Preview: Rail Safety Forum, April 22-23

Rail Safety Forum Poster
Rail Safety: Transportation of Crude Oil and Ethanol

At the NTSB, our 2014 dawned with a team o finvestigators working the scene of a serious railroad accident near Casselton, North Dakota, where 20 cars of a106-car BNSF Railway train carrying petroleum crudeoil collided with cars from a derailed BNSF grain train. More than 476,000 gallons of crude oil were released in the accident, and a massive fire triggered a voluntary evacuation of 1,400 people from the surrounding area and resulted in millions of dollars in damage.

 The nation’s railroad network is taking on an expanding role as a major channel for the transportation of crude oil and other hazardous products, which could mean that accidents like the one in Casselton will become more common. While soaring volumes of crude oil and ethanol traveling by rail has been good for business, there is a corresponding obligation to protect our communities and our environment. Everyone – industry, regulators, and first responders – must takea comprehensive approach to eliminate or significantly reduce the safety risks. This approach must include improvements to track inspection and maintenance programs and the crashworthiness of the tank cars that transport these materials.

Next Tuesday and Wednesday, April 22 and 23, the NTSB will hold a forum to address rail safety specific to the transportation of crude oil and ethanol. We have invited researchers, crude oil and ethanol shippers, tank car builders, railroad carriers, emergency responders, and federal regulatory agencies to discuss the safety of crude oil and ethanol transportation by railroad, as well as ways to reduce the consequences from accidents involving flammable liquids through tank car design, railroad operations, and emergency preparedness. As the people of Casselton, North Dakota, can attest, we must do everything we can to ensure that transport of crude oil and ethanol by rail is as safe as it can be.

Travelling by Car? Be Sure Your Children Are Safe!

By Dennis Collins

2014 - 04-14 - Collins BlogToday is the first day of Spring Break for many of the local Washington, D.C. area school systems, and many families will take advantage of the time off school to take a trip and enjoy the spring weather, particularly after the winter we’ve had! As you head out to visit family or relax, make sure your children are traveling as safely as possible by having them travel in an age-appropriate, properly installed car seat.

Car seats can be confusing; I remember not knowing if I’d done it right when I went to install my first car seat shortly before the birth of my first child. Like all parents and caregivers, I wanted to be sure that my child was as safe as could be. I was confused and unsure, and those instructions were no help at all! Fortunately, my local police department offered free help provided by trained car seat personnel. One of those trained officers showed me how to install my car seat properly, taught me how to make sure my daughter was in the seat correctly, and explained what to do if I needed to move the seat to another vehicle. I left the police station knowing my daughter’s first ever car ride would be as safe as I could make it.

This sparked my interest in Child Passenger Safety; eventually, I took training class to become a certified Child Passenger Safety Technician (CPST) and underwent additional training and testing to be certified as a Child Passenger Safety Technician Instructor (CPST-I), enabling me to teach others to become certified technicians. I’ve been certified now for more than ten years and plan to remain certified for many more.

Staying certified is a lot of work. I have to teach, complete continuing education, and install a certain number of seats to stay certified. Why do I do it? Simple – I enjoy helping parents and caregivers do the best they can to keep their children safe. Volunteering as an EMT and my career as an investigator for the NTSB has taught me our roadways and highways can be dangerous and unpredictable. Weather, road conditions, and distracted, tired, and impaired drivers can result in our being involved in an accident through no fault of our own. I’ve seen the consequences of improperly restrained or unrestrained children and can tell you it’s far better to prevent an injury or reduce its severity than to try to fix it after it happens.

So, as you head out this week to have fun or relax, take a second to look at how your children ride in the car. Be sure they’re in the correct seat for their age and that the seat is installed correctly. If you’re not sure, need help, or just want someone to double-check, there are CPSTs and CPST-Is standing ready to help. Call your local police and/or fire department or visit safercar.gov to find a technician or inspection station near you. Travel safe!


Dennis Collins is a Senior Accident Investigator in the NTSB’s Office of highway Safety and a certified Child Passenger Safety Technician Instructor.

Accident Response is Part of Prevention

By Christopher A. Hart

Installation of oil boomLast month, the NTSB launched a team to investigate a gas explosion and subsequent fire in New York City. It often surprises people that pipelines are one of the transportation modes covered in our statutory authority. What might surprise people even more is that 2.5 million miles of pipeline crisscrosses the nation – enough to travel around the earth 100 times – and they present a unique challenge because they are most often underground. But if something goes wrong, it can be very dramatic, such as with the December 2012 natural gas pipeline rupture near Sissonville, West Virginia; and they can be deadly, such as in the September 2010 natural gas pipeline rupture in San Bruno, California.

