - - not only did the New Orleans' driver have severe medical conditions, he also had a small amount of marijuana in his system - - enough to indicate recent use. The Safety Board also discovered that the driver had been fired from two previous jobs, and rejected for another, because he had tested positive for drugs. Surprisingly, another bus company hired him because he failed to disclose his full employment history. Even if he had done so, the company may not have learned of his previous drug test results because many employers do not comply with disclosure requests - - and there is no current incentive for them to do so.

The Safety Board believes that current federal drug testing regulations do not help employers make well-informed hiring decisions or keep drug abusers from operating commercial vehicles. Therefore, the Board recommended that FMCSA develop a database that would record all positive drug and alcohol test results and driver refusals. This would allow employers to verify and evaluate a driver's drug test history without relying on information provided by the driver or previous employers.

Oregon, for example, requires all positive drug tests by Oregon CDL drivers to be reported to the Oregon Department of Transportation. Between September 2000 and May 2001, 269 positive results were reported to the system - - most from random drug tests. This information could then be released - - with the driver's permission - - when applying or renewing a commercial driver's license.

As you can see, the New Orleans bus crash brought attention to numerous deficiencies in the commercial driver medical certification and the drug-testing programs. These deficiencies endanger the traveling public and jeopardize those individuals working in surface transportation. Interestingly, prior to the crash, the company involved in the New Orleans accident was the second largest charter operation in New Orleans. They are now no longer in business.

As a result of our investigation, the Safety Board has proposed significant changes to both the medical certification and drug-testing programs. However, we aren't proposing anything new. There are successful examples of each of our proposals in several states and at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). FAA medical examiners are required to attend a training course, given a handbook of examination procedures, and regularly advised of regulatory changes. In addition, the FAA reviews and tracks all pilot examination forms. Our fellow citizens deserve a system that protects them on the highways as well. I urge each of you to work with the FMCSA, your associations and union representatives, and the states to ensure that these recommendations are implemented.

Working together, the NTSB and the UMA can bolster the safety of our transportation system and ensure the safe travel of our fellow citizens. Now more than ever, it is our responsibility to not only ensure the continued safety and security of our transportation system but to also secure the future of what Abraham Lincoln so appropriately titled, the last, best hope for mankind.

Our cooperative spirit will help remind the terrorists who attacked this country of a fact they apparently overlooked - - the true strength of America lies not in the steel of its buildings but in the hearts of its people.

Thank you.