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Remarks before the 8th Annual National Harbor Safety Committee Conference, Washington, DC
Mark V. Rosenker
National Harbor Safety Committee Conference, Washington, DC

Good morning ladies and gentlemen. I am pleased to have the opportunity to be with you today.

Today, I would like to tell you a little about the Safety Board, especially its mission and role in maritime safety.

The National Transportation Safety Board is an independent federal agency with a staff of about 400. About half of our resources are devoted to aviation safety and, perhaps, we are best known for our investigations of commercial aircraft accidents. However, we also investigate highway, railroad, and marine safety accidents. We have investigators who specialize in pipeline and hazardous materials accidents. Although most of the staff is located at our headquarters here in Washington, we have 10 regional offices located throughout the country.

The Safety Board has been a completely independent agency since 1974. The Board’s mission is to determine the probable cause or causes of selected transportation accidents and “… to promote transportation safety by conducting independent accident investigations and by formulating safety improvement recommendations.” In plain language, the Board exists for the sole purpose of making transportation safer.

In addition to investigating major marine accidents the Safety Board may also investigate accidents of a catastrophic or recurring nature. That is why we have been conducting vigorous safety campaigns relating to recreational boating safety, including recommendations for boater education and mandatory wearing of lifejackets by small children.

The working relationship between the Safety Board and the Coast Guard is a good one, and it is under continual review. Together we are working to see how we can set our respective priorities to have the biggest impact on marine safety consistent with our agencies’ missions, and the increasing pressures on our already strained resources.

The types of accidents the Safety Board investigates include the following:

  • An accident that places passengers or crewmembers at serious risk, for example, fires, collisions, sinkings, or groundings. (An example is the catastrophic capsizing and sinking of the State-regulated small passenger vessel Ethan Allen on Lake George, New York, last October, which resulted in the loss of 20 lives.)
  • A vessel accident that seriously threatens port facilities, for example, striking a permanently moored vessel or high-occupancy waterfront facility.
  • A fatal marine accident involving other transportation modes, such as railway or highway. (An example is the May 2002 ramming by the US towboat Robert Y. Love of the I-40 highway bridge over the Arkansas River near Webbers Falls, Oklahoma, which resulted in the loss of 14 lives.)
  • International accidents where the United States has an interest. (An example is the recent fire aboard the cruise ship Star Princess, which is being investigated by the United Kingdom. However, because an American citizen died, the Safety Board sent an investigator to participate in the investigation. The Star Princess accident is particularly noteworthy because of the importance of the cruise ship industry to America and its citizens. Efforts have been announced today to fast track amendments to the Safety of Life at Sea Convention concerning fire safety on passenger ships as a result of this fire.)

The safety accomplishments resulting from our marine safety investigations and recommendations include improvements in lifesaving, communications between vessels, fire safety standards for cruise vessels, stability and inspection standards for small passenger vessels, stronger training requirements for seafarers, and the carriage of voyage data recorders.

Safety Board recommendations have been addressed to various maritime organizations, including vessel operating companies, marine associations, classification societies, the International Maritime Organization, and the U.S. Coast Guard. Although the Safety Board does not have authority to regulate or to require recipients to implement our recommendations, we enjoy an acceptance rate of about 82%.

I’d like to tell you about an accident investigation we recently concluded. The Lady D was a pontoon water taxi that capsized in Baltimore Harbor in March 2004. Five people died, four were seriously injured, and 12 suffered minor injuries. The major safety recommendations issued include determining safe loading conditions, revising stability criteria for pontoon vessels, revising passenger weight criteria, and establishing safe environmental conditions for operating pontoon boats.

Our experience indicates that rarely can an accident be traced back to a single cause, but that accidents often result from a chain of things gone wrong. In the case of the Lady D, there were some mistakes made in certifying the vessel for the number of passengers it could safely carry. These mistakes were mainly human errors relating to training and procedures. Other contributory factors related to the evolution of vessel design through the years, and even to the fact that Americans have become much heavier over the last fifty years. This issue of passenger weight is important not only on boats, but on aircraft as well, as witnessed by the crash of a Beech 1900 at Charlotte, North Carolina on January 8, 2003 in which 19 passengers and the crew of two perished.

We are very pleased that the Coast Guard is taking steps to address the passenger weight issue. In yesterday’s Federal Register they announced their commitment to a high priority rulemaking to address this matter, and in the meantime to implement an interim program so that passenger weight stability issues can be addressed right away. Both of those actions are in response to Safety Board recommendations made last month.

Weather was also a contributory factor in the Lady D capsizing. The National Weather Service saw the cold front coming through, but because of the way they processed information and issued warnings, they missed an opportunity to alert boaters in the Chesapeake Bay and Baltimore Harbor area that a storm was approaching. The National Weather Service has since revised its procedures, and warnings are now getting out a lot quicker.

In this accident at least three things had to go wrong before the accident occurred. If even one of them had been avoided, I probably wouldn’t be talking to you about it today. This is why each of us, who has a role in the marine industry, must be constantly vigilant in our duties and responsibilities to ensure the safety of the system.

Currently, only ocean-going ships are required to have safety management systems. However, as a result of the Staten Island Ferry accident in 2003, the Safety Board recommended that the States encourage operators of public ferries to implement safety management systems. The New York City Staten Island Ferry system implemented a safety management system in October 2005. Also, the Safety Board would like to see owners and operators of other vessels adopt similar practices.

The financial benefits of a corporate safety culture for safety equipment, trained and qualified individuals, good crew work-rest cycles, and reliable equipment far outweigh the financial losses of an accident. An accident results not only in damage costs, lawsuits, and lost revenues, but also in the mistrust of the public.

Government, industry, professional groups, and other organizations, such as this one, which promote planning and cooperation for safety are an essential part of a strong and successful marine transportation industry. You play an important role in maintaining and promoting safety. Through your efforts, you are safeguarding the integrity and safety of our nation’s transportation system and enhancing the competitiveness of U.S. businesses.

As you may surmise, I am proud to be a part of the Safety Board and I could speak longer, but I believe I have covered most of the points I wanted to mention. Again, I thank you for the opportunity to be with you today.