When it comes to enhancing pipeline safety, the ultimate goal for any pipeline operator should be to prevent a pipeline rupture. The next goal should be to make sure that lessons learned from such accidents are applied throughout the industry to keep them from happening again. Last month, the NTSB reviewed steps taken by the pipeline operator, Enbridge Energy (“Enbridge”), in response to its July 2010 crude oil pipeline rupture in Marshall, Michigan, and closed three of our safety recommendations addressing pipeline control center staff training, first responder training, and response plans.

As a result of the Marshall pipeline rupture, almost 850,000 gallons of crude oil spilled into the surrounding wetlands and flowed into local waterways, resulting in by far the most expensive environmental clean-up for an onshore oil spill in the U.S. The release entered Talmadge Creek and flowed into the Kalamazoo River; heavy rain caused the river to flow over existing dams and carried oil 35 miles downstream. County health agencies closed public access to 39 miles of the river system to protect public health and safety during the cleanup. The lives of local residents were disrupted or changed forever, and the impact on natural resources and wildlife was substantial. Our investigation of the Marshall rupture revealed gaps in Enbridge’s training and preparations for responding to spills in all environmental conditions. For example, we found that Enbridge’s response was hampered by inadequate resources on site, lack of spill response organizations under contract near Marshall, and the use of spill response equipment that was inappropriate for the environment and weather conditions.

Since we issued our report and recommendations in July 2012, Enbridge has taken steps to improve its steps for responding to emergencies. Enbridge developed and implemented semiannual training for its control center staff that includes the theory and practice of decisionmaking in the event of an emergency, tools for effective communication, leadership and team building, and situation awareness and workload management. Enbridge also updated its first responder training curricula with tabletop and practical exercises, completed the training of first responders, and will provide them refresher training. In addition, an independent expert completed a systemwide emergency response capability assessment for Enbridge, which subsequently developed an incident action plan, emergency response handbooks, and other guidance to support the regional emergency response teams.

These lessons, however, go beyond Enbridge. Most pipelines function properly most of the time. First responders need to prepare more effectively for those (fortunately rare) times when something goes wrong.


Christopher A. Hart was sworn in as a Member of the NTSB on August 12, 2009 and designated by the President for a two-year term as Vice Chairman of the Board on August 18. Member Hart joined the Board after a long career in transportation safety, including a previous term as a Member of the NTSB.

Let’s Keep Our Minds On The Road

By Robert L. Sumwalt

As Dr. Mary Pat McKay pointed out in yesterday’s Safety Compass blog, April is Distracted Driving Awareness Month.  As part of our effort to draw attention to this critical transportation issue, I had the opportunity to participate recently in a one-on-one interview with highway safety advocate David Wallace.

Further, last Wednesday I had the privilege to represent the NTSB during a webinar on distracted driving with the National Safety Council (NSC). David Teater, Senior Director of Transportation Initiatives for NSC, highlighted the fact that there is no such thing as “multi-tasking.” Our brains are simply not equipped to process the requirements of the driving task while focusing on other tasks – namely, talking on a cell phone. In my webinar presentation, I highlighted that NTSB’s interest in distracted driving extends back more than a decade, beginning when the board investigated a 2002 accident involving a 20 year-old driver who had just purchased her Ford Explorer mere hours earlier. She was driving to a friend’s house to show off her new purchase, and while talking on a cell phone, lost control of the vehicle. She crossed the median of an interstate highway and collided head-on with a Ford Windstar minivan. Five lives were lost.

In the intervening years, we have continued to investigate accidents related to cell phone use, across all modes of transportation. These investigations crystallized in a 2010 accident in Gray Summit, Missouri. As a result of this accident, NTSB recommended that all 50 states adopt laws prohibiting the nonemergency use of portable electronic devices (other than those designed to support the driving task) for all drivers. The science is clear: whether a conversation is taking place using a hand-held phone or a hands-free device, the unacceptable and dangerous cognitive distraction to the driver is the same.

As Dr. McKay noted in her blog post, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that 17% of serious roadway crashes involve distractions. Every single highway accident is tragic, but these are even more so when you realize that they could have been prevented. Thousands of lives could be saved on our nation’s roads and highways every year if we would simply choose to keep our eyes – and our minds – fully on the road.

Please, hang up the phone. Just drive.


Robert L. Sumwalt was sworn in as the 37th Member of the National Transportation Safety Board on August 21, 2006. He is a frequent contributor to the NTSB blog.

Traffic Safety Is Public Health

By Mary Pat McKay, M.D.

PublicHealthWeekAccording to the CDC Foundation, public health is the science of protecting and improving the health of families and communities through promotion of healthy lifestyles, research for disease and injury prevention, and detection and control of infectious diseases. As this week is National Public Health Week, I want to take a moment to highlight that injury prevention piece, specifically the importance of preventing traffic-related injuries and deaths.

This issue is near and dear to my heart, since as an Emergency Physician, all-too-often I’ve been the one to tell the family unbearable news about what happened to their loved one after an accident.

