Category Archives: Uncategorized

The Importance of Transportation Infrastructure

By Debbie Hersman

Today, I was scheduled to speak at a rail conference in New York City. However, like so many other travelers, my plans changed in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, with rampant power failures, flooded subway tunnels and cancelled flights at the region’s airports. For many people in the northeast hardest hit by the powerful storm, homes were damaged, belongings were destroyed and most tragic of all, lives have been lost. For millions of others, this has been a week of remembering the basic services and infrastructure that all too often, are taken for granted. Watching the news reports of New Yorkers coping without so much of their transportation infrastructure has been a powerful reminder of its importance.

Transportation does more than get us to and from work. It is the backbone of our economy. Transportation gets goods to market and gets us to markets to get the goods. It keeps us connected with friends and family. It makes us mobile, which adds to our quality of life. At the NTSB, we are very familiar with examining low-probability, high-consequence events that affect the travelling public. Events such as this, like our accident investigations, provide opportunities to evaluate, assess and identify improvements to prevent or minimize damage in future catastrophes.

Looking beyond the super storm and New York City, our nation relies on transportation infrastructure that includes some 600,000 bridges, nearly 4 million miles of public roads, 2.6 million miles of oil and gas pipelines, 120,000 miles of major railroads, and more than 25,000 miles of commercially navigable waterways. All of it is important and all of it needs to be maintained to ensure safety.

My hat is off to all the local, regional and national transportation leaders who do such much to build, maintain and, as we’re seeing after the super storm, to rebuild transportation infrastructure.

Seamanship: More than the Job Description

By Captain James Scheffer

When you were first learning to drive a car, chances are that someone told you about the merits of defensive driving. Know where another car is, be prepared to react to anything, always be wary: these helpful tips have been passed down from generation to generation. These principles are also extremely pertinent on our nation’s waterways. Nothing highlights this better than the recent collision between the Elka Apollon and the MSC Nederland.

This collision occurred in one of the busiest waterways in the country: the Houston Ship Channel in Texas. The tank ship Elka Apollon collided with the containership MSC Nederland. Thankfully, there were no injuries but the collision caused $2.8 million in damages.

Our investigation into the collision determined that it was entirely preventable. The collision was caused by the failure of the pilot of the Elka Apollon to respond to changes in bank effect forces, which directed the vessel across the channel and into the MSC Nederland. The pilot was not “driving defensively.” He misjudged the situation, and paid for it.

This defensive driving on the waterways has a name: seamanship. While the dictionary definition is “knowledge and skill pertaining to the operation, navigation, management, safety, and maintenance of a ship,” seamanship is so much more than this. If a pilot isn’t constantly vigilant about his or her surroundings, then millions in damage is probably the best that pilot could hope for; the worst could be the loss of human life.

Here are some tips and techniques that every mariner should use when at the helm:

• Keep a sharp ‘seaman’s eye’ by taking advantage of all navigational equipment and avoid distractions;

• Always anticipate future actions – course and speed changes, rudder commands, and using clear ship to ship communications when meeting and overtaking marine traffic;

• Know your position and anticipate future track in all situations; always have an alternate plan including emergency shiphandling skills to avoid a casualty; and

• Take actions needed to reduce risks such as confirming all equipment and machinery is in operational order, ensuring that all watch standers are well rested, and when possible, avoiding piloting in reduced visibility.

To sum it up, marine pilots, just like every day motor vehicle drivers, need to be prepared for anything.


Captain Scheffer is a Chief in the NTSB’s Office of Marine Safety. He spent 25 years in the merchant marines, 16 years as a master and is an expert accident investigator.

All On Board for Improved Safety

By Debbie Hersman

Yesterday, the NTSB met to consider the May 8, 2010, accident involving the Staten Island Ferry Andrew J. Barberi. Our investigation determined that the accident was due to a mechanical failure. Our investigation also found that the vessel, which has a capacity of 6,000 passengers, was not equipped with, or required to have, an alarm that would alert the crew of a propulsion or steering failure.