In 2012, 33,561 people died on American roadways. Compare that to the 481 people sickened (but none dead) from salmonella featured in a March 2014 Los Angeles Times article as well as other news affiliates. The nightly news often devotes coverage to the latest food recall, and rightly so. Traffic deaths, however, rarely receive national coverage and even local coverage fades far too quickly. Somehow, traffic deaths are less newsworthy than possibly contaminated food.

April is National Distracted Driving Awareness Month and Alcohol Awareness Month. Over the last decade, nearly as soon as smart phones and other portable electronic devices are developed, they show up behind the wheel. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, in 2011, 17% of crashes serious enough to injure someone involved a distracted driver. And even though 42 states, D.C., Puerto Rico, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands ban text messaging for all drivers, and nearly every state bans texting for novice drivers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2011, 31% of U.S. drivers ages 18-64 reported that they had read or sent text messages or email messages while driving at least once in the previous 30 days. Even worse, nearly half of all U.S. high school students aged 16 years or older text or email while driving. Legislation alone isn’t solving this epidemic.

And legislation hasn’t cured the epidemic of drunk driving, either. Although the proportion of fatal crashes involving alcohol has fallen from 53% in 1982, it has been stagnating at about a third for nearly two decades.

Distracted and impaired driving have more in common than the fact that they occur behind the wheel; they also involve insidious behaviors that require a cultural shift. It’s beginning to happen; drunk driving is no longer socially acceptable in most circles. But changing such behavior takes time. Fortunately, public health practitioners are in it for the long haul. Using evidence-based prevention strategies and engaging multiple stakeholders, public health can make a difference and save lives.

On April 9th, the American Public Health Association will host the fourth annual National Public Health Week Twitter Chat. I encourage you to participate and draw attention to what public health can do to prevent roadway crashes, injuries, and deaths. Even more, do something in April to commemorate the month: take the keys away from a friend who’s been drinking and put down that phone when you’re the one behind the wheel.

Dr. McKay is the NTSB’s Medical Officer.

Celebrating 40 years of Sun ‘N Fun (‘n Safety, too!)

By Earl Weener

SunnFunPosterThis past week General Aviation (GA) enthusiasts from around the world have gathered to celebrate and promote GA at the 40th Annual SUN ‘N FUN International Fly-In & Expo. The first Sun ‘N Fun fly-in took place back in 1974, and it has grown to be one of the largest gatherings of its kind. A gathering where anyone interested in GA can catch up on the latest GA products and find camaraderie. So what better place for the NTSB to be found? The NTSB has been participating in Sun ‘N Fun since about 1984 – and with good reason. Not only is the NTSB a safety promoting organization (and obviously this is a great promotional event), but we are also home to owners of over 40 GA airplanes as well as numerous GA enthusiasts, including myself. It should come as no surprise, then, to see a few NTSB staff “on-scene.”  

I particularly enjoy attending Sun ‘N Fun because it gives me a chance to interact, one-on-one, with fellow pilots. And for the past two years while in attendance the question most often asked of me was why is GA on the NTSB’s Most Wanted List? The answer is simple: we all enjoy flying and want to do it safely, and at the NTSB we believe it can be done more safely than current accident statistics suggest. But we also understand there is no one answer to solve the problem. So this year we decided to narrow the Most Wanted List GA entry to a specific topic: weather related hazards, something that effects pilots, flight operators, air traffic control, and weather reporting and forecasting services, alike.    

Historically, about two-thirds of GA accidents in reduced-visibility weather conditions are fatal. What’s more, our investigators are seeing the same mistakes made repeatedly in these tragedies. So, this year the NTSB is emphasizing the need to identify and communicate hazardous weather, specifically within the GA community. We are highlighting several areas for improvement, such as improving and providing guidance on sources of preflight weather information, proper use of in-flight NEXRAD imagery, and the importance of PIREPS.

In support of this effort, I’m looking forward to my 2014 visit to Sun ‘N Fun this Saturday, where I plan on talking about hazardous weather awareness and other GA issues. I’ll be giving a presentation at the FAA Aviation Center in the morning, and expect I’ll be answering a few new questions this year. All questions welcome!


Honorable Earl F. WeenerEarl F. Weener, Ph.D., took the oath of office as a Member of the National Transportation Safety Board on June 30, 2010. Dr. Weener is a licensed pilot and flight instructor who has dedicated his entire career to the field of aviation safety.

Don’t judge a (Face)book by its cover

Today NTSB published its official agency page on Facebook. While much has been written lately about the effectiveness of an organization’s reach on Facebook, we believe that our ability to engage with the public and provide information will be enhanced by expanding the reach of our social media program. We know our updates won’t always make it to everyone’s news feeds, so we hope you’ll visit our page for information about our investigations and about transportation safety in general.

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