Of the 266 people on board the Andrew J. Barberi, there were no fatalities and 50 people were injured. That is in stark contrast to the 11 passenger fatalities and 70 injuries from the Andrew J. Barberi’s October 15, 2003, accident that the NTSB also investigated. A lot changed between October 2003 and May 2010 — notably the New York City Department of Transportation’s commitment to making significant improvements in its Ferry Division. In 2005, the Ferry Division implemented a safety management system (SMS) consistent with our recommendations after the 2003 accident investigation.

An SMS is a risk-based, methodical approach to safety. Under an SMS, the maritime organization details the policies, practices, and procedures for the safe operation of its vessel and for how to handle emergencies. This includes a framework for regular drills and training as well as spelling out clear roles for crew members and personnel on shore. Most important, the foundation of good safety management is commitment from top management.

On May 8, 2010, the Ferry Division’s personnel efficiently and effectively executed their emergency response procedures as trained under the SMS. While there was a failure that day — of a mechanical part — there was so much that succeeded thanks to the SMS and the active leadership in the Ferry Division to make key safety improvements.

As a result of our investigation, we recommended requiring SMS on domestic passenger ships. Operating under the discipline and standardization of an SMS sets the stage for a strong safety culture and that’s a win-win for the 21 million people who ride the Staten Island Ferry each year.

Since SMS is so important to safety across all modes of transportation, last year the NTSB placed it on its Most Wanted List.

What Baseball Can Teach Us about Building a Safety Culture

By Debbie Hersman

I talked about the national pastime in a speech I gave today to the Air National Guard’s Executive Safety Summit.

Albert Pujols
St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols

In ten years, Albert Pujols, first baseman of the St. Louis Cardinals, has never hit below .300, never had fewer than 100 RBIs, and never hit fewer than 30 home runs. Yes, number 5 has talent, but he works at it. It’s interesting to see the parallels between what Pujols does and what organizations can do to build a strong safety culture.

One, it starts at the top. Just like Pujols focuses on a single goal — winning the World Series — the organization must place top priority on achieving and maintaining a strong safety culture. Commitment and responsibility start at the top.

Two, to have a strong safety culture you must work at it, like number 5. Pujols has a disciplined workout routine. For example, on Monday, he does one set of exercises. On Tuesday, it’s another set to focus on another set of muscles. And so on. As for his game, Pujols works hard at that, too. He takes 15,000 to 20,000 practice swings a year.

Similarly, an organization needs a well-defined and rigorous safety program, such as a safety management system. Safety Management Systems (SMS) enable organizations to identify and manage risk and to have processes that enable them to manage risk far better than before. The discipline and standardization from an SMS sets the stage for the culture to follow.

Three, in a strong safety culture, there is a commitment, and there are mechanisms, to keep learning. Just as Pujols makes it a point to learn from players he admires, an organization needs to keep learning — not just from mistakes, but from others, and from detecting trends. This is why data gathering programs are so important. This is how you detect, and address, any weak links.

Eyes on the Road, Hands on the Wheel

By Debbie Hersman

There’s a great article by health writer Jane E. Brody in the April 12 issue of The New York Times about medical doctors spreading the word about the dangers of distracted driving. Brody quotes Dr. Amy N. Ship of Harvard Medical School who says, “Driving while distracted is roughly equivalent to driving drunk.”

Last year, nearly 33,000 people died in traffic accidents. As Dr. Ship explained, “Any activity that distracts a driver visually or cognitively increases the risk of an accident.”

Distracted driving has long been a priority issue for the NTSB. This is an especially crucial issue for young drivers: Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for U.S. teens. In 2003, we placed a recommendation on our Most Wanted List asking states to restrict the use of wireless devices by novice drivers.

NTSB poster highlights agency policy on distracted driving

Knowing the most effective teacher is modeling the behavior you want to see, on the day I was sworn in as NTSB Chairman I implemented an agency policy to curb the use of electronic devices while driving. The policy prohibits employees driving on NTSB business from using any wireless device, including hands-free devices, and further prohibits using NTSB-issued electronic devices while driving their own cars.

The rules apply to me. I no longer use my Blackberry during my hour-long commute. The risk of catastrophic consequences is just too great. As Brody cited in the article, “The National Safety Council estimates that at least 1.6 million crashes — 28 percent of the total — are caused each year by drivers using cellphones or texting.”

Pull over if you need to make or take a call. As Flannery O’Connor wrote, “The life you save may be your own.”